14 Jan Will’s Tooth

Just before seven A.M. yesterday, Jill drop me and Will off at the Maryland University dental school so that we could get Will’s cracked tooth pulled. The dental school sponsors a low-cost emergency clinic, the oldest in the nation. The only stipulation is that patient has to be in pain. Also you have to be willing to let eager students do the work – which may mean your visit will take twice as long as it might in the hands of seasoned professionals. The teachers supervise, of course. On the way over, Will said, “To be honest, Mister Ron, I’m terrified.” He hadn’t been to the dentist since he was in kindergarten. I told him what to expect. A little pinch of Novocain and it’d be over. As we pulled up to the clinic, he said, “This is what it feels like to turn yourself in after jumping bail.”

The dental school website tells all prospective patients to show up “before seven o’clock.” There must have been fifty patients waiting when Will and I walked into the glass and marble lobby. At seven-ten, a big guy in orderly’s scrubs sauntered out with the sign-up sheet and told us that he’d take only the first fifteen who agreed to stay. None of the first fifteen declined the invitation. All asserted that they were in dire need of care. The rest of us watched the lucky ones escorted through the big double doors. We who were left behind could go elsewhere in the city, another assistant informed us. Why isn’t the dental school website more specific about this?

Twenty minutes later, Jill was driving us to the Druid Hill health clinic, run by the city. A large brick building that could have been a decommissioned school, it’s in West Baltimore, which is battered down and burned up. The clinic was supposed to open at nine, but the dentists and staff didn’t show up until nine-thirty. Will said, “I just couldn’t do this alone, you know – I’m shy, is the thing. Sometimes I’m on the bus and I won’t press the stop button because I don’t want everybody to stare at me.” I said, “You’ve got to press the stop button, Will. You can be sneaky about it, if you have to. But you’ve got to press the button.” Then I told him about a woman I used to know who was terrified of checking her mail because she had no money to pay the bills. For weeks at a time she wouldn’t open the mailbox.

The big guy behind us was telling his neighbor how he gave $400 to a man who promised to get the big guy’s river’s license reinstated at a fraction of the state’s cost. “He took that money and didn’t do a damn thing,” the man announced, shaking his head in dismay. “Oh, I learned my lesson. But I’m behind. I’m way behind now.”

A while later, the receptionist — a large weary middle-aged woman who wore a perpetually skeptical expression and seemed to have seen it all — informed Will that he needed proof of employment before he could get a discounted rate. I told her I was his employer. She said, “You have a tax form or some other documentation?” I shook my head no, then said, “It’s not like that. He’s actually unemployed.” Will had applied for unemployment the day before. But it’s hard to predict when he’d receive any official paperwork. “You can try another clinic,” the woman offered, though she couldn’t say what their policies might be. As it was, his check-up would cost four times the discounted rate. I said, “Fine, let’s do it. We need to know what we’re dealing with.” Secretly I just wanted to get this over because I knew it was taking its toll on Will and he might not have the nerve to come a second time. So we sat and waited.

An hour later, they called Will in. He was back in only twenty minutes. “They say it’s got to be surgically removed,” he said. “Got a wisdom tooth lying on top of the cracked tooth. That explains the pain I felt for the longest time – the wisdom tooth kicked out the other” He showed me the x-ray. It doesn’t look good. “They said it’d take too long to do it here,” he continued. “They say I got infected gums. Gave me prescriptions for it.” He flagged the paper in one hand. I nodded my understanding. “Looks like we’ll have to return to the dental clinic,” I said. “We’ll have to get there at six next time.”

“I can do six,” he said. Will is always game.

“But we’ll have to wait till next week.”

He smiled. “You know, I can wait.”