Smile, Kentucky

by Andy Roy, March 2020

On a flight home from Phoenix to Chicago, an ordinary encounter left me with a lasting impression as indelible as a small tattoo on an old man’s arm.

As I boarded, I peered ahead to the upgraded seat that would spare me the discomforts of the last seat on the bus. My seat, located in an exit row, was one of only two seats; the third position was empty to allow space for a jumpseat facing backward from the bulkhead. I shoved my backpack into the overhead bin and sat down.

The man seated next to me had his arm on the arm rest, and I felt pressed against his shoulder. He didn’t budge. Of course, half of an arm rest cannot be shared; it’s all or nothing. I noticed that I was directly facing the bathroom doors and anticipated a stream of visitors encroaching on my personal space. This was the rare time I had paid for an upgrade but already it didn’t seem worth it.

My new neighbor was wearing a faded jean jacket and his face was mostly hidden under a dark olive baseball cap. He appeared to be in his mid- to late fifties, and was dozing off. This was good because I intended to study some 2016 voting data, and didn’t want him “eavesdropping” with his eyes. I had no desire to discuss politics with a stranger.

I recalled a previous flight years ago when a congenial and strongly opinionated small business owner carried on about the oppressive burden of Obamacare on businesses like his. He employed so many Hispanics that would not get work otherwise, but given the requirement to subsidize their insurance, he could not afford to keep as many on staff. I listened attentively to his views because I don’t often hear a different perspective first hand. But today, I was not interested in conversation and had a task already planned to occupy the three and a half hours of flight time.

As I opened my computer to begin my analysis, I glanced furtively to see where the man was staring and also checked the passengers across the aisle. By the end of the flight, I had concluded what everyone knows. Trump won by a small margin in a relatively few counties in a handful of key states. I came across the names of peculiar counties like Butte in California which voted “red” by a wide margin.

When the flight attendants came down the aisle with pretzels, my neighbor stirred in his chair, searching where to set down his cup. Did he not know where the tray tables are stored for bulkhead seats? I tapped his arm and motioned to the armrest, and then flipped it open for him and pulled out the tray. He seemed amused as though I’d pulled a rabbit out of a hat. He set down his things and took off his cap to smooth back the hair that was missing on his bald head.

It is then that I noticed he looked like a short Santa. His face had a reddish tint, and he sported a nicely trimmed but full white beard. His eyes sparkled as he glanced at me with a smile.

Then suddenly he said with a laugh, “I’m still getting used to smiling!” I smiled back but didn’t know what to say. He continued in a mild southern drawl, “See these teeth?” He now opened his mouth to point at a nice set of teeth. “They’re brand new! I just got them put in. Eleven implants, 17 new teeth. What do ya think?”

“Very nice teeth,” I said, “That many? All at once?”

The man went on to explain how he was returning home to Kentucky after getting dental work in Los Algodones, Mexico, known as “Molar City”.

“I’m still not used to biting down on these,” he said. “My old teeth were so worn and crooked following an accident that I was ashamed to smile.” He described the unfortunate accident and I winced at the thought of it.

“So that’s quite an adventure! To go all the way to Mexico for dental surgery,” I said.

He replied, “Well, I was ready to go to India. I never been there but India’s the best option. I was set to go – then one of my customers suggested Mexico.”

He turned toward me. “Where you from?”

“Born in India, grew up in Atlanta.” I said.

“I love Indian food. Some of my best customers are Indian. They said, go to India. It will cost a fraction of what it does here and they take great care of you.”

My new acquaintance was a barber and lived on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. He had never been outside of the country and rarely flew. He hated going to the dentist and had been postponing this needed dental work for over a year since the accident.

“Well, you saved a lot of money. Were the dentists local or were they Americans practicing in Mexico?” I asked.

“It’s not that I saved money. I just couldn’t have afforded it otherwise. But to answer your question: They were entirely local dentists and staff. They’re really good and attentive while you’re there but as soon as you step out of the office, you’re on your own, and the local hotels are not a place you’d want to stay. So each night, I’d go back across the border, and each day, go back into Mexico.”

This man’s home state of Kentucky represents 1.4% of the US population and (like every state) 2% of the Senate. Kentucky is mostly rural. All except 2 of its 120 counties voted in favor of Trump in 2016. The 26 least populated States in America represent 16% of the population. That 16% controls a majority of 52 votes in the Senate. No law can be passed without the support of that 16% including Kentucky to New Mexico to Wyoming. 

In all likelihood, my new acquaintance with the great smile was a Trump supporter. A few of my friends are Trump supporters. So even though I myself am a “Never Trumper”, I don’t have an automatic negative opinion of Trump supporters. Every Trump supporter I have known personally is good and kind – like most people. I know they give that support for a variety of reasons and beliefs. I try to understand those reasons, which are not my own.

Most people believe we have to live by some agreed upon rules, and the electoral system, imperfect as it is (imperfect like everything is) is agreed upon and well understood. By those rules, the country elected Trump and I hope it will not re-elect him – by those same rules.

I wanted to ask my in-flight neighbor about his business back home but the announcement was made to prepare for landing. I said, “I’m glad your trip and dental surgery worked out so well. I’m sure everyone at home will be happy to see you smiling again. I hope no one frowns on you for giving away business to Mexico.”

He let out a laugh. “No one’s gonna frown on my smile! They provide a needed service at a good price. India would have been best but travel would be a lot more costly. Hungary is second. And Mexico is third but it’s the nearest. I’m not a Trumpite. I’d like to see more of the world, and I have friends from many countries, especially Indians.”

I shifted in my seat to turn toward him and reached out to shake his hand. A few minutes later after landing, we stood up, said our goodbyes and disappeared into the crowded airport where all Americans cross paths, whatever their beliefs and background, and however they choose to live and vote.

(revised)