The One About Losing My Retainer in the City

Retainer and Burt Lancaster

My Retainer (left) and Burt Lancaster

This story is about the night I became a man.

When I was 13, my parents looked at my teeth and decided to fix them. I have no recollection that there was anything wrong with my teeth. But after being presented with a vision of a bleak, “Clockwork Orange”-like future [1] staring me in the face without getting my teeth straightened, I meekly acquiesced and allowed Dr. Christian Szell [2] to begin his torture. After two years of metal bands, wires, rubber bands, and constant oral soreness, I was led to believe that the worst of my orthodontic regime had ended.

Wrong: I was weaned away from braces only to enter into the domain of the retainer.

The retainer, that perfect piece of plastic and wire orthodontic technology, was designed to hold Dr. Szell’s work together, to keep the straightened teeth straight until my gums unconditionally surrendered and promised not to move the teeth around any more.

At first, I wore the retainer all the time, which means that half my lunch wedged up there between the retainer and the roof of my mouth. If you think that sounds gross, then you would probably agree with the assessment of my classmates Linda, Joan, Erin, and Teresa, all of whom I regularly terrorized by removing my retainer and showing them the food particles caked to the top of the retainer.[3]

In the presence of my parents, I was polite as Eddie Haskell. Well, not quite as polite as Eddie Haskell. [4] You cannot beat or tie Eddie Haskell. But I was polite enough to remove my retainer in restaurants and conscientiously place it in a napkin in order to prevent anyone from projectile vomiting upon glancing at it.

And so one night we were off to the city for a bit of culture, in this case to see the Kurt Weill play, “Knickerbocker Holiday,” starring Burt Lancaster [5] as a peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant [6] in a San Francisco Civic Light Operation production that was touring the sticks where hillbillies like us don’t normally get movie stars to come out. And don’t bother trying to download the original cast album, because there isn’t one. And don’t look for a revival is this classic, even though it was the work of Kurt Weill. [7] No, my parents decided to get me cultured up by seeing Burt Lancaster on stage in a play that no one wants to produce. Thanks a lot.

The interesting thing about Peter Stuyvesant is that a cannon ball blew off the lower part of his right leg and a wooden peg decorated with silver bands replaced it. He was known as “Old Silver Leg.” Christ, I want to be sympathetic to the guy because that’s a hell of a way to get a stupid nickname, but hundreds of years later that is hardly interesting. It’s not like he was thrown into an iron maiden or suffered the fate of William Wallace (hint: pre-insanity Mel Gibson played him in a movie). [8]

My parents could have taken me to the Monterrey Pop Festival just two hours away and seen Jimi burn his guitar. [9] They could have released me outside the Fillmore West [10] and picked me up a few hours or even just bought me a Fillmore West t-shirt. But no, it had to be old man Lancaster in a musical that was forgotten years ago. You know, we did not live that far from the Altamont Speedway. [11] They could have taken me to see the Stones at Altamont. I was 11, I swear I could have handled it.

Oh yeah, the retainer…

My parents and I ate dinner at what was probably the city’s equivalent of Mama Leone’s [12], located several blocks from the theater. Not straight blocks, but turn right and turn left blocks. After dinner, we walked to the theater and took our seats. At which point I realized that I had left my retainer on the table in the restaurant, neatly tucked inside a napkin. Panic overwhelmed me, not because I loved that retainer, not because I had given it a name like Chad or Jesus (Spanish pronunciation), not because it couldn’t be replaced. Panic overwhelmed me because this scenario was the kind of situation that drove me father to the brink of nuclear meltdown. [13] I could expect to be yelled at and maybe even cuffed about. As an only child, no brother or sister would come to my defense or distract him with their own breach of decorum.

As a child, I normally would stay quiet and hope the whole thing would go away. Meaning that I could report the lost retainer under circumstances they could not verify, like a grizzly bear wandering into our backyard the next day while my parents were at work and stealing it from me or it getting knocked out of my mouth and crushed during a game of kickball at school. I presume that the thought of witnessing the greatness of Burt Lancaster inspired me to own up to my lapse that very night. As a man would.

Perhaps the same inspiration informed my father’s response. “Well, go get it,” he said in a measured tone, with just a soupcon of annoyance.

Huh? You mean, by myself?

You show me a 13-year old from the suburbs who, walking in a mostly unfamiliar city with his parents, can calmly retrace his route, and I will show you a 13-year old from the suburbs who will never, ever masturbate.  The difference between this hypothetical boy and me is that I successfully retraced the route, albeit filled with hysteria and fear. Getting lost, the boogey man of my youth, the Anti-Christ we learned about in catechism, hippies wandering away from the Haight-Ashbury district [14], the Black Panther followers of Eldridge Cleaver ]15], and loose remnants of the Grateful Dead [16]: in my mind and on the streets of the city they all loomed as a viable threats to my retrieving my retainer as well as ever seeing my parents again. Seriously, do you have any idea of what goes through the mind of a 13-year old during the seven-second breaks between thinking about sex? It’s from the sick, twisted imagination of a 13-year old that brought us “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” [17]

In spite of the obstacles, both real and imagined, I found my way back to the restaurant. With a fevered look of desperation on my face, I discovered that our table had been cleared!

The maitre d’ shrugged his shoulders at my inquiry, pointed to the kitchen and said indifferently, “Maybe it’s been thrown into the garbage.”

Years later, when I worked in the kitchen of a Howard Johnson’s [18], I came to understand that a customer entering a restaurant kitchen alone is akin to James Bond waltzing unarmed into SMERSH headquarters [19] in broad daylight. Trained professionals with sharp knives and flames at their control are ready to protect their territory and, if not kill you, at least force you to retreat back into the safety of the dining room.

However, as a naïve 13-year old, my lizard brain took over: no fear of chefs, no repulsion from the waste. Nothing mattered but finding the retainer [20]. I just walked through the door, looked for the garbage can, and walked over to it while ignoring the ray beams of death being directed at the back of my head. About halfway down into the garbage can, I found the napkin with my retainer inside.

I rushed out of the restaurant in silence and made it back to the theater in time for the curtain. When the lizard brain takes over, the details seem unimportant. You may remember the barriers, like the maitre d’ and the chef, but everything else is a blur except for your goal. Like Frodo Baggins and his journey to find and destroy the One Ring to Rule the Other Rings of Power. [21]

Once I had found my retainer, life appeared to go on as though I had never lost my retainer. No one else noticed, but my life had changed. I had navigated my way through the big, scary city unassisted and unmolested, and I had gone where few diners emerge unscathed. I accomplished the mission unassisted by a single adult.

I was now a man.[22]

To those parents who worry that your precious little one may not be accepted to Harvard because of irregularly aligned teeth, do yourself and your offspring a favor. Listen carefully to the advice of the orthodontist who is about to extract several thousand dollars from your pocket, and delay the friggin’ braces for two years beyond what your friendly DDS recommends. Seriously, your kid’s teeth will get straightened in time for the SAT as well as your visit to Cambridge.

Otherwise, even after the retainer has been removed for the last time, your teeth and gums may still mount a revolt and ruin much of the work. Yeah, that happened to me. No 13-year old should already be at the retainer stage.


[1] No teenager should escape into twentysomethingness without seeing this Stanley Kubrick movie. Don’t worry that there is CGI or Michael Bay-scale explosions: there is plenty of physical and mental mayhem. That includes your gazing upon the horrible, despicable teeth of the characters who are victims of the notorious British system of dentistry. I have drawn a clear relationship between bad gums and generations of nihilists in the UK. So, even though you will still resent your parents, you will probably give up the urge to slay them.

[2] The real name of my dentist was changed to protect him. However, my dentist once drilled one of my teeth without Novocain. Watch Dr. Szell’s exquisite dentistry in “Marathon Man” and you will appreciate my feelings toward my own dentist.

[3] This is perfectly age-appropriate behavior for boys. As you will recall, I told you that I was still “barely human” as a 19-year old.

[4] Reality check: you do know about Eddie Haskell, don’t you?

[5] In his day, Burt Lancaster was a huge movie star in important black-and-white movies like “From Here to Eternity” and “Elmer Gantry.” However, kind of like Orlando Bloom or William Shatner, he was not much of an actor.

[6] Peter Stuyvesant was a historical figure in New York, about two centuries before “Gangs of New York” days. He was probably a dick, but there are some cool things in New York City named after him like Stuyvesant High School and Stuyvesant Town. A New York governor from the “Gangs of New York” days, Hamilton Fish, was a descendant of his. Ham Fish. What a name!

[7] You know that sketch that Mike Myers did on “Saturday Night Live” called “Sprockets?” The one with the monkey and the black clothes? Yeah, that’s a lot like Kurt Weill, except that Weill was also a communist in the 1930’s, which meant that he could not dance as well as Dieter. Auf wiedersehen!

[8] Hint #2: Wallace was drawn and quartered. Huh? Oh, yeah, that means that he cut open and his guts were removed and paraded about in front of him as if he wasn’t even in the room. The height of rudeness.

[9] Watching this on YouTube as an adult is just not the same.

[10] I cannot even begin to tell you about the Fillmore West without sounding like an old fool. How about we settle at the 22 minutes of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” at the Fillmore East is the greatest live recording of all time?

[11] Let’s face it: I was far too polite to have pushed my way up to the stage where the Hell’s Angels killed that guy right in front of Mick Jagger.

[12] Disclosure: I have never been to Mama Leone’s restaurant in New York. All my impressions of this landmark institution are formed by my inherent snobbery for “popular” culture. This restaurant – as well as the one my parents and I attended in 1971 – may have been fine establishments with excellent service. It’s just that my makeup forces me to believe I came this close to ptomaine poisoning.

[13] My father had forgotten what it was like to be young. You are thinking about girls and sex and music and sex and sports and sex and homework and sex. The little things – like always remembering your retainer – sometimes get lost in the shuffle. My father considered these bouts of forgetfulness as acts of defiance or insolence. His getting mad at me did not help. What would have helped is a distraction from sex.

[14] “The Haight” is where all the hippies lived. Pretty sure there is a Starbucks on every corner now.

[15] Insert every neurotic, racist fantasy about African-Americans here.

[16] Yeah, the band that was like Phish. Only hairier and smellier.

[17] I considered mentioning “The Human Centipede” instead, but realized that 13-year olds are not that demented. The author of that movie needs some TLC.

[18] The pancakes are a safe bet.

[19] The acronym SMERSH is one of the worst creative failures of modern storytelling.

[20] Decades later, I would rediscover my lizard brain when freakish rains overwhelmed the storm water capacity of my humble borough, causing raw sewage to be pumped into my basement. If I wanted to save anything of value, I had to wade into the morass and avoid the floaters. My brain went into instant denial about what I was doing. I could not talk about it for days. But I saved valuables, pumped the shit out of my basement, and cleaned up the detritus.

[21] Fooled you! Like you need a footnote for this reference. Hah!

[22] A much better and fuller test than Catholic confirmation, though not as tough as bar mitzvah. Singing in Hebrew in front of all those people? When your voice could crack at any moment? Man, I’d rather take a shot to the balls.

About Stephen Dedalus, Jr.

I am trying to awaken from the history of my ancestor's nightmare to comment on my Holy Trinity of Interests: art, literature, and music. Oh, and thoughts on dysfunctional families, which is to say families.
This entry was posted in Culture, Navel Gazing, Yutes and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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