Denny The Dentist’s office was about what you’d expect from a company with such a classy name. Their door was adorned by a cartoon tooth triumphantly holding a toothbrush and giving a sparkling white smile. It was the kind of picture that was cute and charming until you started thinking about the idea of a tooth with teeth. The poster in the window advertised X-rays, cleaning and a checkup all for the low low price of $57, because apparently they didn’t think anyone would find it disconcerting to get oral care from a dentist who advertises specials like a mattress store run by Crazy Larry.
Today I had been hired as a mystery shopper. The rules were simple: I would get my teeth cleaned at Denny the Dentist’s, then give my employer a writeup of how it went. In return for giving the company feedback on my experience, I would be compensated the cost of the cleaning plus $20.
This was not what I had hoped for when I got into the mystery shopper game. For years, I have been submitting for work in this industry, dreaming of getting hired to test a new dessert at The Cheesecake Factory, or perhaps to give feedback on new hires at some upscale Swedish brothel. Now here I was, finally given my dream job, and I was getting my teeth cleaned at a discount dentist’s office.
As I walked through the door, I speculated what kind of expenses would be skimped on to get the price down to $57. Would they not disinfect the scalpel? Would they not use that vacuum thing the hygenist always swoops in with when I’m about to drown during the rinse phase?
But it wasn’t long before I figured out where they had cut costs. It was the dentist.
At first blush, Dr. Wu appeared to be an intelligent man. After all, he was Asian and wore glasses. Unfortunately, this was the end of his credentials. He spent the first twenty seconds of our interaction saying words that were clearly intended for me, but that were spoken straight into his chest. Between his mumbling and the muting effect of speaking into his jacket pocket, he sounded like an out-of-state radio broadcast.
“Hsdi, nsahjice to meas e sst ysos u. Iayhm Dr. Wrysu,” he said, which was either him introducing himself or telling me he just had a delicious beef stew for lunch. Now that the pleasantries (or his lunch description) were out of the way, he went straight to work.
I quickly realized that communication was actually his strong suit. He started rooting through my teeth like a grave digger driving his shovel into the earth on a sub-zero day. “You haavbea asdal ciydsuouple of saccavtuess,” he told me as I flailed my arms in agony.
“I wha?” I shouted, clutching the arm of the chair for dear life.
“So yod cadsdn sesfwe righast here adstheasa rpsalboem.” He said as he clawed at my mouth, presumably checking to satisfy his curiosity as to whether or not I had a second layer of gum behind the first.
“Hughbh?” I asked.
“Adsnfd twhweres ant owht eine righ heath-” he commented. In the course of twenty minutes, I think maybe one intelligible word was spoken between the two of us.
We finished the gutting of my mouth and he brought me to a sitting position. I imagine his training told him that when it came time to explain his prognosis, he was supposed to make eye contact while speaking slowly and clearly. His eyeline lifted from his own chest to roughly my stomach. His volume escalated slightly above that of a mosquito, and his articulation raised a hair over that of a caveman still discovering language. It was the closest we would get.
“So you have three cavities we need to fix right away and two more I’ll need to keep an eye on. Talk to the receptionist and she’ll schedule you for fillings.“
I had been prepared for three years of not going to a dentist and sporadic flossing to lead to a poor diagnosis, but this was even worse than I had suspected. I tried to remain calm as I asked, “So you mean–”
Then he stood up and walked out of the room. We were done.
As I exited the exam room, there was something broken in how I processed everything. I wasn’t so much analyzing my current situation as I was crafting the writeup in my mind, thinking things like, “If I were Dr. Wu’s patient, and this was how he told me I had five cavities, I would be frustrated that he wouldn’t stay around to answer my questions.” As the receptionist explained the payment plans they had to help patients cover the $500-cost of three fillings, I thought, “If I was a patient on a budget who had just discovered that he had to get $500 worth of fillings, the receptionist’s calm and friendly demeanor would have made the total bill seem less overwhelming.”
It was only as I walked out the door that it hit me. Holy fuck, the hypothetical patient I’m talking about is me. He doesn’t have five cavities, I have five cavities. He doesn’t find the cost of things overwhelming, I do. Somehow the mystery shopper element of it all had made it seem like it wasn’t really me in that dentist’s chair.
Meanwhile, I could think of dentists I would trust more than Dr. Wu with successfully treating three cavities. If a simple cleaning had felt like a demolition crew decimating my gums, what would it feel like when he introduced a drill to the equation?
As I thought about the $500 Denny the Dentist would be extracting from my wallet ($500 that would not be reimbursed by the mystery shopper agency), I glanced back at the storefront and the toothbrush-wielding molar. No wonder he was smiling.
Odd Job: Mystery shopper
Pay: $20 plus expenses
1. After 28 years of going to the dentist, I still don’t know if the purpose of the scalpel is to pick out food stuff from between teeth or slice open your gums as negative reinforcement for not flossing more. Also, apparently this is not called a scalpel. It’s actually a periodontal scaler. Who knew?
2. I think this will be the last blog entry I do that requires me to name any dental equipment. It took me about 20 minutes to remember that the claw of death is called the scalpel and then it turned out that wasn’t even right. Meanwhile, I’m still not positive that “that vacuum thing” is the wrong terminology. Here is a list of all the items in a dentist’s office I can identify by name: Chair.
In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. Like, really hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.