FIRST OFF, let’s be clear that it was in no way the pizza’s fault.
I had just sat down to a glorious gluten-free pie from the Big Bon Pizza food truck while basking in the golden sun and good vibes at the A-Town Get Down Festival and was in the middle of wolfing down my third piece when my molars ground on something weird. I chased it with a big swigs of Service Brewing’s Scout’s Out Honey Saison and thought lazily, “huh, since when did pizza get this crunchy?”
Then my tongue flicked over the remaining shard of my front tooth, and I realized my perfect afternoon had gone irrevocably sideways.
Now, I am no stranger to dental distress. I knocked out my front two baby teeth when I was 4. The twisted fangs that grew in behind them inspired my entire third grade class to call me Snaggletooth Von Frankenstein. (It didn’t help that my maiden name actually rhymed.)
When I was 18, after ten years of orthodontic torture that I would be happy to regale you with over a beer sometime, it was determined that the final course of action was to shear down my front four teeth and cap them with porcelain veneers.
Even though I’m pretty sure they’re glued down with the same substance used to manufacture fighter jets, my pearly forgeries aren’t nearly as sturdy as the real things. I’ve had to replace them twice in the last three decades, each time with a price tag that could have funded a trip to Bali or a couple of really nice couches.
I don’t take my precious dentition for granted and go to great lengths to protect it. I am an obsessive flosser. The real reason I carry a knife is so I won’t be tempted to open stubborn packaging with my teeth.
I recently switched to porcelain-friendly black toothpaste, made from activated charcoal that foams up and makes me look like I fellated a volcano.
For all my loving care, damage happens. The same front tooth cracked down the middle ten years ago, though I’d managed to rescue the fragment and jigsaw it back on until I could get professional help. This time, I wasn’t about to go looking for the missing piece.
Friends Sari Gilbert, Bob Batchelor and Josh Carter played it cool.
“You totally look like Madonna with the gap,” consoled Sari.
“Super punk rock,” nodded Josh. “Instagram it. Do it.”
Buoyed by the beer and cheer, I stayed to dance to Bobby Rush and Cracker instead of running home to hide my disfigurement, though I did stick to the shadows. Aside from the sharp part that kept catching on my lip, it didn’t hurt, and I was kind of enjoying my charming new lisp. I was more worried it would mess with my embouchure for my trumpet debut with the Sweet Thunder Strolling Band at the Flannery O’Connor Birthday Parade the next day. (It did, but forgiving fellow bandmates Andrew Hartzell, Anna Chandler, Phillip Reynolds Price, Devin Smith and Jeremy Hammons held down the tunes over my squawking.)
When I woke up the next day, however, things got real. I’ve always bragged that I’d rather be considered weird than pretty, but walking around this world with messed up teeth isn’t a social statement, it’s a liability.
I went to Rite-Aid to buy orthodontic wax to cover the sharp part and smiled reflexively at the cashier; the alarm on her face felt like a punch in the gut. Later a friend told me apologetically, “It’s just kind of hard to look at you.”
My resemblance to the “after” photos of those “don’t do drugs” commercials brought me back to third grade with a fun new nickname: “Methica.”
Bad teeth are the great leveler. Regardless of class, ethnicity, status or privilege, if you are missing any part of your front incisors, you’re at the bottom of society, unless you are 70s supermodel Lauren Hutton or a UFC fighter. Every celebrity you admire has a fake smile, and even Detroit rapper Danny Brown fixed his famous gnarly grin.
Studies show that otherwise-qualified candidates with crap choppers don’t get the job, and other research reveals patterns of discrimination against people with “crooked, discolored and missing teeth,” who are judged to be “of limited intelligence, low class, bad parents, less professional and lacking social skills.”
As awful as it is to have your parenting and intelligence questioned with one glance, terrible teeth affect more than appearance: Poor dental care is linked with heart disease, diabetes and even death, a socioeconomic injustice chronicled in Mary Otto’s new book Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America.
In spite of our mouths being attached to our bodies, somewhere along the way, dentistry diverged from basic medical care and became a luxury instead of necessity. Dental insurance must be purchased separately, and anything above and beyond a basic cleaning will come at least partially out of pocket.
Preventative screenings for children are currently covered by Medicaid, and a provision for public dental health was included in the Affordable Care Act, both of which will likely be toast in whatever garbage fire bill eventually passes.
For those trapped in poverty and homelessness, it’s a vicious cycle: You can’t get hired with ugly teeth, but how to afford a $900 crown, even with a full-time minimum-wage job?
Some humbly accept help, like writer and beloved local character Roberta Hopkins, for whom the Savannah community raised funds to address life-threatening abscesses and provide a set of dentures last fall.
Another local option is JC Lewis Dental Center, a division of the primary care center on Fahm Street that provides fillings, root canals, dentures and other emergency services for low-income and homeless citizens. Anyone registered with the Salvation Army, Inner City Night Shelter, Union Mission and Old Savannah City Mission can make an appointment.
“Everyone is treated the same regardless of their situation,” assures site manager Suprena Joiner, agreeing that decent front teeth ought to be a right, not a privilege.
The clinic sees around 25 patients a day and is staffed with professional dentists and hygienists, including my favorite person of the week, Dr. Richard Thomas, who also operates a private practice in the Desoto Hilton on Liberty Street.
Dr. Thomas squeezed me in first thing Tuesday morning and shored up a perfect temporary replacement in a half hour flat, right after he and assistant Beatrice Hunt numbed my face and sheared off the remaining porcelain in a process redolent of a moonshine still from the 1800s and burning dog hair.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have insurance through this job, and considering my history, I obviously throw down for the additional dental premium. It’ll still be a hefty bill once the new dente is installed, but miraculously, the week also brought the unexpected arrival of a delayed tax return. (Never thought I’d say the IRS is my tooth fairy, but there it is.)
Concentrating on the view out of the third-floor window to distract myself from the high pitch of the drill, I tried not to cry with relief that I’d look like a functional member of society again after 48 hours as a miserable pariah. I also couldn’t help thinking of those unable to escape the ostracism of a messed-up grill—and worse.
Equal access to dental care needs to be part of the conversation around healthcare solutions. After all, if the eyes are the window to the soul, then the teeth are the picket fence. cs