I saw them up ahead, blatantly assessing the border traffic coming into Mexico, four older teens who looked tough enough to leave alone and a couple of hombres in their 20s who looked even rougher. One almost imperceptibly glanced at me before looking at a stocky thug who was some distance away on the other side. The thug started to walk toward the turnstiles where I was waiting. I could feel his attention as I approached the ten-foot-high sealed gates. His pace was too slow. I’ve seen it before; he was pacing me from the front, probably planning to mug me as soon as I got through the rotating bars, so he could throw my money (or whatever he hoped to get) back to his boys on the American side of the barrier. Or maybe he would push me into a van and hold me for ransom. The federales wouldn’t care; not as long as they got their cut. I was beginning to regret telling my assistant Jeff not to come along. He’d been through some pretty bad scrapes. But he had split after dropping me off on the U.S. side of a parking lot I knew from spending many hours trying to gather some sleep, or sober up, in whatever car I’d had at the time. I won’t ever miss the blistering Mexican sun, amplified through the windshield, drying and cracking the corners of my lips on hungover mornings, too inebriated on whatever yet prudent enough not to attempt the drive back to San Diego.
In the past year or two, Tijuana has been getting very dangerous, with increasing tourist abductions, the police being stripped of their weapons, drug cartels stepping up the trafficking and violence, and the army trying to enforce the law. Even many Southern Californian Mexicans are staying away from TJ. Soon I knew why. I’ve been lurking around the back streets and alleyways pretty much my whole life, and I have rarely seen a maneuver as blatant as these street kids were trying to pull on me as I came toward a taxi stand just the other side of the border. The FBI says 26 San Diego residents were abducted last year — and that’s only San Diegans. In a brief Internet search, I couldn’t find out how many others there might be, but someone estimated about 6 a month. Wow. But I didn’t know any of this the morning of April 11, 2008, when I sauntered across the border. I tried to look as casual as possible. After all, I’d been to TJ many times, and with more nefarious intent than a cheap root canal and a $20 extraction or two.
I’ve been hearing about Mexican dental work for a while now. For years, I’ve needed to get an old root canal fixed. Then two old fillings cracked, and I knew I’d have to get them taken care of before heading out to hike the Appalachian Trail for four months. I’m sure there are plenty of “Appalachian dentists” out there, but the idea of using a misapplied ice skate to extract a tooth and the subsequent recovery, while trying to carry a pack 20 miles a day, was unthinkable.
I could only imagine the vile poultice I’d have to cram in the socket, something from ole Grandma Jackson over in the holler, up the ways.
I’m a veteran, a U.S. Marine for ten years. I served in the Gulf and the Adriatic Sea in ’95. For some reason, the VA will provide us vets with health care but not dental, even when they were the ones who never finished my root canal in the first place. My “end of service” was up before it got crowned, and of course they lost my dental records on outprocessing. I see an awful lot of yellow ribbons out there, and if someone really wants to do something for a Marine, pay for his dental expenses, and then I’ll believe you.
Anyway, after consulting with a really nice old lady, after a gig in La Jolla — she went on about where she goes to get her teeth done — I decided it was time to take the chance. Especially since the estimated costs would be a quarter of what I would pay here, even with dental insurance, though, unsurprisingly, I don’t have it. So…off to Mexico! I don’t need to be told twice. “Washington Dental,” the old lady said, “that’s where I go.” It turns out that Washington Dental even has a Wiki, which bolstered my confidence. “Mexican teeth!” I said to myself. “Now maybe the coyotes won’t eat me.” I’d once heard that coyotes won’t eat dead Mexicans.
So, the thug was pacing me from the front and I wasn’t sure what to do; but I knew he wasn’t alone, and I would have to walk back past his crew to avoid going through the turnstiles. I decided to bank on the chaos move and turned sharply to walk behind him and past the lookouts. I glanced at them as innocuously as I could, and they relaxed, and I knew they had let it go. They probably had a specific setup that they ran, and only when the circumstance was just right did they strike. That’s what I would do. I breathed a sigh of relief but didn’t really relax; I upped my pace without running and jumped in the first cab on the sidewalk going toward Revolución.
“¡Calle Segundo, por favor! ¡Al dentisto!” I quipped. I didn’t know the address. Under the circumstances, I didn’t want to pull out my $400 Smartphone.
We weaved through third-world traffic, past no fewer than 30 dental clinics. Funny, I had never noticed before. When we pulled up to Washington Dental, I was a little disturbed at the condition of the building. I was still buzzed from adrenaline and unsure of the neighborhood. As it turns out, I had chosen the older clinic. There is a new state-of-the-art facility on Revolución.
I paid the fare and ducked in, not wanting to linger on the run-down street, and was greeted by an empty waiting room and a male receptionist who spoke excellent English. I explained that I had made the appointment the day before. They had been waiting for me. The place was clean, and I was introduced to my dentist. We’ll call him “Doctor G.” He was cool, and I spoke enough Spanish to talk to him during initial examination. “Breathe through your NOSE!” he snipped at me. It was a no-frills operation. They put a thin lead blanket on me for X-rays, but neither he nor his assistant left the room when they zapped me. In fact, I helped to hold the film in place with my finger…several times. After the first round of X-rays, I was briefed by the receptionist on the next procedure. I was still nervous, but what the hell, let’s do it! It turned out I needed two extractions and a root canal. I said, “Okay, let’s go,” and he shot me up. Although I was in a mild freak-out mode (in the Marines we call this “Pucker Factor Three”), I needn’t have been. I felt nothing. I can’t remember a dental appointment when I haven’t been at least at Pucker Factor Three. The last time I was at a dentist, it was this Navy dentist who didn’t believe I could feel him scraping around in my tooth. It was as if he was paying for the Novocain himself, the bastard. “Doctor G.” just shot me up like it was cool. I couldn’t even feel my earlobe. The assistant was singing gently to the radio, which was playing modern Mexican pop. They chatted in Spanish about how she likes to go to karaoke bars and how he should come and yada yada. I was trying hard not to laugh, seeing myself from above: Former Marine turned jazz singer in an old dental chair, Mexican Brittney Spears playing in the background, being worked over by a nonchalant Mexican dentist and his flirtatious assistant who was dotting my mouth with the suction thing in between singing along with the radio, “¡No estoy loca, no estoy loca!” SLURP SLURP! I mean, she may or may not have been flirtatious; but my Spanish is limited, so the bad translation in my head was coming up with ridiculous scenarios. Smiling or laughing was not an option with this guy and his drill in my mouth, but I had to let the occasional chuckle out anyway. Once they found out I was a singer, the assistant stopped singing for a while. She must have thought my hysterical outbursts were in response to her voice, which by the way, was rather nice. I told her so. Then Dr. G. redoubled his efforts on my mouth. To quote Speedy Gonzales, “¡Aye aye aye!”
The work took about two hours, and one of the extractions felt as if my jaw was going to pop out of the socket. I muffled exclamations, and for some reason the assistant started rubbing my goatee around in circles. The only purpose this served was to distract me. Although it was frustrating not to be able to communicate to the dentist in English, I realized that you can’t ever really talk to a dentist anyway. It’s tough enough to articulate in my native tongue with gauze and spacers and a half-numb mouth; but in Spanish? Forget about it! Try to say “¡Mi quijada está estallando!” or “Es dificil desplazar mi lengua” with a pair of pliers on the farthest-back molar and a knee in your chest. I resigned myself to my fate and let him do his thing. The tooth finally came out. They shrinky-dinked a plastic cap on the root canal and told me to come back in two weeks for the impressions.
“Dr. G.” gave me a prescription for antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory (I refused the painkillers on account of my alcoholism), and the pharmacy was only a block away. Forty dollars later I was all set, root canal and extractions, from phone call to pharmacy in 24 hours. I realize this kind of thing isn’t for everyone, but I have a feeling all my dental work will be done in Mexico from now on. Next time, though, I’m bringing a crew. I’m not taking a chance that those guys at the border have adjusted their technique and closed the gap in their ambush. I know the key to staying safe is simple: don’t look like a lucrative target, or else look savvy enough that you will seem too much trouble for them to mess with. There’s an old adage, I can’t remember where I heard it, but it applies here: “You don’t have to be faster than the lion, you just have to be faster than the guy next to you.” I’m not sure it applies when there isn’t much enforcement going on; nevertheless, I’ll be going back to TJ for my crown in a couple. If you don’t hear from me, I’d like to encourage you to contribute to the Williams Brothers Adventure Foundation Inc. — wbafinc.org — and maybe they’ll have enough to bankroll my release. Unless, of course, I’m abducted by Gloria Trevi; in which case, to quote Sir Galahad in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “You can just leave me there to face the peril.”