the tao of root canal

When I lived in suburbia, tarring the driveway was one of “those” things on the most not looked forward to-do list.  It was like painting a  giant concrete canvas with a Q-tip, from duller black to dull black not absent of toxic fumes.

When the dentist told me that I needed root canal, about two months ago,  it went on the same to-do list. I put the appointment in my soft-covered  moleskin. Wednesday, March 11th.  11 am – 1 pm.

Now, there are times when I write as fast as my brain thinks. I may not be able to decipher my scribble or I forget to erase something canceled. Or my phone beeps with a text message that says, “you must be running late, should we order for you?”  Root canal is not something I would be confused about.  Especially when I look at the entries in the calendar before and after the appointment.

Still, I ran late.  Work.   The Muni #21 in twelve minutes, the connection to the Muni #49, not convenient. My neighbor, sitting on the front step reading the Chronicle, offered me  a ride.

Dan dropped me off on a different corner than if I had taken the bus so he could avoid the maze of one-way, no-turning San Francisco streets.  A corner where the light changes too frequently with different permissions and warnings and even the Express buses stop and the newspaper boxes are graffiti slammed.   There is a liquor store that sells sandwiches and proudly displays their local lottery winners and an empty urban version of a failed big box retailer across the street.  Most of the parking meters have paper bags around their heads tied with a string eerily reminding me of charged criminals in spaghetti westerns.  Delivery trucks, utility vehicles, taco lunch trucks  and beer vans fight to double-park while  uniformed city workers pop up from sewers like an old twenty-five cent “bang-em heads” game on a boardwalk.

I closed the door to Dan’s truck and  squeezed between a ticketed windshield and a dented bumper walking towards but not rushing to the side entrance of the building where a receptionist was probably looking up my phone number.

As I turned, I noticed a wallet.  It seemed that there should have been someone bending down next to it and tying their shoe.  But no one was there.  This seemed odd, given the corner and it’s chaos, the time and the size of the clearly visible wallet.  Instinctively, I picked it up with intent to take it on it’s return voyage.  A voice from a truck yelled out but I sensed that I should ignore it and went ahead.

Once in the elevator, I slowly unsnapped the wallet.  It was a short ride to the third floor.   Walking down the hallway I turned the sections of this wallet as if it was a purse-sized file cabinet.

It was all here from the drivers license to the pictures of  children, probably a niece named Jasmine and a nephew named Timmy.  Transit passes. Gift cards perhaps left over from Christmas.   Retail credit cards from stores that fit demographic profiles.  Membership cards that indicated the priorities for the owner’s free time.  In a tiny compartment still too big for the few coins that totalled too little for a candy bar urge.  In the billfold,  a single twenty dollar bill.  Whoever owned this wallet was just a shadow of herself without it.  She wouldn’t even be able to floss her teeth.

I never apologized for being late when I walked into the dentist office.  I went  into my  story and asked opinions of what to do.  Oddly enough, with all the history and power in this wallet there was no telephone number or contact info. The hygenist suggested that I look for  a doctors card.  I called the optometrist.  They knew Mona.  We agreed that I would gave them my cell number.  They would call her.  She would call me.  My assumption that this would be a quick phone-tree was correct when less than a minute went by before a non-assigned ring-tone delighted me.  Mona in a state of alarm and relief introduced herself.  Stunned that she only learned of her hiding misfortune when the optometrist called (which was in itself a fortune) and relieved that someone found it.  Somewhere in those moments  she undoubtedly traveled a flurry of emotions, what-ifs and ohmigods laced with impatience until she at least had her life back.

She stopped for a cup of coffee on the way to work.  It seems that holding on to the caffeine, which was still hot,  trumped holding on to the wallet.  Maybe fifteen minutes had gone by during which her latte was frothed, her life was lost and found, she was curious as to why the optometrist was calling, and my drugs were being primed for root canal. I told her I’d meet her on the corner in a few minutes.

Apologizing to the dentist for the further delay I promised I would be quick.  The crew looked at me quizzically.  “Mark, your appointment is not until 2.”  I halted as if I had just stepped on a tack. My expression responded as I opened my book.  There it was, unusually legible, Dentist, 11 am – 1 pm in Sharpie fine-point green.  I even confirmed but all too typical,  probably halfway through the message.

“Are you sure?” I asked as foolishly as if I was asking is this the dentist office?  “It’s not like me to put anything more than something like dntst@11 and so clearly in my book, especially with having a meeting tonight at 6, here, look!”  I said trying to convince myself  more than them.  “I wouldn’t do that if I was getting out of root canal at 4 or 4:30.  Even getting out at 1 is iffy.”

For the next few minutes we tried to make sense of our differing modes of scheduling with apologies that I could not be poked and drilled earlier.  I’d have to be back at 2. I hurried out.  Poor Mona would be waiting for me on the corner and by now she might be thinking it was a hoax and I was really just a jerk.

Mona was there, but just arriving.  She walked up to me as if we were friends.  No one else was wearing a green striped shirt and a baseball hat that said O’Callaghan’s.  I was dressed for root canal.

She was young.  Unsure as to whether to offer me something, all she could say was “You are  Guardian Angel.  If the world was filled with more people like you it would be a happy place.”  It felt like she wanted to hug me but with the same awkwardness that invades the front step on a first date.  Her words were my reward. Her smile came from somewhere else like the shadow of the face of the ‘man in the moon’.   I handed her the wallet and thanked her, too.  As she turned I watched her for a moment.  She didn’t open the wallet.   We’d never see each other again.  Probably not even recognize each other. I remember her last name.  It was telling.

I called the president of a business association who was  hosting the  luncheon I was originally not able to attend given my mistaken schedule and told her I’d be there after all.  The taste of basil and olive oil was certainly going to be better than novacaine or laticaine even if temporarily.

By the end of the day, I had my root canal, two business meetings and even made it to the last half hour of my ceramics class in time to glaze the belated birthday gift for my partner.  When I got home, there was a message from Dan who was concerned that he dropped me off at 11 and it was already 9:30 and I wasn’t home.  “Must’ve been a heck of a root canal,” he said.  I didn’t have time to fill the prescription for Vicodin. I never needed it.

It’s been three days and I’m still eating on the left side of my mouth, still wondering where the mess up was with the appointment.  I’m not sure if it was changed or miscommunicated on either end.  But I have come to believe that the 11 am appointment was not for root canal at all.  It was an appointment with something greater and more beautiful.  An appointment to make someone else have a good day. And the feeling from that is far more intoxicating and numbing than whatever any dentist can inject you with.