Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Toothless in the Hamptons

Outside of the occasional low-rumbling hum of big-bellied prop planes on training flights from Gabreski Air Force base, it's quiet and peaceful here on the beach. Desolate, too. I barely have to move to pee. Just dig a little hole, do your business, and cover it up. Viola, as my Belgian mother in law says.

She's coming out this weekend, bringing my daughter, who loathes the Hamptons. Out of respect, I make a mental note to put in the fake tooth when we pick them up at the Westhampton Beach train station. The tooth -- a pink retainer the color of healthy gums with a fake chicklet fused on -- has been sitting in a pint glass in the kitchen since my wife and I arrived last week. For all I care, it can stay there when we return to Manhattan after Labor day.

My cynical daughter has taken to Marilyn Manson and poetic utterances. She calls this place "clich├ęd landscape" and looks down on "the materialist suburban souls."

I didn't look down on much when I was 13. I was generally happy to be alive with sneakers. But more than 30 years later, I also harbor limited affection for many of the people who drive their foreign SUVs and sometimes helicopter to the dunes of Eastern Long Island. They're all flash and nasal pretention. Madonna can be a jerk but at least she feigns an English accent. These women mimic Fran Dreschner.

I'm here solely for the wondrous white sand, the timed roar of slamming ocean waves, the breezy company of perfectly aerodynamic soaring white seagulls, most underrated bird in the animal kingdom.

If Dr. Phil pulled a beach chair next to mine, perhaps he'd say traipsing about town with a giant hole in one's smile is a childish act of rebellion against the out-of-balance importance Hamptonites place on looks and appearance, and of course, money. Because if you're gonna make a comment to trash someone for being trash, "toothless" is probably a defining term in the insult.

The TV shrink may have a point. I feel warm and Christmasy shuffling about town in my well-worn "NASCAR Nextel Cup 2005 Race to the Chase" t-shirt, sporting a large expanse of blackness where a maxillary central incisor once stood.

My daughter wears a black Marilyn Manson t-shirt that says, "If only I had more middle fingers." With no tooth or shame, I order croissants. In my new family, the apple didn't fall far from the tree, it's still stuck on the branch.

But going around in a dentally incomplete stage is not solely a hostile reaction to the rank excess - physical and otherwise - of the Hamptions. I've left the fake tooth home or stuck it in a pocket for chunks of the past two years, took gappy smiling photos at various landmarks, consciously downgraded my appearance, and openly flaunted a physical deformity for reasons likely beyond the pay grade of any TV shrink.

Teeth are what separates mammals from other living creatures. Other animals have them, but they don't floss. Teeth make us feel human. Everyone has a different reaction to lost teeth. I happened to cannon-ball off the high board into the deep end. Conversely, I'd imagine higher-income individuals are more prone to freaking out.

This type of disproportionate dread occured with one of my dentist's patients. She became very depressed at the prospect of wearing a "flipper." He actually requested I send him a few of my preening photos sans tooth taken in various American cities. He e-mailed them to the patient to provide hope and cheer. I felt very mecidinal.

Indeed, after a few drinks just about any night, and on Halloween in particular, talking out the flipper can bring down the house. I have discovered, the more drinks, the harder the house came down.

And, or course, I am a hit at kids' parties.

All good things must pass, and I am nearing the end of dental hell. Yet, at one point, I nearly left the hole in my choppers unfilled. Not because I'm a pussy about the pain of these various surgeries. Or because I'm a cheap bastard, weary and beaten from anemically battling a faceless insurance company which stubbornly maintains this is totally cosmetic and therefore not covered by "the plan." (Yeah, like I WANTED an infected nerve forming dual speedbags of puss in my gums. Like I relished bone pulled away with the yanked tooth, necessitating epoxy grafts, then a metal tube inserted into the newly upholstered jawbone.)

No, I'd choose not to replace the tooth as a sweeping social statement. Going gap faced would be a communal bond to the less fortunate, those salt-of-the-earth human beings dealt a lousy hand keeping them in life's steerage compartment, unable to pony up thousands for necessary dental refinements. With my every cackling grin, it would be an endless show of solidarity to the poor and disenfranchised.

And why not? My employer is cool with my enamelly-challenged smile. I've strolled around the office for two years looking like a Depression-era Appalachian transplant and the paycheck still arrives every two weeks. (Someone has to make everyone feel better about themselves.)

The lack of an upper incisor has other benefits. A threatening homeless man in TriBeCa approached me for money. He may have lacked cash but he had a helluva nice gleaming set of pearly whites. I generously offered him a broad toothless smile and said, "Doeth thith wook like the kind of perthon who can give you money? I can't even afford a tooth."

Fortunately, I havent found it necessary to stoop low too often.

On the romantic front, I'm happily married to an attractive woman who works with wealthy clients whose daily propositions she turns down. She could be on a yacht living a rap video high life but chooses to stay with a toothless guy in a three year old NASCAR t-shirt. A full set of anchorman-white choppers and Charlie Watt's spiffy wardrobe is not a prerequisite for our continued union. I reckon she feels not an ounce of shame walking with yours truly into dainty Southampton shops selling overpriced European handbags. Special lady. I am indeed lucky, outpunting the coverage, as they say.

But after years of secretly relating to young children on elevators, clown time is over. For me, the big step in preparing for an implant and permanent chicklet required creating a bigger foundation of bone. A bone graft was needed.

It was to be “like a normal dentist visit,” the oral surgeon said.

Oral surgeons are lying sods. This was a routine dental visit…if the average patient is Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man.”

In the chair, it seemed Dr. Mengele was using crusty old shoelaces for stitches.

To add insult to injury, the assistant propping my mouth open sported long fingernails under thin latex gloves that managed to jut into the one piece of gum unnumbed by six big needles of local.

To earn a living, I sit at a desk as opposed to working in a truly manly place like an assembly line or national forest. I do a lot of my work with a blackberry as opposed to wielding a jackhammer or Stratocaster. (It's not a real job if you can do it on the toilet, and that's where most of my best work goes down. Literally.)

I feel soft and inadequate most of the time, particularly when passing contruction workers at lunch. Perhaps that is why I tried to tough it out as PR guy, answering the mobile phone with a mouthful of bloody gauze while still in the surgeon's recovery room.

I was trying to place a story and a reporter about as elusive as Osama bin Laden had been calling. I wasn't about to lose a great story due to a numb mouth and a row of stitches in my reeling, pissed off gums.I hit answer but didn’t know what to do. My yapper was completely out of commission.

“Ah, hello, Andrew? Andrew are you there?”

Yep, I can hear his voice. It’s definitely not bin Laden.

“HERROW, TOM,” I say slowly and loudly. “SAWRRY. I JUZT HAD ORAL SERGERRRY AND CANT WEALLY TALK SO GOOD. CON JEW EMAIL ME? I HAVE MOY BRACKBEWWY”

I sound like Steve Buscemi in Fargo after he got shot in the face and then went ito the wood hipper.

I have to repeat myself several times. But our ink-stained friend gets it. He’s amazed I’ve answered the phone immediately after surgery. I want to explain there is no rational, comprehensible reason, except that if a man worked in a coal mine or drove a freight train, he likely wouldn’t need to prove his toughness and grit by answering a call from the arts and leisure section with blood dripping down his quivering chin.

I can’t say that or anything else the reporter can understand. We pick up the conversation on email. I tap into the blackberry while walking down Madison Avenue, bloody gauze doing a half-assed job of halting the wound. It’s like a sucking a bargain brand paper towel that’s been soaked in the fluid from old leaking batteries.

I pass a group Con Ed guys breaking up the street at 52nd, really whacking the crap out of the asphalt, and I’m wailing away on an email to the reporter, like Jimmie in Monterrey, and we are all Men at Work hauling home the bacon.

Wound up being a great story. The reporter then gleefully told the newsroom about the PR guy who got the ball rolling by taking his call right after mouth surgery.

And that's when it really hit me as to why I don't use the fake tooth.

I'm a big fat giant Martyr.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Michael Phelps is a Skunk

Weather and beer can incite memories. Last night both were crisp and clear.

At Fordham, a quarter century ago, I lived in a horseshoe-shaped dorm called "Martyr's Court." Only a Jesuit institution could bless a dorm name with connotations of crusading swords and spilled blood.

One cool night, early freshman year, finally away from home, full of potential, full of fear, full of rage, I got blind-eyed drunk. (It was all too easy with the alcohol-happy Jesuits, but as David Carr's happy accountant says, we can't escape our pasts). Returning from the Irish bars on Fordham Road, I spotted a big fat skunk on the grassy knoll of Martyr's Court. Most boys, first time seriously away from home, are trying to get laid. That pursuit doesn't register on this clear Bronx night. I'm on a quest to catch a skunk. It's of course a doomed cause. In the hazy liquor-filled swooning confidence, I proceed anyway, dancing on the light, happy feet we had in those golden days of indestructible youth. I run hard toward the animal, all cocky and blissfully trashed, and stutter-step the skunk into the bushes of Martyr's Court. Way too easy. He's absolutely on his way to being cornered. Nowhere to go. Haha. Asshole. I slow down with small, dirt-kicking steps, enjoying the up-close view of the now confused black and white animal, and believe, foolishly, I've won.

Of course, the carnivorous weasel has the upper hand, has been in the driver's seat all along, from the moment I spotted his furry slink across the already-dewy late night turf.

The skunk composes himself, slowly lifting his head with unmistakable dignity to peer at me, dead on. Beady eyes can't say much, but these mockingly say, "Hey white boy, are you seriously attempting to f-ck with me?"

The tail goes up. Uh-oh. Millions of years of evolution have created a perfect smell bomb assault machine, accurate to 15 feet. Working highly refined muscles to pinch powerful anal scent glands, the fat weasel unleashes with a hissing blast, like a long exhale of steam in an old prewar building in the dead of winter, and it is clear I am totally irretrievably screwed for the next few days. Dickhead move, trying to corner a skunk.

I stunk with the tart musky rotten-eggs burnt-rubberish skunky smell you come across on a country road, only a hundred times worse when you've been personally blasted into a human stinkfest. Damn skunk. Had to throw out my clothes and shower for hours on end. There was no tub of tomato juice to fix the problem nor Ruben Kincaid to beg for donated clothes. I stunk for quite some time.

Try to beat a skunk, and the skunk always wins. He is the Michael Phelps of tail-spraying animals.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Miss America's Fallen...and She Can't Get Up

Over at the Olympics, President Bush heard Russia invaded Georgia. He immediately sent tanks into Alabama and Mississippi.

But our Cheerleader in Chief having a blast in China is not what I want to talk about tonight.

The E train lacked AC earlier, and a pungent homeless man entered the car. As the seeping stench permeated our brains, the decline of America hit like a ton of bricks. Or, an unfortunate guy's odor.

The signals of our waning national condition are blaring. To wit:

1. Two Miss Universe contestants in the past two years have fallen on their faces. We're talking "America's Funniest Home Video" flops. BOTH women were from the US of A, formerly the world's most sure-footed country. Miss Kazaskstan can walk in a ballgown and stay on her feet. Miss Zimbabwe sashays like Ginger Rogers. If she'd been at the pageant instead of choosing not to risk a stoning for donning a skimpy two-piece suit with heels, Miss Iran would have glided across the stage like jello on Crisco.Miss USA? She goes down like she just slammed 10 shots of Jaeger and a whippet.

Two freaking years in a row, America's girls go down. An irrelevant metaphor for the sinking State of Things? I reckon not, particularly when you consider...

2. A Belgian company has purchased Budweiser, the great American "King of Beers." A company from BELGIUM (known for what - waffles? WAFFLES DON'T GO WITH BEER) has bought BUD. (My lovely wife is from Belgium, as is Jeff Gordon's lovely wife for you readers of US Magazine, so it can be established there are truly outstanding exports from this little country on the brink of disintegrating from ethnic inflighting, but, c'mon, taking over Bud, Are You Kidding me??)

3. The Arabs have snapped up the Chrysler building...while the other major American carmakers' financials have only been worse during the Great Depression.

4. Speaking of which, US banks are failing at a rate not seen since desperate sad-faced men in baggy suits sold apples on street corners, and when the fruit wasn't moving, sometimes leaped from windows above.

5. US Air pilots bought a full-page ad in "USA Today," declaring management is mandating they fly with minimal fuel to save money. Any pilot who balks could get fired. The pilots say this edict is totally unsafe. They took an ad to tell us they are invoking the "Captains Order" to put more fuel in the tanks. (Even oil man T. Boone Pickens is saying we can't drill our way out of this one.)

You could go on and on with this cranky BS. And, yeah, you could also, in glass-half-full mode, list all the reasons all night long why this country is the greatest and only place to live, including beating the little speedos off that French smug team, I mean swim team last night. Instead, I'll open the fridge to look past the half gallon of milk just purchased in Manhattan for $6.99 and root around in search of some good cold American beer. Good night.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Funny Face

Outside St. Patrick’s, a middle-aged European man stopped me, just bounding out of nowhere, urgency in his stride.

He declared with an accent thicker than the humidity, “You are lucky.”

I said, “Uh….why?

“You have a funny face,” he remarked.

Is it better not to question when someone leaps into your life outside a mystical Catholic Cathedral to proclaim you lucky? (Especially a foreigner carrying Euros and therefore more powerful? Even when he may be disparaging your looks?) In the shadows of St. Pattie's, do you just goeth forth with it, as if he's the Pope undercover, to create a self-fulfilling prophecy accepting your funny face and making your own luck and good fortune?

Curiosity can take over. It doesn’t get more personal than your face. There are magazines in New York City currently splashing Madonna's mug on the cover, asking just what type of high-priced, high-tech work she's getting to create a softer, heart shaped look. I naturally craved an understanding of what he meant about my own face. Was my mug funny in a ha-ha, Jim Carey sort of way? Or funny in a disturbing, train-wreckish, Elephant Man, you-have-no-choice-but-to-look-because-it-is-so-grotesque kind of way?

Mostly, I don’t do sudden stop-and-chats with hard-to-understand strangers in odd footwear, because, well, when does the opportunity present itself? Plus, one of this odd man's surprisingly smooth and cool hands, like porcelain made human, was shaking mine, but the other was rigidly fixed in his pocket as if cradling a box cutter. That model Marla something who dated the guy who wrote Bright Lights Big City then faded away turned her incredibly horrific face-slashing into fame and fortune. I just don’t have the cheekbones for that. Nor the sense of introspection. I’d never make it to Oprah’s couch. I’d wind up spending my full waking hours on less cushiony seats in Irish bars like Foley's, where I just had lunch. Nobody wants to enjoy your face, but everybody knows your name. Things could be worse.

Man, in that fleeting instant, on the hot glistening pavement surrounded by tourists and students out of school, cops and construction workers and mailroom clerks and overpaid businesspeople, I wanted to hear what exactly made my face so conspicuously funny. Had I been sucking on the back of a (leaky) felt-tipped pen and strolling about town with blue lips? Did I again forget to take off my telephone headset before venturing outside, looking like an escapee from the Burger King drive thru? Did I again forget my fake tooth in the glass next to my computer? If not, if all things were normal -- as routinely ordinary in an unmarked state as my own face can be -- perhaps I should have asked, “Do I ah-MYOOS you?” in a nasal menacing south-side-of-Chicago Joe Pesci voice.

But I was no match. The hand in pocket was quivering, and the stranger’s eyes were widening in loony intensity, like the gloriously evil face of Charlie Manson when he get gets a chance to go on Dateline every 10 years.

Curiosity only goes so far.

“Wow, terrific, thanks,” I muttered. I let go of the stranger’s hand, and walked my funny face back to the office.