Crumbling teeth

Recently I went to the dentist for the first time since “The Simpsons” was actually funny and the good doc noted that one of my top front teeth is chipped. She asked why. I could provide no good explanation. I could only theorize, and it went like this: I chew holy hell out of my fingernails, then I file them on the ridges of my front teeth. It’s a foul habit, but it saves me a bundle at the nail salon, where I occasionally get my toes done. (I wish I could nibble those things off, too.)

To my surprise she chuckled and admitted that she also bites her fingernails. Yes, but do you file your nails on your teeth?, I thought but didn’t bother to ask. I doubt she does. She seems prim and proper and she’s a dentist, after all. (Then again, she was wearing a mask, so maybe her mouth is as pugilistic as my battered pie hole.)  

Seriously, I never really noticed the chip in the tooth until she mentioned it. I sort of vaguely recalled it when she did, but it seemed simultaneously new and foreign and exciting. I suddenly felt like Mike Tyson, or that kid Jason who face-planted off the monkey bars in third grade.

I examined it when I got home and it was both less and more than I imagined it would be. Sort of “Fight Club”-y and meth-heady and pitifully prosaic at the same time, like I absently bit too hard on a piece of ice in my drink while doing Wordle.

And where did this chip off the old toothy block go? Did I swallow it? Spit it out? Ugh. I’d love to see it. From what I can tell, it would be about the size of a tiny fingernail shard — nothing dramatic, but substantial enough to react to (which in my case would be: “cool”). I can feel the vacated groove with my tongue and I definitely see it now that it’s been highlighted.

For all its aesthetic possibilities — gnarly or character-making? — the chipped tooth doesn’t have much use. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t make me money. It has not upset the space-time continuum. Yet one thing is sure: It files fingernails fantastically. 

This isn’t totally new for me. A long while ago, I was eating something hard  and a splinter of enamel from a bottom tooth shaved off and landed on my tongue. I spit it into a napkin, its demise anonymous and ignominious, and for that I lament. 

As far as I know, that was my first tooth chip. It was novel and neat. It was painless, almost imperceptible. What I kinda perversely like: It certainly won’t be my last. 

Teeth are ever-evolving, generally for the worst, be it cavities or wayward wisdoms. The mouth is a monster, filthy, festering, fragrant. And despite it signifying that one’s teeth are slowly disintegrating, a little chip here and there is nothing to spaz about, as even my dentist showed. She simply pointed mine out as if it was a birthmark or a cute little dimple. Yeah, it’s just like that.

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.