Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Janitors make my head tingle

More than ten years ago I was sitting on a bed in my new dorm room in my first year at Caltech. (Hey! I see you doing that math in your head! Stop that!) I had an open book on my lap and an apple in my hand. The door behind me was open and Rosie, our friendly custodian from Guatemala, was moving down the hall cleaning all the rooms.

She came into mine and started scrubbing the sink. I bit into my apple, and a rush of tingly feeling swept through my head. It was very pleasant, but odd. The apple was sweet and crunchy; I looked at it with suspicion. Had it fermented? Was my fruit alcoholic? Eagerly I took another bite. The tingling continued.

Eventually it faded, and I never did find another apple with that same wonderful effect. But most curious to relate, I did feel that effect whenever Rosie came in to clean the room! I soon theorized that one of her cleaning solutions was causing it, and I used to inhale deeply as soon as she arrived. I told no one what I was experiencing.

Four years later I landed a job in the cytogenetics department of a cancer hospital. A young man from Africa used to come through at the end of every day to empty our trash. He wasn't pulling any cart of cleaning chemicals with him-- just a big trash barrel. Yet whenever he swept by me, that same headrush would start up. I was oddly pleased, the first time it happened, to realize that my days of getting all tingly in the presence of a custodian were not over after all. I figured there must be some chemical scent clinging to his clothes and setting me off

Now I'm in a developmental biology lab, and the janitor, a middle-aged east Asian man, comes through once a day. He brings his big trash can and nothing else. And yes-- he makes my head tingle.

At this point I'm wondering if there really is a mysterious cleaning chemical out there that's so potent just a whiff of it sets me off. Maybe I've just developed a very odd psychosomatic reaction to custodians. At least it's a pleasant one!

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