Surprise dental work and other reality checks.

Just when I was channeling “stay there” thoughts to my bank account, my achey-breaky tooth turned into a crown.  $500, ouch.  But that’s ok – it does not threaten my September-or-bust loan payoff plans because by the time they bill me and the payment clears, it will be October.  Cash flow, baby.

I got served another reality check though, this one for free.  Leaving my fancy Harvard Dental School professor-dentist’s office, I pulled up to a red light in the equally nice and comfortable suburban neighborhood.  I think I was even stopped due to the after-school Mom traffic front of a Whole Foods.  Busy fixing my dentist-chair-hair and checking out my swollen and sagging mouth in the mirror, I heard something nearby.

It was 83 degrees, and I had my windows down.  The windows of the truck next to me were rolled down as well. “Your face looks nice!” said a surprisingly sweet-faced, toothless man in the pickup truck.  No, I thought, my face is drooling slightly and I think my lip is split!  So I thanked him with a half-smile, then turned and fixed my gaze straight ahead while leaving the windows down.  I thought this was a reasonable move that got the message across in a lady-like way.

But the red light was infinite, and lady and man were reduced further to just humans.  What do you do, he asked.  I gave in to the possibility of prolonged, traffic-and-window induced conversation and said I’m an engineer.  “Good money,” he said, closing his outstretched fingers together and rubbing his thumb along them.  I nodded.  He asked what kinds of things I design, and when I tried to explain that, he replied astutely with “what the hell is that?”  Right on, man.  And for good money too.  Embarrassment.  Existential crisis.

Amazingly, the light finally changed.  I drove a couple miles, and landed at another red light to turn into a typically luxurious super-mall.  Again right next to Mr. Pickup Truck!!  So I asked what he does, since we’re practically friends now.  He said he collects scrap right now, because he can’t find a job.  Shit, I thought, what do you say to that?  “It’s good to keep busy.  Keep doing it, you’ll figure things out,” I said.  Again he rubbed his thumb along his fingers.  “It’s money,” he just said, and drove off with traffic.

So while I sweat my vast loan payments and accelerated, self-inflicted schedules, being inconvenienced by the cost of fixing one of the many teeth in my mouth, people are definitely dealing with worse problems.  Even in high property tax neighborhoods where eminently qualified physicians choose to live and practice.  What do I really do, and why do I get paid so much to do it, when my new traffic friend probably knows how to solve concrete problems involving raw materials?

I am not going to get carried away – I contribute to society, and I am not ashamed of the compensation required to get people to do this work.  And maybe my new friend doesn’t have any useful skills and is unemployable.  But I find that hard to believe.  Something about a person with the drive to go around collecting scrap and complimenting strangers rather than sitting at home collecting unemployment tells me the person has something to offer.

I wished I was already in my future-retired state of buying and renovating real estate so I could offer him some construction work to do with that scrap.  But there was nothing I could do but offer pointless observations.  I hope it works out for my friend, but in the meantime I guess we are both working on problems: making money, and reducing debt, respectively.

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