There's something about "free" services that brings out the best or worse in people or at least that's what I've always found. Why do I say this? Let me explain.
When I read in the Sun Journal this week about several dentists offering their one day free services to the public, I immediately called a young, foreign-born Bates college student, who had indicated to me recently that he was in need of some dental care, to take him my dentist's office for a cleaning. We agreed to meet on Friday at eleven thirty at his campus apartment and then we'd go to the dentist's office where Uri could get a free dental examination and cleaning.
We quickly drove the short distance across the Longley Bridge into Auburn and it wasn't too long before we were turning into the dentist's crowded parking lot. I was amazed at all the people huddled in the small entrance to the office waiting for their exam. There was the heavy pall of cigarette smoke fouling the bitterly cold air above their heads and most of the assembled throng clutched huge containers of Starbucks or Dunkin Doughnuts coffee. As Uri and I stood near the group, we heard some of them mention that they had been waiting on-line since four am and I knew it was going to be a long, long day.
Before long, we, too, were inside the office and Uri was greeted nicely and handed a medical permission/information form to fill out and hand back and then I noticed the number "83"that had been written on the top of the page. The office manager announced that since it was nearly noon, the office would close for an hour while the staff ate a hurried lunch. Amidst quiet, under the breath grumblings that the office was going to close for lunch, a large number of wannabe patients quickly left the office, looking for a place to buy lunch, down a few cold brews and smoke to their hearts content and Uri and I settled down in a couple of now empty chairs to wait till his name was called.
All the "normal" amenities of the normally well-appointed waiting room had been reduced to a bare minimum to make room for extra folding chairs. The magazines, coffee machine, tea maker and free fruit basket had been removed along with the television and end tables and plants. Every spare inch of space was greatly needed.
Most people, when waiting their turn in a medical office, usually don't look at or even acknowledge the other patients who are waiting alongside them. Sometimes, one of them might cough, blow their nose or shift uncomfortably in a too-small chair but otherwise, nobody looks at the others except for a cursory glance when first settling in.
The office staff was well-seasoned in handling this type of service because they had already been through this "free dental program" the year before. They had everything down to a science. When your name was called, they'd immediately take you down the hall to have your blood pressure checked, then you'd return and sit till they called you back for an x-ray and then you'd return and sit till after they'd reviewed your x-rays and they'd decided what dental work you needed.
It has oft been said that "misery loves company" and I guess there isn't a more miserable place to wait than an unwanted visit to a dentist's office unless it's a proctologist's office because it wasn't too long before the mood in the waiting room changed. In the early hours, praises for Dr. Limoges and his staff for the free services they were rendering were numerous but as the hours drug slowly by, the comments changed too.
As the clock slid towards one pm and the office staff resumed treating patients, those of us who were still waiting patiently, began talking to one another and there's something about being in close proximity and in need that causes people to act differently than they normally would. Secrets often come tumbling out that the rest of the waiting room people really don't want to hear or even know about. And the while, the dentist and his staff rushed from patient to patient, trying to fill the dental needs of the packed waiting room, thankfully oblivious to the drama being played out right in front of them.
A woman, who was already waiting for services when we'd first arrived, looked around the quiet waiting room and suddenly announced, "My son committed suicide at thirty-four!" I glanced at her and she was looking at the ceiling and I covertly slid my eyes around the crowded office and saw that all the other thirteen people were looking at anything but her. The stunned group said a word and she continued on. "Yes, he did. He was into drugs and booze and it killed him!"
There was a general inhalation of shock by those present and again nobody said anything in response. Then a man sitting across from me, who had constantly gotten up to go outside to have a smoke every fifteen minutes or so and was an obvious imbiber of all things legal and illegal, said with a slight smile on his tobacco-stained lips, "Yup, those friggin drugs will kill yah alright!" And he slid his red-rimmed eyes around the room, knowing full-well that he wasn't fooling anyone either. "Yes they will!" she replied. "Then, three months later, they found his girlfriend dead in her bed and we didn't know what to do so we had her cremated and she's buried on top of my son." Again, nobody dared to say a word and she lapsed into painful reminiscing.
Then, an uncomfortable silence filled the room and thankful that the sad disclosure was over, everybody scrambled to find something to do so they wouldn't have to be alone with their thoughts. People dug into their pockets and took out their cell phones and began punching in numbers or texting in a frenzy to communicate with someone. Suddenly, the older man seated in the corner, announced to one and all, "There's a sign on the door that says yah cain't use your cell phones in the office." Everyone who was using their phones looked to where he was pointing; they read the short message and ignoring what he'd said, continued using their cells. The old man, incensed at being ignored, shifted loudly in his chair, shot an angry glance at all the abusers and said, "I warned yah. Go ahead and fry your friggin brains for all I care!"He yelled and his mouth snapped shut.
Then, a young man sitting directly across from Uri and me, announced to us all that he'd nearly cut his foot of with a chain saw. We all looked at him and waited for him to continue. "I was cutting wood with my father and my right foot fell thru the snow and I brought my hand down and the chain saw got hung up on a stick and the saw went thru my foot." "Man!" "That musta hurt" the "imbiber" said to him. "Nope, it didn't. I couldn't feel a thing!" The young man stated. "Guess I was in shock or something. But now when I go to bed my foot burns like hell all night long" Everybody shook their heads and waited for the next confession and it wasn't long in coming.
"Well," said the old man. "When I was a kid, we lived down tah Bath and I guess I was about six years old and we lived near the railroad tracks. My brother and I used to climb up on the tops of tha railroad cars and wait till they'd git started and after they was goin about twenty miles an hour, we'd jump off and head for home. My mother always warned us to stay away from them trains but we didn't." Everybody looked at him and waited for the next confession.
Another man disheveled man looked at all of us and said, "I was born in Houston, Texas and I ran away from home when I was thirteen." So, I said to him, "You must have had some interesting experiences." He looked at me and replied, "Yes, I did and some were good and some weren't. Then I found a homeless shelter in Maryland and the minister there convinced me to go home. My mother and brothers were glad to see me but my father wasn't and it took all of my family's begging for him to allow me to stay there." Nobody knew what to say to him and he lapsed into silence.
Suddenly, the waiting room door was pushed open and a young mother pushing a child in a stroller came into the crowded room. She pushed the stroller over to an empty chair, unzipped her jacket and sat down next to the "imbiber." Ever the man to "appreciate" a good looking woman, he slid his blood-shot eyes over her slim figure and wonder how he'd gotten so lucky.
The woman never looked up or acknowledged any of us in any way. She had eyes only for the child. She shook her hood off the back of her dark hair and spoke to the child who was quietly sitting in his stroller. "Are you going to be a good boy for mummy while she gets her teeth fixed?" She asked. The toddler simply sat and looked back at her. She got up and rummaged around in a paper bag in the back of the stroller for a minute and withdrew a large bottle of Coke. Unscrewing the cap, she took a long drink of the dark liquid, swallowed and quickly recapped the bottle. Then she touched up her bright lipstick and it was easy to see that her front teeth were riddled with decay. She reached into her jacket pocket and withdrew a handful of candy which she dumped into the stroller's tray. The child immediately reached out his chubby hand and grabbed a fistful of candy. All the waiters, upon seeing the huge amount of candy she'd dumped in front of the child, began mumbling comments to each other about her parenting. I quickly looked around the room to see the reaction and I wasn't disappointed. The "imbiber" seeing what she'd just given the child, twisted his mouth sideways and said, "If that kid eats all that candy, he won't have a tooth left in his head by the time he's five." The old man nodded his head in agreement, for the first time, with the drunk and said, "We didn't have candy when I was his age, we were happy jist to have regular food. Sometimes we'd git lucky and our Grammy would bring us an apple or an orange. Why, I think I was twenty-one before I even had a Coke!"
The child's mother never gave any indication that she'd heard any of this. She simply crossed one slender leg over the other, shut her lovely green eyes and swung her foot in time to some music playing in her pretty head while her child stuffed the candy into his mouth until his pink cheeks bulged.
The hands on the clock had slid onto four and then, along with Uri being called for his long-awaited cleaning, other names were called and as they shuffled off for their treatment, two elderly ladies came into the room. After filling out the information sheets, they settled into chairs on the other side of me.
They conversed quietly in French for a few minutes and then the older of the two was called to have her blood pressure check. She was only gone a couple of minutes and as she walked slowly back into the waiting room and sat down, I could see that she was upset. "Are you ok?" I asked and she turned and looked at me. "The nurse said that my blood pressure is high." The nurse, upon hearing what she'd said, turned around and corrected the woman's statement "I said that your blood pressure was dangerously high." Upon hearing this, her friend turned to her and said, "I jist told her that I'm gonna take her to the hospital… as soon as I get my teeth cleaned!" And with that announcement, she got up and followed the nurse down the hall for her blood pressure check.
"You really should go to the hospital dear," I said. "You could have a stroke." "I know you're right but I'm eighty-nine and I want to die with all my teeth!" she declared firmly. The imbiber shot her a glance and mumbled to us all "She shouldn't have to wait too long, what with her bein eighty-nine and havin dangerous high blood pressure!" Nobody said a word.
Then the door opened and a man came in with three little girls. He sat and held one of the children on his lap and the other two squeezed into one chair in the corner. He sat very stiffly and it was obvious that he was uncomfortable about waiting for services when he couldn't pay. The room grew quiet and everybody waited for the next confession.
He kissed the top of his child's hair and in a stressed out voice announced: "I've worked all my life since I was a kid and now I've got kids and since I've lost my job, I can't even afford to pay for their dental. I'm ashamed of myself!" With that rush of words, he broke off and looked at the floor. The imbiber blew out a breath of foul air and said, "I getcha man. I been there and done that. Life's a bitch and then yah die!" With that pronouncement, he cast a long jaundiced look at the old lady and slid into silence. The rest of the people nodded their heads in agreement.
Hearing noises in the hall, we all looked up as a lady came back into the room after hearing the final word about her dental problems. She started to cry and I asked her if she was in pain. Upon hearing my question, she looked across the room at me with tear-filled eyes and replied, "No, it's just that they said I need a root canal and it costs twelve hundred dollars. I'm a single mother and I don't have that kind of money!" I thought about it for a moment and said, "Well, there's a dental training school down to Portland and I'm sure if you call there, you can get the work done for a nominal fee." Hope slid thru her lovely blue eyes and she asked, "Do you have the number?" I told that I didn't and told her to go on-line and check there, she should be able to find it easily enough.
As the time wore on and people grew tired, little discontented snipes began filtering thru the assembled throng. Little snipes about the wonderful dentist and his staff too. One time-worn woman opened her gapped-tooth mouth and said in a holier-than-thou voice, "I don't know why they don't give us more time to have this free service." We all stared at her for having the audacity to say such a thing when she was receiving free treatment. "Well," she hostilely replied. "If they can do this for one day, you'd think they could do it for two!" A couple of users in the room mumbled to themselves in agreement but upon hearing her selfish statement. The old man looked her right in the eye and spoke up. "This is a really wonderful thing that this dentist and his staff have done and out of the goodness of their hearts too! It costs him a lot of money to shut down his practice for a day and do this jist for us!" The woman, who'd started the grousing in the first place, simply shifted her ample bottom in her folding chair, smoothed out the wrinkles on her rouged cheeks and ignored him.
I glanced at the clock over the door and then like a leak in a dam, other disparaging comments began to surface. "You'd think they could have some magazines or newspapers out for people to read." Somebody else stated, "You'd think they'd have some music or a television for us to watch." Another said. "I sure could use a Starbucks coffee right about now," another replied as he shifted his designer jeans in his padded chair and reached in his pocket for his cell phone and we all heard a soft clink as he brought his phone up to his pierced earlobe.
"It took all afternoon for the worm to turn but it has finally turned," I thought to myself. Then, I looked up and saw a smiling Uri coming towards me and I grabbed my things and after thanking the tired staff, we headed for the door. ‘I'm sorry that you had to wait so long for me, Martha," Uri said. "Never mind Uri, I didn't mind waiting. I've got so much material for a story that it should take me about a week to write it"
I dropped him off where he was meeting his friends at the Sparetime Bowling Alley and headed for home, extremely tired, older but wiser. Human beings and the way they really are will never surprise me!
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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