The Office Microwave Smell Zone

Yesterday I was walking down the office hall at about 11:30 when I encountered a sphere of odor so pungent it had an almost physical impact.  It had the kind of potency that made me think “Whoa!” and quicken my step to get away as quickly as possible.

Yes, I was passing the office microwave.  There’s a reason why, on virtually every floor in our firm, the office closest to the microwave is vacant.  Unless you’ve experienced a tragic childhood accident that cost you your sense of smell, you’re going to get away from the zone of noxiousness at the earliest possible opportunity.

IMG_0130In our office, around the lunch hour, the microwave area is a kind of no-go zone.  During the morning, the machine might be used for more innocent activities, like coffee warming or preparing a bowl of instant oatmeal.  But at lunchtime, the appalling aromas emerge.  Maybe it’s that kind of preservative-laden putrescence that inevitably accompanies bad takeout Chinese food or a one of those ready-made diet meals.  Perhaps it’s that overcooked to the edge of burnt aroma that you get from some home-cooked leftovers. Or you might be treated to the thin, almost tinny taint of reheated tuna fish casserole that paints a firm mental image of a congealed mass of overdone noodles so hard you could break a tooth if you took a bite.

And then there’s reheated fish, which is easily the worst of all.  It’s quite possible that minor Balkan wars have been started over people who are on some new diet and insist on heating up fish in the microwave so they can stick to a strict regimen.  Microwaved fish is almost certainly the biggest cause of hysterical, pathetically pleading, exclamation pointed, passive-aggressive signage in the office.  (“Will whoever is using the microwave to reheat fish please have mercy on us and stop!!!”)  And, when someone transgresses and uses the microwave for fishy purposes, the smell seemingly never fully vanishes.  It lingers, like the guest who wouldn’t leave, and ultimately sinks down into the carpeting so that it can always stay with us.

In fact, conducting interrogations in the same room where people are microwaving fish could be a very effective method to break the will of terrorism suspects, but that tactic probably would violate multiple provisions of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That Piquant Office Microwave Smell

By law, every American office must have a microwave in a common area that is made available to all employees.  Any office worker will concede that the zone around that microwave is a crucial part of the rich tapestry of their work space.

Educated noses in the office can learn a lot from the smorgasbord of scents in the microwave zone.  Is that the heady aroma of maple that I detect wafting from some mid-morning oatmeal that will linger, cloyingly, for an hour or more?  My God, has Jim reheated that pungent fish and rice dish again?  And how about the subtly nuanced aroma of blended chemical preservatives that floods the area whenever a frozen entree is zapped?  The welcome dinging of the microwave timer acts like the bell Pavlov used with his dog, and summons the office epicures to revel in the sight and smell of whatever appetizing radiated fare is removed from the pristine microwave chamber.

The delightful experience is compounded when reusable microwave dishes are left to soak in the sink below the microwave.  Each has the unmistakable pink smear of sauce residue that has been permanently bonded to the plastic by countless doses of radiation, thereby allowing the diner to enjoy the taste of all previous reheated meals along with whatever he has chosen as today’s sustenance.

Curiously, on our floor the microwave is positioned directly across from the door to the men’s restroom.