I’m standing outside of a massage parlor/day spa/oxygen bar called Zen Zone in Universal City, California, with my adventure-partner Ross and his family of two. His son, Andrew, is ten, and looking at us like we’re idiots. His wife, Cara, smiles at us and says they’ll be back in half an hour.
“Do you want to watch?” Ross asks.
“We’ll be back in half an hour,” she repeats.
We snap a photo below the sign—I guess to prove that we don’t just make this stuff up—and enter. We’re not there for massages, which instantly sets us apart.
“Hi,” I say, “we just want to use the oxygen bar.”
“Oh, great!” says Gavin, the attendant (not his real name). “You sit here, andyou sit here.” He puts us in front of machines that will allegedly ooze pure oxygen into our nostrils. Each one has four scents that can be added to the oxygen in any amount. Ross looks at his: peppermint, piña colada, strawberry, and watermelon.
“Aww, man, yours are better,” he says. He’s wrong. We switch.
Gavin is untangling some of those soft plastic things you see dangling from a hospital patients’ noses when they can’t breathe on their own. These will go in our nostrils, he explains. They will deliver us pure oxygen—double the amount we usually get in the air! It helps cure hangovers. (“Hangs-over,” I pretend to correct him, for no reason at all. He looks at me the way I should be looked at.) It ends fatigue. It helps with muscle pain and weakness. It curbs jet lag. It dissolves headaches. The headaches bit is pretty exciting for me. I have been getting chronic headaches for almost a year, and some of them become crippling migraines. I would suck on a garden hose for twenty minutes a day if it made those go away. Some places make even loftier claims about oxygen bars, like that they can help halt cancer or aid chi flow.
“I read that the oxygen gets rid of toxins,” I say. “What exactly are toxins?”
“You’ve got me there,” he says. “I’ve never heard of toxins.”
“Fair enough,” says Ross, giving me alook.
We put our soft plastic thingies in our noses and put the attached oxygen tubes behind our ears. I accidentally put mine around the crown of my head. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
“Your ears, not your head!” says Gavin. This happens a lot.
I get the tubing around my ears, and so does Ross. Gavin begins to tool with the knobs on the machines in front of us.
“Straight up noon, and that scent is at maximum. All the way on its side, and that scent is off. You can mix and match,” he says.
Two of mine are peppermint and piña colada. I crinkle my nose at the thought of combining them. Even though there are ten empty machines, Gavin has sat Ross at one with a broken knob. No matter what combination he chooses, a slow dribble of watermelon is included. He immediately likes a scent called Sex on the Beach. I identify strawberry as not-strawberry, but some sort of hospital smell. I quickly opt for all peppermint, all the time. Gavin is watching us, nodding and smiling.
“The other day I was so hungover,” he grins. “I came to work, hooked myself up to the oxygen. Few minutes later, bam, feeling good.”
“That’s impressive,” I say, trying to encourage him. “So, how exactly does it work?”
“We all need oxygen to do our business, right? Go about our lives, do our work.” He looks at us expectantly.
We nod emphatically, overdoing it a bit. “Yeah, yeah! Need oxygen to work, right!”
“Yeah,” he says, “So, if you don’t get enough, you get tired, rundown. Then you come here, get that extra oxygen you need, you’re all energized again.”
I ask how much oxygen is in the machine. He raises one finger. I’ve hit the jackpot.
“Twenty-four percent!” he says. “Double the amount in the air.”
Ross and I look at each other. Neither of us likes making a scene. In the two years since we started our podcast investigating unlikely claims, we’ve been cupped, accupunctured, exorcised, and baptized. We’ve managed not to get anyone mad at us (except the Raëlians), even if we frustrated all of them with our incessant questions. But it is always hard when they hit us with a bold, inconsistent claim.
“Doesn’t the regular air have twenty-one percent oxygen?” I ask, trying to sound unsure. I’m sure.
“Yeah,” Gavin agrees, “So you’re already breathing that in because of the extra space in your nostrils, around the tubes. If you cut off the outside air, you wouldn’t get double.” He pinches his nostrils to make sure I get it. “But, together, it’s double.”
“Oh, uh huh,” says Ross, “So... should we feel something?”
“Oh yeah, you will soon,” Gavin confirms, smiling and grabbing a massage tool to relax us.
“I’m sorry. Just real quick,” I jump in. “If the oxygen in the regular air is 21 percent, then if this machine were just full of air, and I were breathing that in, along with the outside air, I would still be breathing in 21 percent oxygen, but it wouldn’t double... Right?”
Gavin blinks at me. “I’m no scientist,” he says, “But that’s how it works.” He pinches his nose again to make sure I understand. I really do.
It’s now been about fifteen minutes of breathing in the double-oxygen (or whatever it is), and neither of us is feeling a thing. We had both expected some kind of head rush, or the feeling of being in the woods, or some notable physiological effect, but neither of us is feeling a thing. In fact, I’m starting to feel a little sick of the artificial peppermint smell coupled with leftover piña colada clogging the pipes. Gavin lets us stay an extra twenty minutes. After all, he explains, if the place is empty, it’s harder to draw in more business. We’re keeping the place alive, sitting at our machines, our noses plugged in like we’re receiving a lifesaving medical treatment. Who wouldn’t want to join us?
Before we leave, Gavin tells Ross he looks like David Duchovny and says I look like Meg Ryan, fifteen years ago.
“Have you seen You’ve Got Mail?” he asks with a flirty smile. Then he tries to sell me a $200 electronic massage kit that looks like a knockoff iPod.
When Ross’s wife and son return to pick us up, they are snickering and pointing at Ross from out the door. Andrew has never seen his dad hooked up to an oxygen machine before. But they’ve come to expect this sort of thing from both of us. We thank Gavin and leave, giving him just $40 for our almost sixty minutes of combined service. He’s disappointed that we aren’t buying the knockoff iPod, but he offers us a special deal if we come back. We pretend this is very exciting.
Outside, we tell Cara and Andrew how ineffective the whole thing seemed and explain Gavin’s bizarre notion about how oxygen “doubling” works.
“But hey,” I offer, “you never know. Maybe there will be some improvement we just couldn’t perceive yet.”
“Maybe,” Cara says.
The next day, I get a headache.