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CHEE-TOS NEVER WIN! SNARING SNACKS IN THE BIO-BURBS

A few desert-rat residents of Tucson and its surrounding small towns--your typical Sonoran outposts of dirt-bag chic--say they've heard the news: The Biospherians, the story goes, are making like Hogan's Heroes. They've been spotted, in the middle of the night, at the Circle K in Oracle, guzzling malt liquor and wolfing down microwave burritos. The eight residents of Biosphere 2 spend their days in orange jumpsuits, working under a tall, casserole-dish lid, pretending to subsist in a totally enclosed ecosystem. The Bio-gerbils have been under glass since September, and the plan is for them to stay locked up for another year and nine months at least. Last week, someone passed the breakout rumor along to New Times. Naturally, a staff writer was dispatched to Oracle, a clump of stores and trailers located 20 miles over mountains from Tucson--and a mere few minutes from the Biosphere.

One look at Oracle and we were sure: The tug of this burg's many delights is strong on the Biospherians. No man, no woman, no sober enviro-trekkie could live so close to Oracle without becoming seduced by its siren call. The rumors are true. They must be. Take, for starters, the many temptations of Herman's Market. Centered on the main drag of town, Herman's is Oracle's full-service cupboard. Every imaginable foodstuff is available here, including thick New York steaks ($3.99 a pound), a bounty of produce, hot nachos (99 cents), sixers of Schlitz ($2.19) and, best of all, the beverage special advertised outside--the famous 32-ounce fountain soft drink (59 cents). Kathy and Mary Lou, respectively Herman's meat cutter and grocery checker, immediately discounted the breakout rumors. The Biospherians were all citizens of the area for the months and (in some cases) years leading up to closure, and were well-known to the locals before their voluntary internment. Said Mary Lou: "No, that's a new one." Said Kathy: "If they're really doin' that, they'd never come in here. Everybody knows 'em. If I saw one of 'em, I'd say, `What're you doin' here?'"

Sue, of Sue and Jerry's Unique Resale Shop (down the road from Herman's, as is everything), could sell an AWOL Bio-nut any number of terrific collectibles. She has old Native American blankets, old straw sombreros, old bleached animal bones. Most compelling of Sue and Jerry's wares are the small stacks of old National Geographics. Only somebody serving time can appreciate that kind of fine reading. Sue said there have been no Biospherian sightings in her reading room. Options for adult fun in Oracle include the town's video store, which features a full palate of contemporary slasher flicks, and the Oracle Inn, a large restaurant-lounge that doesn't even open until 5 p.m. Options don't include the public library, which at 1 p.m. on a weekday is closed. But what the hell. If you've just secretly beat it from your glass house for a few hours of R&R, and your goal is to have some fun yet keep a low profile while wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, you damn sure don't want to spend a lot of time with your nose in a book. "Everything else here closes at 10," said Sue, reacting to the rumor. "The Oracle Inn is just about the only place to go."

Finally, there are the town's three convenience markets, and their provocative displays of beef sticks. The Chaparral mart, at the edge of town, is the first sign of real civilization an escaped "crew member" will see. The Coors beer display, the large rack of snacks, doughnuts. Heaven under a red roof. Having made the Oracle run (if only in your head, 1,000 times a day) to the end of town, the road back will take you to the No. 4 combination at Bandino's. It's a hot plate piled high with a burrito (red, green or bean), taco, rice and beans. Or you'll have the Steerburger, practically free at $2.75. Elsewhere, potent combos are also featured at Falcone's Pizza.

Alas, Oracle's tiny pizzeria, apparently the only such restaurant for many miles and the closest pizza place to the Biosphere, does not deliver. No pizza delivery. Nothing to eat or drink but grass, twigs, bacon cut from toy pigs and your own recycled fluids. Plus, you have to hang out with that totally bald guy 24 hours a day for two years. Who wouldn't bolt?

No man, no woman, no sober enviro-trekkie could live so close to Oracle without becoming seduced by its siren call. Most compelling of Sue and Jerry's wares are the small stacks of old National Geographics.