There’s nothing like…


…a visit to the dentist to give me a sense of my body as equipment, with wear items and a limited life span. How long will it all last, I wonder, staring up into the bright light as the hygienist scrapes and prods. At least dentists have stopped offering to break my jaw. I had a several-year run where different dentists kept suggesting this, not out of any hostility but just so that my teeth could be manipulated into meeting more neatly when closed (not for aesthetic reasons, but to reduce wear and tear from some sort of scraping action that happens now). I don’t know if this was just a fad at the time or if I am now too old for the treatment to be as effective or easy, but I must say I feel vindicated in my decision not to take such a step by the fact that it doesn’t seem to come up anymore. Maybe there was a cover story on the procedure in Modern Dentristry and I had the luck to run into several dentists looking to try it out for themselves. I’ve noticed that all the TMJ posters and brochures have disappeared, too; was that just a fad as well?

Yesterday was the last time I’ll visit my current dentist before the move, bar any emergencies. (Please, please bar any emergencies.) I found this dentist on the list of approved clinics for a chintzy dental plan I once signed up for through a credit card. Back then (2001-2), the office was in the Medical Arts Building on Read Street. The Medical Arts Building is under renovation now, and it needs it. The halls were dark and the elevator made a distinct shimmying motion as it climbed. In fact, even though my dentist’s office was on the sixth floor, the elevator gave me such pause that I was in the habit of using the stairs. Still, I was always intrigued by the old building, which seemed like the kind of place where a private detective would have an office behind a frosted-glass door stenciled with his name. Two years ago, the dentist moved to a more modern building across Charles Street from the Belvedere Hotel. The current space looks like the stereotypical dot-com office: exposed brick and painted ductwork, open space with partitions instead of closed-off examination rooms, all done very nicely. The practice has really grown into its new digs and it’s a pleasure to visit there (except for the moments of pain and terror, of course). With the new digs came new equipment. I’m not going to say it’s state of the art, as I don’t really know much about the state of this “art,” but I’m impressed by how easy everything has gotten. I remember having to go off to some dark closet for X-rays at past dentists’ offices, including when this one was in the MA Building. Now they just toss the apron on you in the chair, slide open the door of a nearby wooden cabinet, and swivel this articulated arm with a camera on the end out at you. It looks like something astronauts would use to look for damaged heat tiles on the outside of a space ship. Plus the X-ray camera on the end is digital, so the results are quickly visible on a flat-screen computer monitor hanging from the ceiling. What will they think of next?

As I was settling up with the billing nurse, she asked if I would like to schedule my next appointment. That’s when I realized that I would be moving before it would be time for another cleaning. This was a weirdly emotional realization for me and I had the momentary urge to go find my hygienist and say goodbye and thank her for taking care of me, but it passed. The billing nurse was impressed to learn that I’m headed to Montana. She commented on the beautiful scenery with obvious wistfulness and then shared how little Baltimore has grown on her in the two years she’s lived here. “Everyone’s so angry and bitter,” she said. “Whenever I drive anywhere I get so tense.” She mimicked a hunchback and drew her shoulders up to her ears. “My neck just starts to feel like it’s going to explode.”

I find Baltimore to be an angry town, too, and the nurse and I aren’t the only ones. A friend of mine who went off to law school in Richmond claims to have been recognized as a Baltimorean by another Baltimorean who said something like I can tell by how bitter and angry you are. One thing that contributes to my own constant near-boiling rage is the fact that I spend so much time as a pedestrian in this city, although it wouldn’t be any better – just different – if I did more driving. What angers me as a pedestrian is the utter and complete lack of respect of Baltimore drivers for my life, much less my right to, say, cross the street when the walk signal is white and that kind of thing (on the few corners where there are walk signals). Walking in this city makes me feel like an insignificant and very vulnerable being trying to avoid being churned up in the gears of a very large machine that takes no notice of me. [FN 1] I have a theory that the aggression of Baltimore’s drivers results from poorly planned traffic patterns and stop lights. I haven’t made a study, but I feel that a crosstown drive through this city encounters an inordinate number of red lights, so that I never feel like I’m getting anywhere, and – even though I’m a fairly cautious and conservative driver, for the most part – I become tempted to run some extremely stale yellow lights just because I can’t stand the thought of being brought to a stop for the thousandth time in ten blocks. Seen in this light, I guess biking is the ideal way to move through the city, fast enough that you don’t notice the vomit and chicken bones on the sidewalk, able to ignore red lights at times and just keep moving, and so on. The drawback is that the drivers have no more respect for bikers than they do for pedestrians, and the bikers have to spend more time in closer proximity to the traffic. Every now and then, I see bikers riding on the sidewalk. Being a good, angry Baltimorean, my first reaction is rage that they are disobeying our laws, but ultimately the sidewalk seems to me the only safe place to ride, really, in this not-only-pedestrian-but-also-bike-unfriendly city.

Speaking of anger, and just as a random example of what living in this city is doing to me, yesterday I became a mite peckish in the afternoon and decided to go out for a snack. I considered visiting the Subway that recently opened near my office but decided I couldn’t face the always seemingly suicidally depressed staff behind the counter and the two schizophrenic women who are allowed to hang about inside, pestering the customers with nonsensical comments. No word salad with my sandwich for me, thanks anyway. Instead I walked to Safeway for some peanuts and juice. In choosing a checkout line, I noticed a short line but then realized that the checker’s light was off, which I took to mean that this checker, a fat, dreadlocked man, would be closing soon and was just wrapping up with his last few customers. So I got into the line next to his, which was about twice as long. While I waited, someone blithely wheeled a cart into the dreadlocked clerk’s line and was not turned away. This customer was followed by another one who was also not turned away. By this point it was clear that this clerk’s line was actually open, although there was little point in switching now that these other customers would be ahead of me. Bile bubbled up into the back of my throat. Was the clerk lazy, leaving his light off in hopes that customers would go somewhere else? Or had he just forgotten? Either possibility seemed unforgivable to me, and I found that – as my line advanced, putting me closer and closer to the dreadlocked clerk’s back – I was fantasizing about muttering something nasty, or maybe ratting him out to my clerk. Maybe your line wouldn’t be so long if he’d turn his light on. I eventually got myself under control by telling myself that his light was probably just burned out, but the point is that I felt genuine, honest-to-god anger about this situation. Will I get over this, or will I be the angriest person in Missoula?

At work, the air conditioning is finally on. This is a relief because my wall of south-facing windows – while visually pleasing – makes my office into a sort of greenhouse, so I’m glad for the AC even if we do share duct work with the smoker who lives in the apartment upstairs. The cool temperatures are welcome not least because I’m currently doing the more mind-numbing of the two types of tasks my job asks of me, copyediting a procedural document (as opposed to thinking about the expression of ideas and arguments in a policy paper). I don’t mind this kind of work – getting a document into shape and translating it into clear, concise English gives the kind of craftsmanlike satisfaction that I would guess a carpenter feels at building a simple but well-made bookshelf or chair – but the eyes can glaze over, especially when my office is 78 degrees.

In the evening I did a little work on a freelance project and watered the strawberries in the garden (yes, using the new hose hookup, which, yes, is just the greatest thing ever) before watching The Office. As I brushed my teeth before bed, a light rain was falling, and I realized that I won’t miss my dentist as much as I’ll miss the sound of rain drops on the skylight.


FN 1: This feeling of continuously impending doom for pedestrians is actually worse in Baltimore than in a place like, say, New York City. While the traffic is arguably crazier in NYC, there are more pedestrians, so, when the walk signal comes on, hundreds of people immediately step out into the crosswalk. Safety in numbers and all that. Plus, being New York, many of these pedestrians are quite willing to pound on the hood and scream invective at the driver of any car that tries to cut off the flow. All in all, I find that pedestrian-hood feels much safer in NYC than Baltimore. On the flip side, it is nice to get in a cab here and not feel it immediately accelerate to 60 mph on a downtown street, so I guess there are trade-offs.