Taffy, teeth, terror

I’m guessing that many of you aren’t familiar with Abba-Zaba. It’s an aggressively old-school candy, invented in 1922 and enjoying its height of popularity in the 1970s. It’s still around, available largely at specialty and retro candy shops. It’s a bar of white taffy filled with peanut butter. It’s delicious. It’s gooey. It’s lethal.

I loved them as a kid, when my mouth wasn’t a constellation of expensive dental work. And I got one in my Christmas stocking recently, either as a joyous surprise or a malicious joke. Either way, I was giddy. 

Still, considering the crowns in my mouth, I knew I was holding TNT. And yet, flinging caution to the wind, I unsheathed the sweet alchemy that is an Abba-Zaba, stripped it of its iconic checkered wrapper. I even paused to puzzle over the candy’s nonsense name: Abba-Zaba. Something about A to Z? Whatever. I took a bite.

I knew what I was doing. Or so I thought. I tried my best to keep the taffy away from my three crowns, sucking it and chewing mostly with my front teeth, almost rat-like. Peanut butter oozed and the sumptuous confection was kept under control, if you will. 

Evidently sustaining that exercise is next to impossible, because, pop, out went my rear right crown. I have to wonder what kind of glue they use on crowns — Elmer’s? 

I’m a numbskull. This is the second time a chewy candy has suctioned out a crown. Once a pink Starburst dislodged a crown with a swiftness that almost seemed spiteful. What just happened? I thought and then pulled out a gold beauty attached to a pink beast.

This time there it was, a silver crown, shiny, perplexed and despondent, all by its lonesome. It floated around my mouth before my tongue could catch it, frog-like. I cursed the Abba-Zaba, threw away the rest of it with a gulp of rue, a flash of ire, and sealed the crown in a plastic bag to bring to the inevitable dentist appointment. 

My dentist wasn’t familiar with Abba-Zaba until I educated her about its ravishing (ravaging?) delights. She confessed a mean proclivity for peanut butter. (Taffy, I presume, is anathema to dentists.) We both agreed I was a fool. Me to her: “I made the genius move of eating taffy.”

The good doctor, whose bedside manner is made of sprites and unicorns, glued it right back with a seamless dexterity that would make an orthodontist cry. (I almost cried, especially when I got the bill.) Pleased to report that weeks later my old crown is holding strong with the new adhesive, which I’ve been assured is not Elmer’s, rubber cement or school paste.

But my adventures at the dentist did not end there. Three weeks later — today — I had my biannual cleaning/check-up, something akin to a periodic colonoscopy, but, you know, about a thousand times better. The dentist mentioned to the hygienist that I had a crown reattached recently, but she mistakenly said it came out naturally.

And then, boom: “No, wait! He was eating taffy!” She chortled. And there I was, on my back, feet elevated part-way in the air, a paper baby-blue bib around my neck, smiling wanly and murmuring, “Yeah. It was an Abba-Zaba.”

It just dawned on me that the hygienist probably has no idea what in the world that is. 

Oral apprehensions

In a feat of magnificent self-control, the dental hygienist did not flinch. There she was, peering into my gaping maw, inspecting, poking and scraping teeth and gums, and miraculously she didn’t throw up.

Pro that she is, you wouldn’t think she would. But my mouth hasn’t been examined by anyone with “dental” or “dentist” in their job description since the Obama administration for a plethora of reasons, none of them interesting, credible or justifiable. “Massacre” is the word I figured would spring to her mind as she toiled in my mossy abyss.

I’m a mad brusher and flosser, but I dumbly dropped the ball on getting my choppers checked, and after a while I just let it slide, perhaps the least responsible thing I’ve done since paying good money to see that Spin Doctors tribute band.  

Going into the eons-belated dental appointment, I braced for catastrophe. I entertained Dantesque visions of cavities, gingivitis, cracked crowns, mouth cancer, hairy tongue syndrome, or worse. I imagined my teeth encrusted with piles of plaque, towers of tartar. Dentist? Get me an archeologist.

Dentistry isn’t gorgeous. It’s violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Still, dentists don’t scare me much. I’m not one of those characters who whines and quivers over the periodic oral exam. My mouth has been through a lot, including braces, a few crowns, scads of fillings and wisdom teeth extraction (all four). 

When I was 14, a dental surgeon propped up a few of my receding gums by slicing strips of skin from the roof of my mouth and using the flesh to support the sliding gums. That happened.

I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed with novocaine needles the length and girth of bratwursts. I’ve seen my own blood smeared on the minty-green dental bib. What else can they do? I’m pretty much ready for anything. 

And so I went to the dentist this week, steeled, as I said, for that scene in “Marathon Man.” I pictured drills and pliers, sandblasters and buzzsaws.

Instead, I got teddy bears and lollipops. The hygienist couldn’t have been more pert and welcoming, a living bubble machine. (Not only that, but the ceiling television was set to “The View”!) 

She proceeded to do the poke-and-prod routine with hooky metal utensils and rather than recoil at my neglected mouthful, she actually complimented the super job I’ve been doing maintaining my oral health. Clearly, she said, I take my toothsome hygiene seriously. I would have smiled if seven of her fingers weren’t jammed in my mouth. 

And so I won Round One in the dentist ordeal. Of course I had more in store, the big stuff: the x-rays and the photos and the exam by the capital-D Dentist. This gig wasn’t over by a long shot, and with my luck I’d be getting some kind of shot with the longest needle available. 

I was ushered into a new room, where the official dentist’s chair spread before me, the full-length recliner straight out of Torquemada. Once you lie back in this chair, it’s over. Once you open your mouth, you’re doomed. Rinse, spit, repeat, scream.

As it’s been 135 years since I last saw a dentist, the young doctor who eventually entered, after a pair of technicians took x-rays and photos, was of course new to me. And to my delight, she was just as chirpy, enthusiastic and calming as the angelic hygienist — a human puff of nitrous oxide. 

But she was serious, too, and got down to business. The upshot: I am a fastidious cleaner, but I grind my teeth and need a tooth guard for sleep; I have two slightly cracked molars that will eventually require crowns; and I have one “baby” cavity that did not concern the good doc a bit. 

In fact, she practically laughed it off. And at long last, relieved, disabused of my festering fears, and with no fingers and pokers clogging my mouth, so did I.