An oxygen bar, a stale story in bigger cities, is relatively rare in Little Rock, so The Observer followed our nose to the bar at the Underground Pub.

The Basic Element Oxygen bar, which is making rounds at Ernie Biggs and On the Rocks as well, is a sort of applecart oxygen supplier. A menu on the front proclaimed the wisdom we all learned in fifth grade: “You can live weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without oxygen.” Viva No. 8 on the periodic table! The stuff of rocket fuel!

We’re a little afraid of those bubbling Star-Trek-Next-Generation cylinders that you put up your nose, but we decided to engage in the “quickie” fix of O2, and the supplier, Jeff Jones, was nice enough to offer us a free nose hose. Hooked up nostrils flaring, we felt a little like Ferdinand the Bull.

Jones told us to relax, as if we were doing yoga. Considering we were at a bar, with “Rock the Casbah” on the Muzak, deep spiritual thoughts weren’t instantly attainable. But we tried to focus. Through spearmint O to uplift our mood, orange blossom O for bliss and vanilla O for sex appeal. We’d expected to get a nitrous oxide high, and to be honest we sort of chugged it, nasally speaking. But it wasn’t to be. The experience left us sort of giddy and light-headed, but with our voice unimpaired. Maybe it was psychosomatic, but we left feeling like we had run about 20 minutes or so, or had taken a long ride on a fast Hog. We felt good. Breathe up!

The Little Rock airport maitre d’ — the gentleman who shouts instructions to folks waiting to go through the security port ― sounded like an old hand. It was 5:30 a.m., and, much to our surprise, maybe 100 people were in line. In a wry, authoritative tone, our director said we didn’t have to take off our shoes, but we’d be happier if we did; please put the laptops in the buckets, etc., etc. Then he addressed the quizzical crowd, who hadn’t anticipate they’d be elbowing their fellow man as they wiped the sleep out of their eyes: “Welcome to spring break!” An aaaah of understanding went up. Which means he’s seen spring break before. Which means he’s an old hand at getting people through security. For some reason, it remains a new thing to us.

In fact, as we stood at a Texas airport on the way back, we did something we would have done earlier without thinking but which made us break out in a cold sweat this time. Our plane was late by an hour, nobody was going to make connections, and the camaraderie of shared misery made us chatty. We commiserated with the increasingly grumpy guy on our right. After a long wait, the grump looked at The Observer and asked if we could watch his bag while he went to the gents’. Automatically, we said yes. But then … the voice of American airports, of the calm woman who tells you to let strangers to take care of themselves, echoed in our heads. We got the jitters. What if the guy was a terrorist? A pasty, aging, irritable gringo with a large belly ― could we have misjudged him? There in the McAllen, Texas, airport, with all four of its gates? The Observer was just saying to a friend that she wished he’d lugged his baggage into the john with him when he came back and said thanks. Then he boarded first class. We made it safely to Houston. But that calm voice in our conscience made us feel guilty.

It’s a quarter of nine, you’ve just exited a theater with a hankie in hand to soak up the steady drip of tears that “Tuesdays with Morrie” provided, and you’d like to cheer up over a cold glass of wine, but what do you see? No place to sit and gab, no corner bar. Not even evidence of electricity. It’s a dark house.

Once upon a time, there was a lively, if short-lived, Main Street Mall, with a bar, an art gallery, a book store, a Benetton, a florist. We were lively, too, at the time, and made many visits to the gallery, the bar, the book store … and picked up cheap roses on the way to work for our desk.

How ill-timed the mall was, coming about 15 years too early to benefit from investment in the River Market district. Now, where people once supped at Sleep Out Louie’s, state bureaucrats sit amid deep hooey.

But better a sleepy street than a new address for The Rep, The Observer believes. (We know The Rep disagrees.) We like the intimacy of The Rep’s Main Stage, its configuration, its street corner location, its reuse of an existing building. Better to see the footlights switch back on, if slowly, down Main Street.



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