I hate the dentist. Always have, always will. When I woke up this morning, the thought of sitting in the dentist chair as he stuck, prodded, and jabbed instrument after instrument into my teeth and gums made my stomach turn like it was a heavy cement mixer. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason, I care entirely too much about what the dentist thinks about my teeth. Maybe it’s because he’s seen some real s%$#, but my level of caring is borderline obsessive. Having the dentist tell me that my teeth look good is one of the best compliments I have ever received in my life. It’s like a little invisible crown that I can wear around all day but only I can see it.
For this reason, I make sure I brush my teeth each morning and each night for at least 3 minutes (an entire minute longer than dentist recommended). I sometimes floss, just to keep up appearances, but seeing kids get made fun in movies since the 90’s made it clear that cool kids DO NOT floss regularly, and thus I follow suit. On this particular morning though, I make sure to double my brush time, use an excessive amount of mouth wash, and spend an extra minute flossing—out of fear he might thinks my set of teeth reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow.
I get dressed, get in my car, and make the entire 15 minute drive to the dentist office, mouth burning with minty freshness. When I entered the office, one of my worst fears came true right before my eyes: the dreaded full waiting room. The smell of cleaning products and dental supplies and the sound of drills working feverishly somewhere beyond my gaze has always given me shivers. The receptionist offered me a piece of candy as I signed in which I adamantly refused. No such trick will work on me today. I know she smells the torrent of freshness cascading from my mouth with each word I say, because I smell it too. It actually burns my nostrils. She didn’t say anything but I saw it in her eyes: she knew I was bringing my A game. After today, they would have to put my molds in the dental patient hall of fame, sandwiched right in-between Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
I managed to find a comfy chair in the far corner of the room, away from everyone else. To my left an empty seat with a women’s fitness magazine slowly slipping off the edge and two empty seats to my right. I sat down and immediately started playing one of my favorite time wasting games. I created it years ago, in a very similar cramped dentist waiting area such as this. By a pure stroke of genius, I christened the game “What’s wrong with that person’s mouth”. I came up with the game when I was kid, and thinking about it now I probably should find more productive adult things to do with my time when I’m in waiting room purgatory; but the game found me so there’s really nothing I can do about it. The ring chooses the wearer after all.
I pan the room looking for my first victim. Far right corner sits an old white gentleman with small wisps of gray hair and a sweet Hawaiian themed shirt, the likes only ever seen in a Macklemore music video. Old people are easy, it’s almost always dentures. I know because I asked once. Me-1, waiting room-0. Sitting next to him is a little boy wearing a Phineas and Ferb T-shirt, with a head of what can only be categorized as red fire streaming down his face. He had a slanted face, which made him look like he was always up to no good. Kids are a little tricky to guess, because they literally put whatever they want into their mouths for no real reason other than because they can. They can literally be at the dentist for anything. Based on his over bite, and his look of general discomfort, it’s probably braces related. 1 point for the guess, but with nothing else to go on I hesitate to tally up my score. On the far right of the room, closest to the receptionist, sat 2 couples separated by a chair.
The first was an older couple. They appeared to be in their late 50’s both wearing color coordinated outfits: blue t-shirts (his crew cut, hers V neck), and khaki shorts. Based on his gold Rolex watch and her coach purse, the safest guess was a routine check-up. If you care about your appearance that much, there’s no way you’d let your teeth be anything but pristine. Feeling pretty confident, I give myself 2 points-1 for each of them. Me 3, waiting room 0.
Sitting nearby was a young couple, probably in their early twenties. He was wearing Sperrys boat shoes, white shorts, a pastel yellow shirt, and a UVA cap turned backwards. He looked like he was either the captain of his alma maters club rowing team, or just fighting desperately to hold on to whatever vestiges of youth he still had left. He was a puzzle of moderate difficulty. Pastels and backwards caps signal Fraternity or Bro (an alpha male idiot). Based on his UVA affiliation, and my prior encounter with the classic Wahoo Bro, I again guess, routine cleaning. She on the other hand, was a little harder to figure out. She was very pretty with her brown hair in a tight bun and she sported a pink sun dress showing off her toned arms. She clearly cared about her appearance, which usually translates to anything involving outward appearance (teeth included), but on her dress, close to her collar bone, was a little smudge of brown. Chocolate—every dentist’s best friend. It was subtle, but every few seconds she would bite down on her jaw and wince, carefully, so no one would notice. The surprise root canal, the metaphorical golden snitch of “What’s wrong with that person’s mouth,” as I like to call it.
Slowly the room began to empty, as the doctor called name after name. First the old man, then the old couple. Then, the young couple: and finally the red manned boy and his mother, until it was just me sitting in the waiting room. I sat in silence for 45 minutes, game now long finished, looking at the floral print on the wall and occupying my time with my phone. This could double as a psych ward, I thought to myself as I sat in the silent room. Right on cue a young black kid with dread locks, high school age, dressed in a shirt and tie, walks in and finds a seat close to me. We exchange a head nod, the kind you only give strangers whose gaze you’ve awkwardly meet in passing, signaling “what’s up, other awkward person, in my vicinity,” before we quickly avert our attention: him to a copy of, Of Mice and Men, me to my phone where I blindly troll Buzzfeed.
While I reluctantly read the article “22 Images That Will Ruin Your Childhood,” I noticed another figure take a seat, somewhere close to me in my periphery.
“Yo…yo,” whispered the stranger, a scrawny white kid wearing ripped jeans, Jordan brand sneakers, and a Baltimore Oriole’s snapback hat.
The dread locked young man, looked up from is book. “Were you talking to me?”
“Yeah, dog, I’m talking to you. Yo, you lookin’ to pick up some green?” the stranger responded, still whispering.
“Am I looking for what?” he responded, in disbelief.
“Green, homie. You know, herb.”
“Dude, are you trying to sell me weed right now?”
“I can get you an eighth for $40, real talk.”
At this point I looked up at the young black man sitting in front of me. It was weird seeing the look of anger on his face from such close proximity. Growing up black in a predominantly white neighbor hood myself, I had a slight understanding of what was going through his head. At one point or another, every black person living in a mixed suburb feels out of place, having to answer questions like can I touch your hair? or do black people tan? This, however, was something different.
“You need to get the f$%@ out of here, dude,” the young man said with force.
With a mixed look of disgust and disappointment, the scrawny drug dealer got up and slunk out of the waiting. I waited a few minutes, letting his anger dissipate before daring to ask him a question.
“Did that guy really try and sell you weed?” I asked.
“Yeah, crazy right? I saw that dude at the 7 Eleven across the street. Dude must have followed me over here.”
The look on his face told me that it wasn’t the first time something like that has happened to him. It’s weird, seeing blatant racial profiling happen right before your eyes, especially between two teenagers. We’re supposed to be the ones that are past this, right?
“That ever happen to you before?” he asked me.
I thought as hard as I could, trying to pick out a single shred of anything resembling what I just saw from my 22 years of life. I wanted so bad to tell him yes, I’ve experienced something like that, but I couldn’t. “No, at least, none that I can think of,” I said, truthfully.
He shook his head, as if he knew all along I had nothing to offer him. “People see the dreads and they automatically think the worst. You know? Drug Dealer, Pot head I’ve gotten it all,” he said, “The best is when they think I’m a rapper or some athlete.”
I sat in my chair shocked. “How old are you?” I asked, curiously.
“14. Bout’ to be a freshman at TJ,” he said proudly. He then reopened his book and continued reading quietly.
The whole incident sent chills down my spine, like I was seeing something happen that I wasn’t supposed to see. I’ve spent almost all of my adolescent to adult years surrounded by people of different colors and races, and have never seen such a blatant and offensive mischaracterization of an individual. My own father has dread locks down to his ankles but I’ve never seen anyone approach him, trying to push weed.
I’ve taken classes on diversity in college, I’ve given presentation discussing the differences, and various difficulties that black men and black women face in today’s society but seeing it happen right in front of me was such a weird thing.
Maybe it was because of the recent Trayvon Martin murder case that is all over the news, but I felt bad for the kid. Why does a young black man dressed in a shirt and tie still get approached to buy weed in 2013? Whatever preconceived notions the young drug dealing punk had in his head of a black pothead clearly wasn’t sitting across from me now. A young kid black or white, reading Of Mice and Men, wearing a shirt and tie, about to enter his freshman year in one of the most challenging schools of Technology and Science in the nation does not fit any stereotype pertaining to black males. If things like that happen to him when he’s fourteen, imagine what it’ll be like when he’s 21? Deep down I know institutional racism is still a major issue in our society, but I chose not to feed into the idea that racism can’t be beaten. I believe, now more than ever, who you are as a person defines what you’re capable of. I couldn’t help, but wonder, if he had the same views as me, having been stereotyped so many times?
Through my thoughts I heard a voice echo around me. It was the receptionist, calling my name. The dentist was ready to see me now. As I got up and walked to the doors, I saw the young couple walking out. The pretty brunette had a mouth full of cotton, and what resembled a tube sock wrapped around her head and jaw. Root canal, I thought, golden snitch. On any other day, It would have been cause for celebration, all caps texts sent to my brother with all the emoticons I could fit, like I had won the world’s biggest gold trophy and I was parading it through the streets; but not today. After what I had just saw, winning a game that I made up to pass the time, didn’t feel like anything special. It felt empty.