The Tooth Fairy - An Urban Journey
by David Rambeau
She had a queer high-pitched voice that lilted rather than sang a melody which sounded like a half-noise a child would utter while walking through a cemetery round midnight.
One couldn't help but listen, trying in vain to decipher what she was actually releasing. It was not a song. Maybe it was a piece of t-v commercial, part of a church hymn. Sometimes it sounded more like a nursery rhyme coming from a child with slurred speech. In another life she might have been mistaken for Gloria Lynn. But not today.
Today she was very black, and she was a tooth fairy. I bet you never thought the tooth fairy was black and rode the East Jefferson bus. Neither did I.
When I was very young one certainty every child shared was when a baby-tooth fell out, the tooth fairy would leave a quarter under your pillow, or somewhere, as a sign of approval and good faith. In those days a quarter meant something. You could buy a bag full of candy with a quarter. A pack of gum cost a nickel. Penny candy was a reality. Some was even two for a penny. A milkshake cost twenty-five cents.
We got into the Castle Theater on Hastings Street for a dime and got a box of popcorn for another one. Then we had a nickel left out of the quarter to get a five-stick pack of gum on the way out, unwrap each stick and stuff it all in our mouth, chewing wildly, not trying to look cool, not saving any for later.
In the energy of youth we knew there'd be continued abundance, the serials on Saturday afternoon and the feature films on Sundays. Maybe both, if we worked at the chicken market or ran some errands. Movie theaters, the Warfield, the Willis, and more, were all up and down Hastings, and streetcars, too, that wobbled from side to side on ribbons of steel anchored in the street and clanged like fire engines to get their right of way. Life was now; good times were now. Money meant something in those days.
Those were the war years. The factories were all pulling double shifts and weekends too. Even the bootblacks drove Cadillacs. The Cellar Door bar was on Brush Street; the Flame Show Bar on John R. Mookie had a basement shoeshine palace on the corner. On Saturdays he had so many suede and leather shoes drying in the afternoon sun you thought he owned a shoe store. Those were the good times.
We all lived in a ghetto, though I doubt any of us knew it the way it is known today. It was us; it was them. Lines were mostly clear-cut. Racial turf was real enough to have check-points and border guards too. Still, as I think back, in many respects it was better that way. Any mistakes were corrected by the police. A lot of mistakes were created by the police. The enemy wasn't only overseas. We learned that early. But what would a child know? And now, with time, memories fade unpleasantries to a blur.
At Christmas we even believed in myths like Santa Claus, but not in the reindeer. Everything psychologically valuable eurocentric at that time. Worse than that, white supremacist. But in Detroit we could vote, and that counted for a lot. And a few of us believed in the tooth fairy, a fantasy without a visual or cultural image.
As I grew up I stopped believing in the tooth fairy. What closed out all that segment of belief was a dentist appointment where the dude cracked my tooth trying to extract it. That kind of experience will electrocute a lot of belief.
I stopped believing in a lot of things. We all lose a bit of fantasy as the years accumulate. So I was somewhat surprised I knew immediately who she was. She didn't have a sign or pendant that would indicate her identity. Though her attire was slightly peculiar, it wouldn't, of itself, reveal her vocation.
If she had been pickling in the trash downtown, I might have suspected she was a bag-woman. But you don't see too many bag-women on the bus. And their aura has never suggested fantasy, only the grim urban reality of the homeless, the addicted, the unfortunate.
In contrast this woman had a bit of magic about her. I don't know why. Maybe no one else on the bus sensed it. Not everyone can recognize a myth, especially one without a halo. Perhaps it was the rhythm of her movements, she seemed to glide the aisle. Perhaps it was the clarity in her glance as it brushed past me to set its own agenda. She probably was on her way to deliver a quarter and had to focus up.
I could hear her say, "I am the tooth fairy. I am from the plains, the forests, the mountains, the rivers of Africa. I affirm your change of teeth as an essential part of your natural journey. The quarter I leave is to signify the current flow in your economic and social journey. I came with history and decided to stay. What brought you brought me. When you have changed all your baby teeth, you won't be visited again. I won't be back; and neither will your infancy." And then she was gone.
Times have changed, but somehow, it is clear to me, there is still a tooth fairy. I believe in a lot less now than I believed in even when I got grown. Experience and knowledge don't poison belief, they merely observe it dissolve like snow in warm weather or fog before the morning sun. Still, it is, in retrospect, satisfying to know there's still a tooth fairy. And that she's black.
You never can anticipate how myths will materialize. You never know how long dreams will last. Most times you just go on, and soon your dreams move on…to other people's lives, not unlike your own.
The tooth fairy returned, so maybe it's possible for dreams to do so too. And as likely as any place, they'll appear on the East Jefferson bus.