When I was seven, I slipped in the bathtub and chipped one of my front teeth, the left one. It was a small chip off the inside corner of the tooth, and it gave me a slightly gap-toothed, weird, but somehow appealing and later sexy smile.
The way my mother liked to tell it, my dad, who was sitting at the kitchen table by the window in his boxer drawers and undershirt sipping whiskey and smoking a Lucky; when he heard me shriek after falling, said:
“What’s all the noise about?” And my mom said:
My dad then opened the window and looked down to the ground seven stories below and said:
“I don’t see him.”
Years later, when I was a young man and very invested in getting high and getting laid; an endeavor I felt was helped greatly by my slightly gapped-chipped tooth smile, I paid scant attention to my dental hygiene. It was not a big topic of conversation at home, my mother took us to the dentist when we were kids, and I went until I was old enough to blow it off. We were taught to brush our teeth before we went to bed.
I ended up homeless for a little while at the age of 25, a couple of years after my mom died- and this didn’t lend it self to good dental hygiene either.
I finally saw a dentist again when I joined the Army, my solution to the homelessness problem- and the first time I had my teeth cleaned and examined in probably ten years the dentist, an Army captain, scolded me severely over the amount of plaque on my teeth and my dental hygiene in general.
“Your teeth are gonna fall out.” He cautioned.
About 13 years ago, long after the dentist’s warning and a whole lot of “life experience,” His prediction started coming true. I broke a tooth, a molar, while eating, and when I went to the NYU dental clinic, the dentist told me there wasn’t enough tooth left to save, and pulled out what remained. I started going there sort of regularly, by the age of 45 the results of my poor dental hygiene were coming home to roost and I was having a lot of toothaches and such; and once the teaching dentist told the student dentist about a particular tooth- “Just pull it. It’s gonna fall out anyway.”
A lot of my teeth, particularly the upper ones, were “off the bone,” meaning there was very little left to hold them in place.
So the sexy tooth, my beloved chick magnet, became loose enough that I could worry it with my tongue and feel it move.
One time, I was talking to a friend who had her four-year old daughter with her, and the daughter, a cute little girl named Natasha- looked up at me and said:
“Mister, your tooth is moving.”
That night, at work, (I was a night porter and I spent all night cleaning a building by myself) I looked in the mirror obsessively playing with the loose tooth. At one point, I made it turn completely around, the tooth was facing backward! And when I tried to turn it back to the front, the pain was so intense, and it was wedged in tight between the other good teeth that I thought it would stay that way forever. The chip was facing the wrong way. Then a tenant walked through the door, and I panicked. I had to talk with my mouth closed like some kind of jailbird. But I needn’t have worried, tenants pay very little attention to their service workers, I could have had a hatchet buried in my forehead and I doubt the tenant would have noticed.
After I was alone again I got the tooth loose, but now it was just sort of hanging there, held only by the nerve root. Every time I took a step the tooth would hit one or the other of its neighbors and a searing pain would shoot through my head. I couldn’t do this all night. I knew it had to come out, and I wasn’t going to wait to see a dentist.
I steeled myself, and looking in the mirror (for me curiosity trumps pain) I held it between two fingers and tugged.
The pain was like nothing I’d ever felt before; it felt like I was pulling my left eye out through my mouth. I was in tears. But it had to be done. I had no idea a nerve could be so strong.
I took a deep breath and yanked, the tooth came out, and there was very little blood.
I started going to my union’s dentist after that, and embarked on a personal program of “Good dental hygiene.” I went for regular cleanings, got the ones that needed fixing fixed and the ones that needed replacing replaced. I brush after every meal when possible and chew Orbits sugar-free gum. The gum really works.
So kid, the moral of the story is: See your dentist twice a year, floss regularly, and get your teeth SCALED (that one’s for my good friend MAGGIE ESTEP, who inspired this blogpost) if you need, and brush, at least before you go to bed.