The Lennon/McCartney of dentistry: An American vampire in Juarez (Pt IV)
There’s a place across the street from the Camino Real that advertises itself as “Dave’s: A Pawn Shop”.
In the window of Dave’s: A Pawn Shop, in a place of honor above the bins of cheap watches and expensive gold jewelry, is a curiosity inside a small wooden box: a forlorn little leathery thing, mummified by age, with two square rusted iron spikes driven through it to form a cross. The hand-lettered sign above it reads 'EL CORAZON DE UN BEBE VAMPIRO': the heart of a baby vampire. I’d buy it in a — well, in a heartbeat — if Dave didn’t want $7500 for it. I don’t know what the going rate for mummified baby vampire hearts is, but it definitely seems like a seller’s market.
Instead, I buy a cheap but pretty Wagner auto-winding watch, as a memento of my trip. I take it outside, and promptly drop it on the concrete pavement while trying to adjust the weird two-part clasp on it. When I pick it up, I can see that the mechanism isn’t damaged, but the minute hand has come loose. It dangles like the leg of a hanged man on a gibbet.
I go back inside and ask Dave if there’s a watchmaker or repair shop anywhere, and he tells me that there’s one on the opposite corner. But when I cross the street, there’s nothing of the sort: just another bodega-style store, selling bootleg Latino CDs and DVDs and blasting abominable norteño pop at soul-destroying levels through a blown-out PA speaker. It sets my already abused teeth on edge.
This stretch of El Paso Street isn’t connected to the rest of the road. It starts at Pioneer Plaza with its copper statue of Fray Garcia de San Francisco, the Spanish priest who founded El Paso del Norte (which later became Ciudad Juarez) in 1659, and runs about seven blocks, ending at the Santa Fe Bridge, which I’ve been using this week to cross back and forth from Mexico.
Those seven blocks are crammed full of storefronts, and those storefronts are crammed full of the kind of cheap crap you’d normally encounter in a shoddy discount store: paper-thin denim jeans with creases sharp as razors, dull cutlery, gaudy blouses; Dora The Explorer and Hannah Montana school backpacks made of PVC hanging on hooks from the eaves of the storefront window, their bright designs fading in the unforgiving Texas sun. It’s the only part of the city I’ve seen that’s full of people. The stores, and their customers, exist as a sort of odd artifact of capitalist globalism.
A local I met explained that most of the maquiladoras in Juarez don’t actually manufacture anything, because the multinationals who contract with them have discovered that they can’t maintain the required levels of precision and efficiency. Instead, Juarez is fed a steady diet of shipping containers stacked with pallets full of unassembled components that began their existence on the far side of the Pacific, in massive Foxconn-style factories in China and Taiwan, where they’re nothing if not precise and efficient.
The components are unassembled because you can fit more of them on a pallet that way. They’re unboxed here, put together in the maquiladoras, put back in the shipping containers and sent across the border to the US and Canada on the backs of semi trucks and freight trains to distribution centers. This is the life cycle of all of the cars in your local dealer’s lot and all the affordable mass-produced gadgets and toys on the shelves of your local Wal-Mart or Tesco’s. This is the vascular system of manufacturing and distribution upon which the entirety of the modern world survives. The watch I bought from Dave’s: A Pawn Shop, nominally a product of a German company, was in all likelihood actually built in Beijing or Shanghai and put together in Juarez or Tijuana before ending up on the wrist of its previous owner and, eventually, in Dave’s display case, maybe no more than a couple of miles from where it got assembled.
Of course, not all of those Chinese free trade zone sweatshops are contracted by Western companies. Some of them are in the business of producing their own gadgets and toys — often clones and knockoffs of the American stuff, thanks to China’s notoriously lax patent and intellectual property laws. In many cases, the legit products and the knockoffs are made in the same factories.
And all of it ends up here, though the bootleg stuff tends to mainly end up in the discount retail outlets, along with the remaindered “official” merchandise that nobody wants anymore. Go to your local dollar store and you’ll see what I mean: the toy section will be piled with action figures from bombed movie franchises like Percy Jackson & The Olympians and red-and-blue SPIDER HERO play costumes that only vaguely resemble Marvel Comics’ favorite officially licensed webslinger. Wander over to the electronics section, and you’ll see slim white MP3 players that look a lot like iPod Nanos, except they only hold an album’s worth of music and cost $9.99.
Thousands of tons of this crap flows through Juarez every day... but it doesn’t stay for long. Mexican workers may assemble consumer goods, but they sure as shit can’t afford them. The average pay for a maquiladora worker is between $40-50 for a 60-hour work week. So none of the players on either end of the supply chain — the Chinese factories or the American companies — mostly even bother with the trade negotiations required to get their products into Mexican stores. Even the badly-made Chinese knockoff shit sells for import prices in Juarez.
Instead, the trabajadores cross the Santa Fe Bridge on foot and buy work clothes, school supplies for their kids, MP3 players — which they themselves probably glued or screwed together for pennies an hour — from these little shops on El Paso Street, and take them back at the end of the day, duty-free, thanks to the wonders of NAFTA.
Sitting in the Tejas Cafe, nibbling link sausage and pancakes — soft food that doesn’t require a lot of chewing — and waiting to head to the airport to go home, I’m fascinated by the weird give-and-take of all of this, the unthinkably convoluted dance of global economics. The Rio Grande is an alchemical threshold that works invisible wonders: the price of your heart’s desire is transubstantiated from the unattainable to the affordable, whether you’re a Juarez factory worker looking to pick up a pair of Dickies work pants or a writer from Las Vegas looking to get your mouth re-plumbed. But externally, nothing is changed: the pants and the dentistry are exactly the same if you’re in Chihuahua or Texas.
I’ve been going over the Marathon Man horror of my final molar extraction in my head these past couple of days. Would the same thing have been allowed to happen if I’d been at an American dentist? Was the dentist incompetent?
The conclusion I’ve come to is: no, he wasn’t. It was just an accident. I had an infection, deep down in my gum and invisible to the eye (especially after the wisdom tooth surgery and the deep cleaning, which left my gums swollen and inflamed), which massively reduced or nullified the efficacy of the injected local anesthetic. I don’t think any dentist anywhere could have dodged that bullet. He may have been a taciturn son of a bitch with a chairside manner that could best be described as minimalist, but he didn’t fuck up. It just happened.
And aside from that, I feel fantastic. It feels like somebody punched me hard once in each cheekbone, but even that — and the soreness inside my mouth — have already faded to a mild irritation. I haven’t even bothered taking a painkiller since the morning after the procedure. At first, I subsisted on onion soup from room service and protein shakes from the Walgreen’s down the street, but by last night I was confident enough to stop by my favorite Texas fast food chain, Whataburger, and carefully enjoy a patty melt burger, with no more resulting trauma than a slight ache in my cheek muscles from chewing.
Considering the weeks of pain and complications and eating pudding and potted meat after I had my lower wisdom teeth removed in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, as far as I’m concerned, Dr. Dias and my unnamed surly extractor de la molars might as well be the Lennon/McCartney of dentistry.
All told, the cost of my trip — including the dental work, six nights at the Camino Real and airfare — has been about $1800. For an uninsured American, that number is like something out of a Surrealist poem, laughably absurd and impossible. I’ve said it before, but I can’t stress it enough: it would’ve cost me at least double that if I’d had the work done at my own dentist on the other side of town in Las Vegas.
And I wouldn’t have gotten to experience the oddities of El Paso and Juarez. As much as I’d like to feel like a fearless badass for wandering the nighttime streets of Juarez, and even though I’m still not sure I’d want to head there for spring break or anything, the reality is that it’s a lot less dangerous than it used to be. At no point when I was there did I feel that I was in any more danger than I’d be in any economically-challenged foreign city.
I’m not saying I’d advise you to get all fucked up on mescal and go wandering the red-light district looking for Gozer the Dog-Faced Dwarf Whore... though if you’re the sort of person who’d do that anyway, you probably know what you’re getting yourself into, and vaya con dios, motherfucker. But if you find yourself in El Paso, I don’t think you’d get in too much trouble if you wanted to cross the border and head down to the Kentucky Bar to suck down the world’s best margarita and look at the pictures of glamorous old-school movie stars behind the bar.
And El Paso itself? It’s a nice town, but it’s not my kind of nice town. It’s a little too quiet, a little too mellow, even though I’ve found a couple of cool bars and restaurants the last two nights, as I wandered around looking for stuff I could eat. El Paso reminds me a bit of Berlin: both cities are oddly interior places, where all the really interesting stuff isn’t advertised. Like Berlin, all the really good places to eat and the badass drinking establishments in El Paso seem to be in alleyways and narrow side streets, not on the main drag.
I guess I’m just used to Las Vegas, a city with all the subtlety and restraint of Lee Marvin in a clown suit wielding a double-barreled shotgun. It’s been a nice break from the lights and the noise hanging out in my little room at the Camino Real this week, but I miss being able to go shopping or to grab a steak at three in the morning. Not that I’ll be grabbing a steak any time soon, of course.
So it’s adios to Juarez and adios to El Paso. I throw a five dollar tip down on top of my seven dollar check at the Tejas Cafe, and the lovely young Tejano waitress wishes me a good morning. I walk through the half-deserted daylight streets, past the statue of Fray Garcia de San Francisco, back to the Camino Real, where the shuttle driver is waiting. It’s the same guy who told me that Bill Clinton killed El Paso on Sunday.
“All ready, bro?” he says, shouldering the big Chinese rolling suitcase I bought cheap down on El Paso St. to carry my souvenirs and dental paperwork. He heaves it into the big white shuttle van.
I look around. The sky is gray with gathering clouds. It’s going to rain today, but not on me.
It’s been about seven weeks now since I got back from Juarez. Every time I run into a friend or acquaintance I haven’t seen since then — at least, the ones who don't read NSFWCORP or follow me on the social networks — they all ask me the same question:
How are the teeth?
They’re fine. When I got home from El Paso, my wife was waiting with a fine selection of soft foods — yogurt, Spaghetti-Os, oatmeal — but by then I didn’t even need them. Aside from some deep muscle ache in my swollen sinuses after my flight — which I’m guessing was caused by the cabin pressurization and depressurization — I experienced very little pain once I got back to Vegas, and it was pretty much gone within a week. Every so often I’ll bite something hard and make my gums ache a bit, but it’s rare enough I don’t think about it.
And now I’m far more conscientious about my dental hygiene than I was before. Having a tooth pulled without effective anesthetic will do that to you. I clean my teeth obsessively now, at least three times a day, with those little plastic flossing tools that look sort of like slingshots. Because I have periodontitis, it takes more work, but I’ll do anything I can to avoid another Eli Roth torture-porn scene in a Mexican dental chair.
I’m aware it's hard to have much sympathy for me and my aching teeth. If I’d taken better care of them, if I wasn’t a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker, I never would’ve gotten to this point, right?
Right. Mea culpa. But, well, look: I spent most of my life between the age of thirteen and thirty assuming that I was going to either put a shotgun in my mouth eventually, or maybe end up dead on the floor with alcohol poisoning or a cocktail of exotic drugs clutching my nervous system into stillness. I genuinely accepted this as an inevitable consequence of simply being who I was, like someone born with a weak heart who just has to come to terms with the fact that dying of old age is probably not an option. And when you’re convinced you’re going to burn out rather than fade away, little things like worrying about the long-term health of your teeth tend to slip to the bottom of your priority list...particularly when you’re American and you don’t have health insurance.
Of course, I grew up, eventually, and got tired of being a self-destructive jack-off. I was lucky: despite drinking half the whiskey in the Western Hemisphere and doing most of the drugs I could get my hands on, I never became an alcoholic or a junkie. I just quit, no muss, no fuss. A lot of my friends weren’t so fortunate.
I realized I didn’t have to be fucked up to be a good writer, which is something they ought to drill into you in Creative Writing 101, instead of mythologizing the self-destructive artist. (Hell, maybe they do; I’m an art school dropout.) I stopped directly and indirectly trying to destroy myself; lost weight; met the right girl and did the right thing, which was to marry her. I stopped having to seek out reasons to live. They were — are — just there, in front of me, all the time.
And so I find myself staring down the barrel of a future that looks as though it might be measured in decades, not months or weeks...so long as I actually bother to take care of myself.
But be sure your sin will find you out, as the Bible says. Thanks to all those dark days and nights, I’ve done a fair amount of irreversible damage to myself. I have bad knees from falling off the hood of a moving car in high school; both my rotator cuffs are torn from doing stupid shit like lifting iron manhole covers one-handed from underneath, while crawling around in storm drains; and, of course, my teeth are wrecked.
It’s a weird thing to realize — not just intellectually, but to really internalize — that some mistakes you can’t walk away from. Most of those are big mistakes, like walking into a bank with a balaclava on your head and a pistol in your hand, or knocking up your high school sweetheart. But some of them are small mistakes, drawn out over decades... like rolling out of bed in a bleary hungover haze and heading straight for the coffeeshop for a big mug full of wake-me-up and a half-pack of Marlboros instead of adhering to a strict dental hygiene regimen, because who really gives a fuck?
A tiny mistake, compounded over time, but one I will pay for until the day I die, both metaphorically and literally. No matter what I do now, my teeth will eventually fail me. They will need to be replaced, with dentures or with implants. That ship has sailed. Like I said: mea culpa.
But it’s not just me and my train-wreck personal history. It’s all of us who are uninsured and underinsured, those fifty million Americans who dread the onset of any illness or toothache because it means they’ll soon be facing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills.
We don’t go to the doctor when we get a weird little stitch in our side; we go when it hurts so bad we can’t work or sleep, when we have no choice but to bite the bullet and pay the toll, and sit for hours in the waiting room, praying against the death sentence, the awful words, like malignant and inoperable and if we’d caught it in time.
If I’d had dental insurance, I probably would’ve actually gone to a dentist at some point between 1992 and 2010, because I would’ve had no particular reason not to; if I had, the dentist might’ve removed my wisdom teeth before they ran rampant, crushing my teeth together; I might not have developed hidden cavities because tiny particles of food got trapped between those teeth; I might not have lain awake at night, waiting for my illicitly-obtained pain pills to kick in and weeping in frustration and agony; I might not have ended up in Juarez, screaming in that chair. For want of a policy, my teeth were lost.
There are 35 countries listed by the International Monetary Fund as having “advanced economies”; these make up what was called, in less politically-correct times, the First World. Out of these countries, 34 of them have some form of nationalized health care available to all of their citizens. One does not.
Since I went to Juarez, the 2012 elections came and went, with the re-election of Barack Obama. In the weeks since then, several large companies have announced that they will lay off large numbers of employees or drastically cut back their hours due to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”), which requires that any business with over 50 employees pay a penalty for any full-time employee who is not covered by a company health insurance plan. These companies — including the restaurant chains Jimmy John’s, Papa John’s (no relation) and Applebee’s — claim that Obamacare places too high a financial burden on them. A Denny’s and Dairy Queen franchise owner in Florida, John Metz, has told the press he plans to add a 5% surcharge to every meal to offset his new costs (though he backpedaled after an extremely negative public outcry).
The problem is that the math doesn’t add up. The CEO of Papa John’s, John Schnatter, claims that Obamacare will cost his company $5-8 million annually. However, in 2011, Papa John’s operating expenses ran $1.13 billion dollars...which means Obamacare would cost the company an additional 0.4% to 0.7% increase in costs. According to a recent Forbes.com article, if Schnatter wanted to cover the cost of Obamacare, he would have to raise the cost of a Papa John’s pizza by roughly four cents. Since anybody who would actually order — and, God help them, eat — a Papa John’s pizza is almost certainly stoned out of their minds or clinically psychotic, I’m pretty sure his client base wouldn’t notice this modest price hike.
So it’s not likely that Obamacare is going to bankrupt Papa John’s. It’s more likely that John Schnatter is just a sociopathic puddle of rotting weasel semen who would rather pimp his grandmother on the shoulder of Highway A1A than concede anything to the ungrateful droolies who want to squeeze the garlic-flavored Satanic lifeblood from his veins just because they actually make and sell and deliver his shitty pizza, for minimum hourly wages that won’t afford them to rent a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in America, and would like to not die if they get sick. I mean, can you imagine the nerve?
(Schnatter, on the other hand, lives in a 40,000 square foot house in Louisville, on a 16 acre spread, with a golf course, private lake, and 22-car underground garage. With a turntable to help park his stretch limos.)
I’ve tried very hard to spin this in my mind so that Schnatter and his corporate CEO brethren don’t come off as actual demons set loose on the face of the Earth, and maybe I’m just a dummy, but I just can’t seem to pull it off. There’s no way this can be construed as anything other than, at best, total indifference to the welfare of their employees, and at worst an attitude towards the common working American that would make Gilles de Rais stare awkwardly at his shoes.
It makes me think the United States’ official motto ought to be changed from E. Pluribus Unum to Everything counts in large amounts.
I hold absolutely no hope that my country will ever adopt a true nationalized or universal or socialized health care plan. Instead, Americans will continue to be condemned to pain and suffering and death because rich people hate paying taxes and benefits, until corporate capitalism collapses under the weight of its own greed and voracious appetite entirely, or until the poor people rise up and start lighting assholes like John Schnatter on fire.
But hey, at least we can cross the border into a country that’s actually worse off than we are and get health care for pesos on the dollar, right?
As Bill Hicks once said: fuck America if that’s America, and fuck you too.
And me? I need to go home and floss the disgust out from between my abused molars.
The wolf is always at the door.