Air Supply

Bouncer gets high the old-fashioned (and kind of stupid) way: oxygen

Oxygen bars emerged in the Clinton administration, when those not full enough on the milk of aromatherapy turned their olfactories toward the periodic table of elements and threw a dart. For more than you would pay for a pitcher of beer, you could hook yourself up to a hose like someone with emphysema and breathe in elevated levels of that which separates our planet from a billion others.

For some reason, the fad hasn't died yet. Could it be that there really is something to it?

Usually, when one wants to alter one's consciousness, one depletes the oxygen supply to the brain. In this case, people were filling up overstuffed booths in chic joints all over the country to increase their intake of O2 for supposedly therapeutic benefit.

We normally breathe in about 21 percent oxygen. Oxygen bars offer our bodies about 80 percent in sustained sessions that usually last about 20 minutes. Adherents claim that the experience relaxes them, helps their concentration, makes sex better, and relieves hangovers. However, if you drink all the time, with the exception of relaxation, any of those things is going to improve with a dose of sobriety methinks.

Yes, I am skeptical of oxygen bars. For one thing, oxygen is like vitamin C. Your body sucks all that it needs and discards the leftovers. Ergo, people who take massive doses of C are dumb. You should take just the amount that the body needs; the rest is pee-pee. It's the same with oxygen. Our blood's hemoglobin is already saturated up to 99 percent with the stuff. Any extra is shuttled back out in our exhalation.

OK, that's the skeptical side. The other side says, "Damn you Poindexter, all I know is that when I inhale me some oxygen in a dimly lit room with A Tribe Called Quest playing softly amid the orchids, I feel great."

Well, I believe in ghosts, crop circles, and tarot cards, so maybe there is something to this oxygen thing. I decided to leave all my doubts at the door and give in to the late-20th-century phenomenon that would not die. I decided to go to the Oxygen Bar on Valencia and 19th. It can't all be rum 'n' sodomy, week in, week out, right?

The Oxygen Bar Sushi & Sake Lounge opened a little over five years ago. The "sushi" part is new, having been added on about a year ago. I don't know about you, but sushi-as-an-afterthought sort of rubs me the wrong way. The "sake" part is cool though, part of a growing legion of beer and wine bars that have found a way to circumvent their ban on hard liquor by serving a sake derivative called Han. Han can be mixed into anything and serves as a right nice hooch substitute. But this evening wasn't for drinking. This evening was for breathing.

I received a warm welcome from the two fellas who were working and chose to sit at the bar instead of by myself at a table. The place is fairly large, with long upholstered ottomans and tables scattered around and tucked into corners. Original art is on display on the walls, and a DJ booth is set up in the back. (Hey, guess what? The DJ never showed up that night! Unheard of!) I must say that the joint was shabbier than I had expected. Sheets with frayed edges were pinned to the ceiling in an attempt to look, er, billowingly chic. The sink in the bathroom was covered with a Hefty bag. Recessed lighting was nailed beneath clear shelving to look all midtown. But I found all of these things kind of endearing, actually. This was the little oxygen bar that could, and all the imperfections lent the place a kind of post-apocalyptic, Blade Runnervibe. If I fantasized hard enough, this could be the year 2060, when the ozone is depleted and we must fill up with oxygenated fuel in roadside establishments. Dare to dream.

The guys set me up with an infusion elixir thingy that would relax me. It was good, tasting like soda water with herbal stuff in it. Then I got tubed. Basically, you stick a blue tube with two prongs into your nostrils and behind your ears to steady it, and cinch the remainder up under your chin like a lanyard. The blue tube is attached to the mama clear tube, which is attached to an oxygen bong. (The oxygen gets filtered through water.) Next stop, nirvana.

I found the sensation of breathing in the oxygen to be pretty cool. It has a minty-fresh quality that burns your nose a tiny bit if you breathe deeply enough. Me being an addictive sort, I found myself breathing deeply over and over to feel the burn. I began to really relax, but I'm not sure if that was due to the elixir or the oxygen.

What I didn't expect was the feeling that crept up in me that I don't often experience: embarrassment. I looked fucking ridiculous, and this was hammered home when a group of people walked in and saw me sitting there with tubes in my face. Yes, I had shown up alone to an oxygen bar and was getting my fix. Laugh it up. Argh. I think they need to make the tubes sexier or something. Maybe attach a harmonica or a Hercule Poirot mustache.

The guys checked on me periodically (no pun intended) and assured me that I didn't look stupid. After a fashion, I rested my chin in my hand and found myself quite content just staring at the wall in a happy haze.

I drove home safely, though not necessarily more focused. I can't see how one's concentration is helped. I crawled into bed immediately and slept like a proverbial rock, dreaming of working at Amoeba again, only this time with my high school classmates. Oh, and I was in my underwear. Pretty basic dream fodder I guess.

I expected to wake up refreshed and sharp as a tack, as the bartender had promised, but I abruptly boinked into the doorjamb of the bathroom in my usual morning daze. All of this left me with one song ringing through my head, Sweet's "Love Is Like Oxygen," with its '70s booty guitar riff playing over and over. "You get too much, you get too high, not enough and you're gonna die-e-yi, love gets ya high." I suppose that's better than being left with the image of Oprah Winfrey's cable network. For now, I am going to stick to inhaling the free stuff.

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