While at the Dentist
by Russell Baker
as appeared in the New
York Times, December 4, 1998
If G-d had truly made man in His own image, as widely alleged, there would
be no dentists. No designer in his right mind, much less a perfect and
omnipotent G-d, would have settled for teeth at the top of the human
Had some draftsman shown Him blueprints featuring a tooth- equipped jaw,
G-d would surely have said, "Pshaw! I can do better than that," and that
would have been the end of teeth.
Instead, I spent two hours the other day with a mouth full of cotton,
metal, slowly hardening plastics, rubber gloves and a variety of other
people's fingers. After the usual moment of self-pity, I tried lifting a
sinking spirit the good old-fashioned way; to wit, by looking on the
Suppose man had no teeth. Would politics be possible without teeth
flashing to mask faces terrifying with insincerity? What would have become
of the Kennedys, of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Rockefeller, Teddy
Think of George Washington with his famous false teeth and painfully
clamped lips. Father of our country he may have been, but he lacked teeth
that dazzle. Isn't this why Americans have always felt uneasy toward him,
never comfortable as they feel toward toothy rascals we constantly vote
for while blinded by the glare of their teeth?
A world without teeth? It would mean lovers on tube and screen preparing
to kiss with no sparkling incisors and canines to bare to the camera.
Today's entertainment lovers go at each other with widely parted jaws and
dripping teeth, like those lions on PBS that are always chewing on poor,
A world without teeth? We'd be denied Dracula movies and the radio wit of
the great Fred Allen sponsored by Ipana for the smile of beauty and Sal
Hepatica for the smile of health.
With no toothpicks pouring off the factory line, how could we tell when
the cake is done?
Yes, it is thin stuff, and two hours is long. The dental chamber, however,
offered another distraction: television.
The set, mounted at ceiling height with its greedy salesman's eye staring
down, was tuned to one of those perpetual news channels. This day there
was no perpetual news, just perpetual olds:
Two Congressmen spoke of their respect for the Constitution. Snow was
falling on Western mountains. Children had murdered their parents. Parents
had murdered their children. President Clinton had let photographers show
him exuding the look of leadership. Movie stars were having children out
of wedlock. Extravagantly paid athletes said they were being
Forced to watch this for two hours, I was astonished by the intense
concentration on money. Commercial after commercial urged viewers to turn
over money to this or that bank, this or that brokerage house, the implied
promise being that the money would be miraculously multiplied by financial
Did banks and brokers advertise constantly -- or at all -- on TV before
the present Golden Age of Money? Beer, cars, soda pop, aspirin tablets
were TV's lifeblood in my youth.
The typical TV addict of those years would have been hard pressed even to
say what a broker did or why a bank should be considered trustworthy if it
paid you 2 percent for your money and lent it back at 12 percent.
It was as depressing as a Novocain needle to sit there awash in all this
appalling evidence that so many lives are now consecrated to the money
game. All those brokerage-house commercials! There must now be millions
and millions of people willing to let Wall Street desperadoes handle their
Money, money, money, money was apparently the perpetual news. There were
minute-by-minute bulletins from Wall Street. The Dow was up, the Dow was
down, the Dow was steadying. The Nasdaq was down, up, down, up, down . . .
Actors posing as bankers and brokers were pleading for money and promising
happiness, which apparently would ensue once you were chin deep in money.
Was it for this that Americans died at the Alamo? And won the battle of
Midway? And heroically suffer the consequences of faulty jaw design?