Much to her own chagrin, Sheila Nevins will stop at nothing to preserve her teeth
I have spent more on my teeth (most of us have 32) than on any of my weddings, expensive spa vacations, or my kid’s entire education. This toothy madness began in preadolescence, when I wore braces for some three years for a slight overbite (très shih tzu), which I owed to prolonged thumb sucking. This frontal bucking created a mouth made for remolding. My mother had wanted a perfect child and so I was rushed to an NYU dental clinic where trembling dental wannabes completed their education in my less-than-perfect mouth.
Actually, I was all for this renovation because Stanley (heartthrob) Brettschneider wouldn’t kiss me in the closet during my first hot game of spin the bottle. (I was almost twelve). In this earliest of traumas, Stanley told me, quite frankly, that he didn’t kiss girls with braces. It was too dangerous. I was devastated and waited impatiently for the corrected-perfected me. Yet, alas, when the metal and rubber were removed, Stanley had moved to the burbs, and we never did kiss, never ever. But that was years ago and my poor-girl braces kept my smile going for some 30 years — maintaining at bargain prices a rich girl’s smile, in a poor girl’s clinically improved mouth.
But things do happen, and one day in my 40th-something year — a sharp, man-eating pain pierced my left canine. Yelping wolflike, I called my family dentist (now a very old man — sweet Dr. Sweder) and began a winding dental path of new discovery. I was met on a bloody Sunday in April by a drill sergeant named Dr. Bain. He was known as an endodontist – a new word had entered my vocabulary. I was an endodontal emergency and after some 10,000 X-rays, Dr. Bain introduced me to the root-canal experience – a journey I would grow accustomed to. With a rubber towelette, and wee guillotine equipment, a sadist’s drill and a twisting motion, he would remove an infected nerve from my tooth, which was attached to my gum, which was attached to my mouth, which was attached to me. What had led him to do this gyrating turn of the screw? Possibly it was better not to know.
Dr. Bain played opera and whistled while he worked. Each time he pierced and pulled, he asked me if I liked a particular opera and I always grunted – ah, huh, eh, huh – for words were impossible during root-canal incarceration and it seemed foolhardy anyway to disagree with someone who practiced mouth S&M. Anyway, I am not an opera fan. I believe it was he, Dr. Bain, who started me on the dental smile train. I was on an express with no local stops. For even my four-year-old son was referred by him to a pedodontist – a bit scary at first, I was assured he was not a felon, but a trained specialist in baby teeth. Phew. And then through this Dr. Bain – of my existence, this endodontist – I became acquainted with the prosthodontist who introduced me to the periodontist, who introduced me to the oral surgeon.
You see, no one dentist would tend to a whole tooth. The tooth was fragmented. The profession of saving teeth had become, since Grandma’s time, a fine art. Nowhere was there to be found a plain, simple, do-it-all dentist anywhere, anyplace. Nary a month went by when I didn’t pay a visit to be bled, capped or implanted by some relative of the dental family tree. I was working for professional men, the bills were fast and furious, the coverage limited, but oh what a smile I was earning. Rather they were earning. I would show my porcelains off like a college girl with an expensive engagement ring. Showtime.
Yet in retrospect you have to feel sorry for these guys. I think I have discovered the secret to their closely knit society of dentists. When visiting the gynecologist or, even, the proctologist, with legs in the stirrups, or arse up, you can still engage in dialogue about the world or tell a story, or at least respond to questions like “Do you like La Traviata?” Not so in a dental chair. Tilted, swathed, poked with sharp tools, drilled at, water spouting in your eye – all you can do is make guttural sounds like ugh, ah, err, uhm, eh.
Grandma put her teeth in a jar. She too had a beautiful smile, though artificial, and not firmly planted. And, though, Grandma’s teeth may have been occasionally heard by a loose click that would disturb a family conversation – this was a rare occasion and would only occur when there was a seismic shift of plates. It was quickly Fix-o-Dented by her.
But Grandma had one dentist: our family dentist, dear Dr. William B. Sweder. He knew us. He was my very first. He used to calm me. We all liked to see him. He filled my first tooth to be filled. He said it wouldn’t hurt, and it didn’t. Flouridated me. He told me about the Tooth Fairy (she worked on my behalf). He gave me free toothpaste and a brush with a clown’s head. And Dr. Sweder did it all – from baby teeth on, from day one to dentures – the beginning to the end. And I bet he wasn’t lonely, I bet. He knew us all. But he’s long gone like a dial phone to an iPhone. I think I miss him but, unlike Grandma, I do keep my teeth in at night – for a price. And without question I do have a million-dollar smile. And I’m not speaking metaphor.