Suffocating city discovers new bar is a real gas

TORONTO DAYS
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The Independent Online
It may look like Canada's version of Chicago - a sweeping, ethnically mixed metropolis with impressive skyscrapers on a sparkling lakefront - but whereas the Windy City vibrates, this place, well, languishes. Toronto is often described as a place that is rather dull.

"And then," proclaimed the kindly native who had ridden next to me on the train into town, "there is the Eaton Center. That is the highlight". He had said it all. He was speaking of a steel-and-glass ark on Yonge Street, the city's largest shopping mall. Malls always have a numbing effect on me and the Eaton is no exception.

So, when my body is moaning from too much celebration the night before, what is to be done to escape this feeling of suffocation? My mission of the day promises to provide the solution. I am going to a bar, also on Yonge Street, that can serve me what I need - not alcohol, not even a double-shot latte, but a cool blast of pure oxygen.

You may laugh (the jogger passing the door as I arrived caught my eye and smirked knowingly), but oxygen really is the main offering of the O2 Spa Bar. And we are not talking just fresh air (Toronto can get smoggy in summer) but pure, or, to be accurate, 99.9 per cent pure, medical-grade oxygen.

This is the brain-child of two Toronto natives: Lissa Charron, an architectural designer and her television camerawoman friend, Shamila Hunter. Bravely, or brazenly, they are exploring another niche-market in flaky 20th-century consumption. If Starbucks can sweep the continent with its barmy coffee concoctions and Absolut Vodka can make conquests by scenting their liquor with lemon, what can't these two do with oxygen?

Their pitch sounds compelling. In a world that brims with toxins and pollutants, why not mitigate the damage to our body with an occasional dose of life-giving O2? Athletes take oxygen before competing and so do rock stars, like Mick Jagger. Michael Jackson purportedly favours napping in his personal oxygen chamber. "When oxygen is deficient," says the bar's promotional leaflet, "unwanted organisms flourish and we wallow in our own waste products". Golly, I had better go in.

Within is an environment that is half-saloon, with a sweeping bar of granite and elegant stools but no beer pumps (smoking is definitely forbidden), and half-clinic. Stan Getz soothes from the sound system and tropical fish distract in a giant tank. But what does one do exactly? How does oxygen come, by the pint, or the cup, or perhaps by mask? Actually, it comes via a clear plastic tube with two little prongs with holes that go up your nostrils. "Everyone has their own terminology," Lissa says helpfully. "You come to take a hit, a blast, or a dose, or there's 'up your nose with a rubber hose'".

And up it goes. Rather than doing it sitting at the bar (not a good venue for romantic liaisons) I choose to partake in one of the three private rooms at the back. Lissa takes my pulse (frighteningly low) and my "blood oxygen saturation level" (also low) with a little thimble-like thing she slips on my finger. Then I choose whether to have my oxygen unadulterated, or bubbled through a jar of water and organic fruit to give it flavour. I am set up with organic pineapple and my 20-minute, Can $22 (pounds 11) session begins.

Sssss. I breath and I wait. I know what I am meant to feel, because Lissa has told me. Something about an expanding feeling in my chest and a sudden return of energy. This is not unpleasant. I am reminded of the temporary relief of a strong eucalyptus sweet when I have a cold. I do not feel my hangover magically washing away. When I'm done my heart is beating faster (it should not be) but the oxygen in my red blood cells has satisfyingly gone up.

At the bar, two young guys are hooking up. Ryan turns out to be an oxygen nerd. He has bottles at home and takes a dose every day. "I'm trying not to laugh," confesses Larry. "This is pleasant, but there isn't exactly lift-off yet".

Lissa is relentless in her enthusiasm: "This is the bar of the 21st century." She and Shamila have already had 70 requests from people around the world hoping to license their idea. But for now this is the only oxygen bar in the world and it is in just the right place: a city otherwise identified with suffocation.

David Usborne

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