Going to the Dentist

Are you ready for dentist jokes? A guy walks into a dentist office, he comes out with no shirt.  I have had a problem with this one molar for most of my life. I’m broken. It’s broken. I have a molar that cracked during the great recession.  I don’t need to digress into how low I felt at that time in my life, but needless to say I had no steady income, and was living in a high lifestyle with lowlifes.  I was living off of my unemployment checks that had a deadline, but the job market didn’t meet those deadlines, and I knew I was fucked.

I squirrelled away my money as much as I could, working odd end jobs at any turn, and my filling fell out.  I can’t remember when it was filled, but this molar had been giving me the little pimple on the tip of the tongue from its crack since high school.  I started to use toothpicks to pick at food that would get caught in the cavity where there was recently a filing. Eventually, the cavity was so large I could use the tip of a pen to clean out the hole.  This happened surprisingly fast, maybe a month, before I decided to go to a dentist.

I asked around, my friend Kim grew up in the area, and I assumed she knew at least one dentist.  She knew I only had a few thousand dollars to my name, with no new money to replace any spent, and Kim also knew that her dentist gave a healthy discount for cash paying customers.  I don’t know how many dentists are presented with poverty-stricken individuals such as myself, I assume most people just find a way to pay for it. I would rather find the best way to have money stay in my wallet, so I negotiated with this dentist to provide a filling, “Son, you’re gonna have to put a crown on that tooth, the cavity is too deep, so we will need a root canal.”

“Dad? I don’t need to do anything! I need to fix this problem, I need to figure out how to fix the problem in a way I can afford it”

“We have dental plans available.”

“I am paying 70% of my unemployment paycheck towards rent, I don’t need to add more subscriptions to that empty cache. Can’t you just refill it with filling again?”

“The filling with eventually just fall out”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t do it”

“I am warning you, I cannot warranty this work, as this filling will fall out”

“How long do you think it will keep?”

“A few years, or maybe a couple months.  Look, your tooth is cracked all the way across, the filling is eventually going to find its way out, you need a crown at the least. But, for $160, I will fill this. I repeat, I don’t warranty this work at all.”  And that filling fell out, in 2016. I think I made a frugal man’s decision, and being that poverty is an addiction, I had not climbed out, but a touch of an angel graced me, and Obamacare provided me with dental insurance!

All the horror stories about backroom shady offices and shady work done in other countries, was exactly the type of office that Medi-Cal granted their licensure.  I called this shady Russian dentist, located in the outer Richmond district of San Francisco, and a lady with a thick Russian accent tells me that they accept Medi-Cal patients.  Good, because I only had a range from Ukiah to San Jose, from the outer Sunset to Discovery bay to work with, and they were the only one that said they do root canals. I recalled what the dentist had said years before, and knew it was going to be a possibility.  

The place was clean, the office was above a bank, in a pedestrian quiet part of the outer Richmond.  I walk in to see the fat babushka lady, and eventually meet this psychotic Russian. He was screaming in Russian, seemed very chauvinistic, and told me, “You need root canal. You want me to fill tooth? Or you want root canal?”

“What I want is to not be in pain. If the cavity gets refilled (as if it’s headlight fluid),  will I still be in pain?”

“No. Maybe. We see!” He confused the shit out of me.

“Can you just fill it. And, we’ll see how it feels from there?” He did, and gave me a prescription for the pain.  He also grinded down inside the cavity, exposing the nerve even more. That night, I was in excruciating pain. I knew that I was going to need a root canal, and I wouldn’t have, if they dentist just filled it like some back alley mexican dentist would.  

I returned the following day, and the shady Russian dentist goes, “I told you.  Need root canal. You want?”

“No, I don’t want. But, I don’t have a choice. How much is it going to cost? Can we do it right now? I’ve never had one done before?” I sounded like the awkward kid at a strip club who just started making out with 2 girls and being dragged into a private room with a great fear but enough nonchalance to go with the flow.

“$350. I get her right now”  The shady Russian dentist presumably proposed the idea, but had to call the female surgeon to do the dirty work.  She was nice, I have since learned the protocol to whine like a bitch at the slightest pain so they shoot you up again.  The shady Russian dentist would have, I just didn’t know to ask. The surgeon did a fine job, the only part that hurt was keeping my jaw open for such a long period of time.

So I was fixed, until the tooth chipped. See, the shady Russian dentist had compromised my tooth by grinding it out.  Medi-Cal did not offer crowns at the time. Two years later (yes, still in poverty. Hang with me, it doesn’t get any easier), The tooth chips toward the back, making for a nice plaything my tongue has become addicted to creating a pimple on its tip.  I find another, less shady dentist in Windsor, who accepts Medi-Cal. Thanks Obama! But they recommend a crown, and even suggest an implant. I don’t particularly care for the details, but a crown, at worst requires a root canal, and an implant at best requires an extraction of the tooth.

The best this dentist in windsor could offer was a stainless steel crown, but had recommended an implant. I didn’t want either, so once again I was at a standstill with the insurance I had, and the product I wanted.  To get a porcelain crown was in $1800, and I was on Medi-cal, not much of an option, and I just didn’t know which direction I wanted to take this tooth. I have grown partial to it. It has been there for at least 30 years, I didn’t want to just pull it. But I also didn’t want to grind it down to a useless nub.  So my options were for this tooth to make me look like Chopper Read, shiny steel, or Gollum if the crow falls off. I maintained a stupid attachment to a failure and should have put a crown on it years ago. But like all those boy-girls that want to become girl-boys and vice versa, I am stuck with the hand I was dealt, or I get surgery to resolve the problem.

This dentist grinded down the tooth, filled what they could, and warned me of impending failure.  Isn’t insurance paying a little at a time so there isn’t a huge catastrophe to bankrupt you? I guess I was paying insurance on this tooth, with premiums due every handful of years. This one didn’t cost me anything. Once again, Thanks Obama!

Years go by; as they do, and I start getting food stuck between that back molar, and the one in front of it.  I am indecisive on any long-term health aides: smokers have been known to live to 100 where children die of lung cancer.  People swear by vitamins, I swear by the placebo effect. people floss every day and get gum disease, I floss once a month, great gums!    So, I was flossing, and I caught the edge of the crack, and pulled a healthy chuck out of the front of the rear molar.

“Now, it’s time to get down to business, no more fucking around, fix the tooth the right way, you’re gonna have to go to the dentist” I said to myself, we talk a lot!  I did though. So I found a dentist here in Garland, Tx that offered a discount on x-rays through Groupon. A solid excuse to utilize an aggressive dentist, so I get the consultation with this dentist, and they want to put a crown on.

“Of course, but what is the tooth going to look like when you shave it down?”

“Oh, you will never be able to chew with it again” The female receptionist replied in a blase manner.  

“Then why not just get an implant?”

“If you can afford it, it is always the better option, but a crown would work fine.” She explained just before I met the male  dentist who confirmed her opinions. Mansplaining is everywhere! (that’s just a joke, all professions need people checking their work) I get a price from them $1400.  The price didn’t bother me as much as the aggressive nature of this administration. The lady called me 3 times trying to get me to schedule the appointment. I was too busy driving back and forth across the country, and avoiding the inevitable.  I peaked my head above poverty for a second, but my fingers are starting to hurt and my grip is getting weak, I decided to go with another dentist and get another opinion. And if I’m going to get solicited by a dentist, I might as well go down to Mexico.

This dentist was lovely. One of those family practice dentists in a nice house, converted into an office. Right away, he looks at my x-rays and tells me the tooth should be extracted, that a crown might cause problems.  After I paid $80 for that consultation, I get referred to this dentist’s surgeon, and have to pay another $90 for their consultation. I was quoted ~$4,400 to extract the rearmost tooth, fix the cavity, and get an implant, requiring a 9 month process.  Being out of the poorhouse for that brief glimmer made me think about how easy it is to just release those fingers and fall back into the depths of poverty, and paying $5,000 and a year of my life?

I scheduled the extraction.  If I’m gonna go big, I’m going all the way, “I want to be unconscious” I said, and was given a quote for $1,800, to just remove the tooth, and prepare the jaw for a post to be installed, at another $1,800.  “So, $3600 to you guys, only leaves like $1200 for the dentist, and this doesn’t even cover the cost to fix the cavity on the foremost tooth.” Just kidding, I didn’t schedule the extraction, I was definitely looking at over $5,000, and my friend Braden happened to stop into town.

You thought I would talk about some crazy party of stupid shit we did, nope, this is a story about the dentist, stay with me here.  But, he was planning on going down to Austin after visiting Shakey and I. That was all the motivation I needed. I had looked up some articles online about going down to Progresso, a small border town about an hour west of Brownsville,tx [insert link to website]. After sleeping in my car at a rest area a 100 miles from Progresso, I arrive at a border that looks like the Tijuana border, just about 1/10 of the size. I expect to walk over the Rio Grande as you do in Tijuana, with a long footbridge crossing highways and the river.  But no, I paid $2 to park my car where there were attendants. Not that attendants will do anything but watch your car be broken into or stolen, but it’s the placebo effect I believe in strongest. I could throw a rock to the first hawker on the street. I zig zag through a small building that says, “Welcome to Mexico! Bienvenidos a Mexico!” and I’m in Progresso. The first person I see says, “Dental work. You need crowns? Implants? What you want?” The early bird gets the worm. First to the post. Any analogy you want, I was rewarding this guy for getting to me first.  I have seen enough of Mexico to understand how barking techniques work. Mexico is far more capitalist than America. America has rules, guidelines, licensing, certification processes, and Mexico Does Not Give A FUCK! And I’m ready to take advantage of that.

The guy brings me upstairs, he speaks english well enough, likely went to a bilingual school, and he was making a living off of the ability to translate.  I suck at english, so I’m just gonna keep practicing this one. Practice makes better. I walk into a generic looking office with a slightly large for the room reception desk with a security guard relaxed with his feet up. He unfurls and opens the door to the dental chairs where a nurse communicates with, now my translator, passes me off to the nurse who speaks english, and I meet the nice young dentist.  She looked to be in her early 20s, she could not speak english. I brought up the x-rays on my phone, the dentist took a look, examined my teeth, and said, “El Necesito Dos Coronas” The new translator repeated, “you need two crowns” which I knew, and also understood.

“How much is it going to cost?” I asked in english, figuring they are going to translate, and my spanish is as poor as I am.  

“Por dos Coronas, de $370” the dentist replied, then was repeated by the nurse, “Two crowns will costs three hundred seventy dollars.”  I am thinking that this is just another insurance premium, and at this point in my life, $370 is a drop in the bucket, spend another $30 on painkillers from some shady pharmacy, and I’m home by tomorrow.  

However, a crown needs to be molded, then fitted, then finely ground until the bite feels the same. We talked about how much a more expensive crown would cost, but that put us in the $1000 range, and for some back alley dentist, it wasn’t worth a comma-sized dent in my bank account. We agreed on a porcelain crown, and she got to work. Injected me in the right spot, started grinding down my teeth, but not as deep, more of making my teeth abrasive to bond with the adhesive that the crown glues to the tooth. The dentist made a mold of my teeth, and sent me away for an hour.  I walked through the entire town, there wasn’t anything but pharmacies, dental offices, a couple strip clubs, and street vendors. I was tempted by the strip clubs, but I never liked them anyway, so why spend an hour doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable.

The weather was nice, not because Mexico has an imaginary line that divides the shit weather in the winter in Texas from the mild, T-shirt weather, but because it was warm for a couple days before it decided to freeze again for a week. The slogan I have heard about Texas weather is, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait!”  

So, I weaved back and forth along this small urban grid, with not many buildings over 2 stories, with your typical Mexican sidewalks; really nice for one residential yard, then looking like it was put together by a man with vertigo, then no sidewalk at all, then really nice sidewalk for a handful of businesses, etc. I was told by multiple people, “This es very nice city, no crime” made me a little suspicious after the the second guy said it to me.  

I returned, unharmed, ready to keep my mouth open for a long period of time, assuming I was getting a root canal. It seems as though it wasn’t needed, as I doubt they were trained for this type of surgery.  They were probably just hoping I would not need to come back. They put on a crown, checked my bite, and said the actual crown has to be molded, so I needed to wait for another 4 hours. That strip club was starting to become a bit more tempting, but I have my feelings about love and money, they are like oil and water; the mixture will never sit right.

I thought about eating, but I wasn’t feeling hungry, so I just walked through this little, quiet border village, not wanting to wait in their little waiting room, but also not wanting to venture too far out of the little downtown, in this “very safe city” I also assume that once you get out of the city grid, there won’t be much, as it is a small town, the hawker told me there were 600 dentists in this tiny town, with big names, such as Mr. X, and a plethora of pharmacies and dentists to choose.  If you like to haggle on everything, border towns are a place to go. If you want to haggle on dental work, go to Progresso on a slow day.

I spoke with one hawker looking for a burrito.  He guided me, presumably to his friend or family member’s restaurant, and they had crappy microwave burrito for sale on a cafeteria style plate.  I want a California Super Burrito with the entire refrigerator stuffed inside a 14” tortilla, rice, beans, meat, sour cream, avocado, cheese, and type 2 diabetes, Not some poorly put together handmade tortilla with meat and cheese inside, but this place didn’t even have that, it definitely looked like a store-bought microwave burrito for $3, on display.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a handmade tortilla, and if that was the option, it would have peaked my interest, but I’m not a taco guy. I decided to avoid that hawker after his advice led me to losing my appetite.

I return, and as to be expected, the shipment of my fancy new porcelain teeth was not yet delivered.  I was patient, I thought I was going to have to deal with this tooth problem for the next 9 months. I still might, but I might just head back to this place and haggle for the best price the next time I need stuff done.  After a half hour in the waiting room, the teeth arrive, the work was done, no pain, and a prescription for the infection was written. Amoxicillin, a mouthwash to heal the infection, and some mild pain killers if any of the sanding down of the tooth caught a nerve, were written up, the 2 ladies were very thorough, and I appreciated their bedside manner.

“Do you have a pharmacy you recommend?  I asked, figuring they get some kickback. “ “This is Capitalism, this is Mexico, we don’t do shit for free” -some Norteño, probably.

“I take you” and the nurse walked me downstairs after all the formalities.  I was concerned that I might wake up in pain, and I shared that with the dentist. She was confident that I would not feel nerve pain from the tooth, but understood that it may be a possibility.  The nurse walked me in, translated to the pharmacist, and for $30 I got my prescriptions, said goodbye, was given a card for the business, and the transaction was complete. So I crossed the border, got in my car, and slept in a strip mall parking lot 20 minutes north of Progresso in Harlington, Tx.  I woke up the next day feeling fine, and for twice the price of American consultations, I have resolved this problem with my tooth. For now.

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