Shooting Dentists

Audrey Thompson


When Marty was making the travel arrangements for me to go to El Paso, he checked into fares and asked how I felt about using America West. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never heard of them.”

“At least you wouldn’t have to use Southwest,” Marty said.

“I like Southwest,” I said. “It’s the only airline I do like.”

“Well, the flight times for America West are better,” Marty told me. “You don’t want to get back real late on your birthday, do you?”

“No, that’s true,” I agreed. So I flew America West. I left Salt Lake City at 7:06 in the morning and got into Phoenix at about quarter to eight their time. My El Paso flight was supposed to leave at 8:06. Five hours later, I called Marty on my cell phone. “Marty,” I said, “the flight times for America West are not better. On paper, they are better, but in real life, you never leave the airport.”


“Is this Audrey? Where are you?” Marty asked.

“Yes, it’s Audrey. I’m calling from Phoenix,” I told him.

“I didn’t know you had a cell phone. Why don’t I have that number?” Marty demanded. Marty has caller ID on his phone at the office. I suppose he wants my cell phone number to screen my calls. If he had known it was me calling from Phoenix to complain, he might not have answered the phone. Then again, maybe he wants the number so he can call me on my cell. But there is little hope of getting me on the cell. I never turn it on unless I want to call somebody myself.

For a long time, I didn’t understand about turning it on. Deanna was the one who told me. When we were getting ready to go to Michigan, I told her that I had a cell phone. I wanted to give her the number in case her flight got delayed or something and she couldn’t reach me at the hotel. Unfortunately, I didn’t know my cell phone number. However, I told Deanna, it probably would be hopeless to try to reach me anyway. If the phone rings, I said, I could never answer it in time. By the time you press the button to turn it on and it finishes revving up, I said, the other person would have hung up. “Oh,” said Deanna. “Well,” she said, “it’s not going to ring, if you don’t turn it on. You have to turn it on.” “And keep it on,” Ivan added later.

But I don’t turn it on. I don’t really want the phone to ring. If I am working at home or at the office, people can call me there, and if I’m not, I am too otherwise occupied to take calls. I could be teaching, or I could be with Woody and the girls, or at the vet’s, or weeding (this is not really very likely), or having breakfast at Lamb’s, or walking in City Creek Canyon, or playing ball with Olin, or almost anything. I have a very busy life, although not as busy as my mother’s. A few days ago, my mother sent me email complaining that “there is never time in the day for all the important things” that she and Dad have to do. As an example, she said, she had spent the entire afternoon cleaning Chinese lanterns and stringing anti-moth hangers together. When she called yesterday, she mentioned again how busy she was. Perhaps, I suggested, she could clean just one Chinese lantern a day — stringing them out, you know — thereby reserving the rest of the day for other activities. But it was not just the Chinese lanterns. There are the anti-moth hangers, too. It gets to be too much to put off for another day.

I don’t use my cell phone much, but it was lucky I had it with me in Phoenix, so that I could call Marty from the airport and complain. “This is a bad airline,” I said. “We have all agreed on that.” By “we,” I meant the tightknit band of about eight of us passengers that had formed a bond in the long hours of waiting, lurching between hope and the cynical certainty that we would never leave this airport unless we chose some means other than air transport. “There have been three flights scheduled to leave Phoenix for El Paso so far today and all three of them have been cancelled. The fourth flight is full. So now we are all looking at the fifth flight. We are not the only ones, though. I have been sitting in the America West part of the airport all day, and practically every flight everywhere has been delayed a minimum of two hours. At least half of them end up being cancelled.”

“What is the problem with the El Paso flights? Weather?” asked Marty.

“No,” I said. “I don’t know what it is, but not weather. I don’t actually know that the management thinks there is a problem. I gather that this is just how they like to run their business,” I said.

“And you called me . . . ?” Marty asked.

“To complain,” I said.

“Ah. Thank you,” said Marty. I called him again an hour and a half later.

“We are still in Phoenix,” I said.

“Still in Phoenix?” said Marty. “I don’t understand that. Make them give you money for meals.”

“They did,” I said. “I got a five-dollar voucher for airport food. That was good for one slice of pizza. My bottle of water cost me an extra $2.50.”

“You should get them to give you a voucher for future flights,” said Marty. “This is ridiculous. They ought to give you at least a five-hundred-dollar voucher.”

“But I don’t want a voucher for future America West flights,” I said. “Why should I ask for a five-hundred-dollar voucher just so that I can sit around the Phoenix airport all day again sometime in the future?” It’s not that the desk clerks and other people who worked for America West weren’t all quite pleasant, for they were. But I don’t see why I should be made to sit around an airport all day just to make a bunch of corporate executives richer. So far, however, it escapes me just how this was going to make them richer, since all the flights were overbooked anyway.

When we finally left on the fifth scheduled flight of the day, five of the scores of passengers who’d been waiting all day for an El Paso flight got put in first class. I was one of them. Two were teenagers on their way back from Hawaii. They fell asleep instantly. There was a woman behind them who fell asleep almost as soon as the teenagers did. My seat mate did not fall asleep. “This is a dream come true!” he exclaimed. “I feel just like Jerry Seinfeld in that episode where the first class crew waited on him hand and foot and he got to sit next to a beautiful model in a comfortable seat while Elaine sat in coach and suffered.”

“Sorry about the model part,” I said. “They stuck you with a philosopher of education.”

“You’re a philosopher of education?” he said. “That’s my second favorite category!” He was a happy, happy man. They gave us each 2 crackers and a small plastic container of Rondelé, but you could have whatever you wanted to drink. Well, not whatever. My seatmate asked for brandy but he didn’t get it. So then he asked for Jack Daniels and got three of those. “I don’t normally drink much,” he told me, and probably he didn’t. There was just no way he was going to waste a first class seat when he’d been waiting for a flight to El Paso for twenty-four hours. He was famous in our group for having had the longest delay. None of us wanted to beat his record.

Late that afternoon, we finally got to El Paso. It’s a very nice airport. It’s a shame that America West seems bent on keeping passengers from ever getting there.

The good guys
El Paso Baggage Claim
I Heart Something

When I finally arrived at the Hotel Camino Real, I asked whether they had a room available with a view. I was assured that the room assigned to me had a splendid view.

You would be interested to know what counted as splendid in their minds. It was a fifth-floor room with a view of a flat rooftop.

The view from inside
The view from inside

The view from outside
The view from outside

I would have thought that a hotel with a Tiffany dome in the bar might have had a more exacting standard of “splendid.”

Hotel Camino Real Hotel Camino Real

I asked for a different room and got one on the fourteenth floor. There was one picture hanging in the room, a line drawing representing a corner of the roof of the oldest part of the hotel. You could tell that the artist liked her picture a lot, because she put her signature right in the middle of the drawing. The hotel management also liked her picture a lot, because they put copies of it everywhere. In my room, it was the only picture, but in some of the conference rooms, there were three copies of that print.

Hotel Camino Real Hotel Camino Real
Hotel Camino Real Hotel Camino Real

In one conference room, two copies of the print were hung upside-down and one was hung right-side up. I took a picture of two of them, hanging right next to one another. No one asked me why I was taking photographs of the drawings. No one noticed or commented on the drawings at all, let alone remarked at the singularity of choosing to hang so many of them upside-down.

Upside Up Upside Down

It was different with the cattle picture. Many people remarked on that. It was in the Longhorn room, so some of us thought that the Angus and Hereford and other cattle-named rooms would have pictures of steers or cows in them, too, but they all had copies of the picture of the corner of the hotel roof. When you really like something, I suppose, there is no sense in having just one of it.

Longhorns in the Longhorn room

My brother had a black-and-white photo of me ballroom dancing that he used to tuck into all his own photographic settings. He thought it was the squirreliest picture he had ever seen. It wasn’t that he liked the picture, in that case. But it was the same basic idea — in his mind, there was no such thing as overdoing its multiple representation.

Audrey, the mixer and the ballroom picture Ballroom Digest
Audrey, Tim and the ballroom picture

The Chicago hotel where the Philosophy of Education Society held our conference a few years ago apparently had the same aesthetic philosophy. The room I stayed in had two copies of an Impressionist painting of people crossing a street with a horse and carriage in the background. I peered into other guest rooms when I walked by, if they were open for maid service, to see if those rooms had the same print. They all seemed to, although I couldn’t tell how many copies the rooms had. I did ask one of the maids if the same picture was in all the rooms. She said she wasn’t sure; she’d never noticed. I asked my fellow PES conference-goers. None of them had noticed the prints in their rooms either, except for Don Arnstine. “Don,” I said, “have you noticed the prints on the wall in your hotel room?”

“Have I ever!” he said. You could tell that he was glad I’d asked.

“Are they the same print?” I asked him.

“Yes, they are identical,” he said. “They are the most hideous abstract you have ever seen in your life.”

“I think all the other rooms have an Impressionist city scene,” I told him. I described it. “I have two copies in my room.”

“I wish I did,” he said fervently. “You have never seen anything more awful than this abstract in your life. I dread going back to the room.”

The conference in El Paso was on children’s literature, so folks there may have been a little more visually attuned than philosophers usually are, but if so, I didn’t hear about it. Nobody in my hearing said anything about the pictures on the conference room walls or about my taking pictures of the pictures. Maybe they were being polite and pretending not to notice. Maybe after I left they said to one another, “Poor woman, she is so starved for art that she is taking pictures of that sad little line drawing. Can you imagine how aesthetically impoverished her life must be? I hate to think what the walls of her home look like.”

Not everyone in El Paso ignored my picture-taking. The cops did not like it and the birds didn’t either. The cops in El Paso were no different from cops and security guards anywhere. None of them smile upon picture-taking. They view it with deep suspicion, as possible pre-terrorist activity or a form of industrial espionage. When I took these photographs of the man sweeping the pool on the west side of the temple in Salt Lake City, the security guard watched me with the gravest concern, as if I might sell the information to rival religions.

Sweeping the Temple pool Sweeping the Temple pool

But the birds were a different matter. I have never met birds as allergic to the paparazzi as the birds in El Paso seemed to be. I tried to take some pictures of the sparrows living in these clay pipes, but when they saw me they ducked out of sight. They would check now and again to see if I had left, and then pop back into the pipes again. They were always too quick for me.

A noticeable lack of birds

The situation with the pigeons was different. They were not shy; they were actively resentful of my presence. I took pictures of the pigeons on the clock and the alligator sculpture in San Jacinto Plaza. The fiberglass alligator sculpture is in honor of three alligators that used to live in a large walled pond in the square, before being moved to the zoo. The souls of the original alligators may live on in the pigeons, who dive bombed me when they saw me taking their picture. Possibly they regard the practice of “shooting” photographs more literally than humans do.

San Jacinto Plaza San Jacinto Plaza
San Jacinto Plaza San Jacinto Plaza

By contrast, none of the people in the plaza or the streets noticed or cared that I was taking pictures.

San Jacinto Plaza San Jacinto Plaza

It wasn’t that there were so many people walking around taking pictures that I blended in. As far as I could tell, there was only one other person on the streets downtown who was a tourist. There were plenty of other people at the hotel, but I never saw them on the streets.

El Paso Street Art Deco interior

I did see both tourists and locals at the outdoor concert outside the art museum. I recognized some of the conference-goers.

El Paso Art Museum El Paso Art Museum
El Paso Art Museum El Paso Art Museum

The non-tourists were missing something. There was quite a lot to look at if you walked around. Although several of the grand old buildings are vacant, some of the architecture is well worth seeing.

The Plaza Hotel, formerly the Hilton (1929-1930)
The Plaza Hotel, formerly the Hilton (1929-1930) The Plaza Hotel, formerly the Hilton (1929-1930)
The Plaza Hotel, formerly the Hilton (1929-1930) The Plaza Hotel, formerly the Hilton (1929-1930)
The former Hotel Cortez (1926)
The former Hotel Cortez (1926) The former Hotel Cortez (1926)
The Mills Building (1910-1911) The Mills Building (1910-1911)

The former State National Bank (1922)
The former State National Bank (1922)
The S. H. Kress Building (1938)
The S. H. Kress Building (1938) The S. H. Kress Building (1938)
The S. H. Kress Building (1938) The S. H. Kress Building (1938)
The Camino Real Hotel (formerly the Paso del Norte Hotel) (1912)
The Camino Real Hotel (formerly the Paso del Norte Hotel) (1912) The Camino Real Hotel (formerly the Paso del Norte Hotel) (1912)

My favorite building was the post office on Mills Avenue. It was built in 1917.

The PO on Mills Avenue (1917) The PO on Mills Avenue (1917)
The PO on Mills Avenue (1917) The PO on Mills Avenue (1917)
The PO on Mills Avenue (1917) The PO on Mills Avenue (1917)
The PO on Mills Avenue (1917) The PO on Mills Avenue (1917)

A few of the recent engineering decisions seem more dubious.

Pipes in a pit Pipes to trip over

I am not much of a shopper, but I would venture to say that downtown El Paso does not offer the kind of shopping that most tourists hanker after. At the hotel, when I asked if there were any bookstores around, they said that there were no bookstores nearby, but that there were great bargains to be found up and down the street. These turned out to be bargains on mattress covers and pink sateen bedspreads and tricycle-sized Caterpillar tractors.

El Paso Shopping El Paso Shopping

One intriguing “flower” shop, though, had something for everyone. One display window contained religious statuary, a couple had sexy lingerie, one window featured bridal trinkets, and another was filled with animal figurines.

Religious statuary Sexy lingerie
Bridal trinkets Animal figurines

Parking is cheap. Or free, if you prefer.

Cheap parking Free parking

The best window shopping unquestionably was in the hotel, where there was a small gallery of gorgeous Mata Ortiz pottery.

Maya Ortiz Pot Maya Ortiz Pots

The hotel restaurant was a somewhat different matter. The first morning I ate there, there was only one caffeinated tea bag in the whole restaurant. I almost had to share. Every morning the restaurant had a buffet that supposedly included omelets to order, although there was no cook. Sundays featured the “best brunch buffet in El Paso.” It was identical to the Friday and Saturday buffets. I have no way of knowing whether it was the best buffet in town. For all I know, it may have been the only one.

Some distance from downtown, there was a large used bookstore where I was able to do some good shopping. Belatedly, I gathered that I was supposed to have negotiated for the price of the books; when I failed to do so, the man behind the counter dropped the price anyway.

I asked him if there was anything else to see in the immediate area. “Well,” he said dubiously, “there’s a costume shop down the street. Are you interested in costumes?”

“Not really,” I told him.

“There’s a liquor store. Then there’s Cappetto’s across the street.”

“What’s Cappetto’s?” I asked. He told me that it was a restaurant. I asked if it was any good.

“It’s Italian. It’s good if you like Italian,” he hedged. “There are several Mexican restaurants down the street,” he added. He did not add, “if you like Mexican.”

The driver who took me to the bookstore talked quite a bit about the town. It was being turned into a slave town, he told me, and it certainly looked to me like it was rigidly divided between the rich and the poor. He added, “I don’t agree with that. They want to make it socialist, like Mexico. I don’t hold with socialism.” Apparently he had gotten the impression that socialism, rather than capitalism, has the investment in slavery. Later, I asked him about El Paso’s layout. Thinking about Albuquerque’s Old Town, I asked whether there was an Old Town. “No,” he said, “they haven’t built one yet.”

“Oh,” I said. “Then don’t you think it might be too late?”

“Maybe,” he agreed.

Later he mentioned that he was a history and political science major at the university.

That was on my first full day in El Paso. The last day I was there, I walked to the border and over the bridge to Juárez, Mexico. There, the poverty was even more striking, and the asymmetries of privilege clear-cut. Whereas U.S. citizens don’t need documents to get into Mexico, Mexicans have to have the proper papers to come into the U.S.

Walking to Juárez Walking to Juárez
Walking to Juárez Walking to Juárez
Walking to Juárez Walking to Juárez

There didn’t seem to be too many U.S. tourists in Juárez, however. Sightseers, yes, but not tourists. More than a few people-watchers hung out at the cathedral.

People-watching at the Cathedral
The Cathedral The Cathedral
The Cathedral The Cathedral
Parking at the Cathedral
Parking beneath the Cathedral

Most of the tourists I saw were at the Mercado Juárez, where you could buy John Wayne busts, carved and painted wooden canes, queen-size bedspreads featuring the Aztec calendar, sunny pottery, snotty T-shirts, clay figurines, paintings, jewelry, and other things that American tourists apparently buy in quantity. I was one of the tourists who bought a cane.

Tourist blankets and figurines Fancy canes
Majolica ware T-Shirts
Right-side up Aztec “Calendar” Stone

Aztec calendar hung right-side up and upside-down, hotel-style

Up-side down Aztec “Calendar” Stone

Donna had suggested that I visit Juárez with a companion, but I went alone. Although I’d chatted with several people at the conference, I didn’t really know anyone and it seemed unlikely that anyone would share my idea of sightseeing. I didn’t know what my idea of sightseeing was, actually, till I got there. It turned out to be shooting dentists’ offices.

Almost the first thing I noticed in Juárez was a dentist’s office next to a bridal shop. I might not have noticed it — I hadn’t noticed one earlier on the street, and only saw it later, on the way back — except that there was a man standing next to it on the street, brushing his teeth with bottled water. I took a picture of the dentist’s office.

Dentista Dentista

Within minutes, I saw another dentist’s office and took a photo of that too. I soon realized that there was a dentist’s office on practically every block. There were also a lot of opticians and pharmacies, but it was the dentists’ offices that captivated me.

Street sign, Optician Street sign

Ivan and I saw a lot of dentistries in Brazil. I guess you can see quite a few in the U.S., if you drive along streets lined with strip malls, but you don’t see very many downtown. Ivan particularly noticed them in Brazil, because he does not like dentists. Nothing against them personally, he says, but he does not care for their line of work. My own antipathy towards dentists is much more personal. If I ever write a mystery, the villain is going to be a dentist. Probably the victim, too. There might be a lot of dentist suspects, as well. If I write a second mystery, that villain will be a dentist again. It will be a case of “round up the usual suspects.”

Dentista Dentista
Dentista Dentista
Dentista Dentista
Dentista Dentista
Dentista Dentista
Dentista Dentista

I know that tourists account for a lot of the popularity of pharmacies on the border, but I don’t know the story behind the popularity of dentists. I noticed that, like the opticians, they mostly offered free examinations; evidently the sales of eyewear and dental torture implements support the free examinations. It seems to me that dentists ought to be paying to examine us, but I did not see any examples of this.

I don’t want you to think that I didn’t notice anything besides dentists’ offices in Juárez. I saw clubs and bars, hotels, bridal shops, boot shops, the fire department, restaurants, dress shops, furniture stores, stores selling stereo equipment and refrigerators and air conditioners, liquor stores, grocery stores, tarot card readers, and places that I think may have been for check cashing, in addition to the pharmacies and opticians’ and dentists’ offices. But it was the dentists’ offices that I felt a strong urge to document.

The former Customs House (now a museum)
The former Customs House (now a museum)
Sidewalk in front of a store in Juárez
Sidewalk in front of a store in Juárez
Pottery crossing sign Bomberos

I left El Paso late that afternoon and got home only an hour or so late. I did not call Marty. I don’t blame him for Sunday’s hour delay, but of course I blame him for the wasted day in Phoenix.

When Ivan and I got home from the airport, Raegan, Glenn, Kanyon, Rayn, and Woody were in the front yard. Woody had a new squeaky toy and everyone else had watermelon jello. I went over to say thank you for Glenn’s and Raegan’s having helped Ivan give Teddy his IV and pills while I was gone. They asked what I’d brought back for Ivan and I told them about the gaudy tourist cane. They wanted to see it; I brought it over. “That’s not gaudy, that’s beautiful!” they said.

Ivan and the beautiful cane

I told them that Ivan’s brother once gave him a black velvet sofa pillow decorated with a golden fringe and a painting of Elvis. “Does he still have it?” Glenn asked.

“No, I made him give it away,” I told Glenn.

“Do you mean that he already gave it away or that he is about to?” he asked hopefully.

“Already did,” I said.

“Oh. Too bad,” said Glenn dejectedly. “I was going to tell you that we wanted it.”

“No, we don’t,” Raegan whispered to me.

When I mentioned that it was my birthday, Raegan asked Ivan if he’d made me a cake. “Of course not,” Ivan said, surprised.

“But you have that new tangerine mixer!” she said. To Ivan, this seemed irrelevant. The mixer is for making pineapple-upside-down cake for him, not for making cakes for me. It was irrelevant to me, too, because I don’t like cake. Not that I think you need a tangerine mixer to make a cake. I would use a mixing fork. I have to use the same mixing forks for the rest of my life, because you can’t buy them any more. Most people don’t even know what they are.

A tale of two mixing forks
Mom Mom’s wooden mixing fork and a 1980s anti-ergonomic plastic mixing fork

Barb was determined to give me birthday presents to accessorize the tangerine mixer. She, Joe, and the kids gave me a bracelet with orange, turquoise, and purple stones, and a tangerine spatula. It was kind of a set.

Mixer, with accessories

By the time Ivan and I came inside from talking with the Dykes, it was getting pretty late. I asked Ivan what I was having for my birthday dinner. “Frozen tamales from Rico’s,” he said.

“Ivan!” I said. “I have just come back from Texas and Mexico. I have had tamales every single day for the past four days.”

“No you haven’t,” he said. “You don’t like tamales that much. There is no way you would have had them four days running. You didn’t even have one.”

“Never mind,” I said. “I make no complaint. I make no mention of the fact that I don’t care much for tamales.” I am very easy to get along with, that way.

Ivan is a lot like my mother. When I was about twenty-two, Mom called me long-distance to invite me home for the weekend. “I’m making your favorite dinner tomorrow!” she added enticingly.

“You are? What is it?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what I considered my favorite dinner, but several possible culinary visions occurred to me.

“Corned beef hash and boiled cabbage,” said Mom. That was not one of the visions I’d been entertaining.

I was a little outspoken in those days. “Mom, I hate corned beef hash and boiled cabbage,” I told her.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Audrey,” she said. “You’ve never had corned beef hash in your life. How would you know if you liked it?”

But I did know, and I hated it. Chuck’s friend, David Schaer, had dropped by to dinner, although Chuck wasn’t there. David liked to hang out with my parents. He said that they were more fun than his parents. One time, Mom threw a rubber ball for Maggie to catch, and it bounced off two walls before crashing into Mom’s wine glass, sending Gallo Hearty Burgundy cascading across the coffee table, shag carpet, and gold-and-green-flocked wallpaper surrounding the fireplace. Everyone hated the carpet and wallpaper, but Dad didn’t want to waste money on replacing them, so we put up with them for the ten years that we lived in that house. Spilling red wine all over the carpet and wallpaper promised to be something of an improvement, and Mom and Dad laughed uproariously. David looked at me and then joined in. “We never have fun like this at my house,” he said, as if tossing balls at wine glasses were a regular pastime at our house.

Mom asked David what he thought of the corned beef hash and boiled cabbage. “Audrey says she hates them, but I think they’re delicious. What do you think?” she asked him.

David was judicious. “I’ve definitely had things that tasted worse,” he said. “This is really not bad at all, considering that it’s boiled cabbage.”

Tamales are not boiled cabbage and corned beef hash, of course, but they also are not homemade egg rolls, which was what I was counting on. Well, not counting on, exactly, because Ivan had warned me that I wouldn’t get them, but I was hoping for them all the same. I think I probably would have gotten them if it hadn’t been for Marty, although Ivan says not. Ivan went to church in the morning and then to Pride Day in the afternoon. He met a bunch of friends there; Marty was one of them. They all stayed there practically the whole afternoon, eating and talking and visiting booths, and draining away the vital time required for making homemade egg rolls. If Ivan had only come home earlier, I think I might have gotten my egg rolls and Nuoc Cham. If it hadn’t been for Marty, I’m saying.

I blame Marty for quite a lot of things. I’m certain that I would have arrived in El Paso a lot faster if it hadn’t been for Marty. I probably would have gotten a room with a view. I wouldn’t be surprised if the hotel restaurant would have had more than one caffeinated tea bag to its name, if it hadn’t been for Marty. But I don’t blame him for the dentists. Dentists have only themselves to blame.

San Jacinto Plaza, El Paso
San Jacinto Plaza, El Paso

Disclaimer: Marty is one of the best things that has happened to my department; I am just joking about blaming him. But I am not sorry I called him long-distance to complain. I think he needed to know. Maybe he can fix those people.


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