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••• The International Writers Magazine: Life in San Francisco

Getting Back to Basics with Brassica
• Michael Chacko Daniels


A black-suited valet parker on Stuart drags a black lectern to its anchor spot outside a sit-down restaurant in San Francisco. A gardener weeds a planter box bending from the hip. A bicyclist standing by the curb bows to tell a car driver the way to the post office.

Hiding in the hollow between two buildings, a woman stares at her cell phone, a cigarette smoking from her left hand. A municipal trolley bus starts up and enters the traffic flow. The four-faced clock on the 245-foot tall Ferry Plaza tower marks the half hour on this blue-sky day in 2013 and I cross the street to San Francisco Dental
for an hour of pulling and filling.

I sit in the dental chair expecting and not-expecting pain. The SF-Oakland Bay Bridge looms large outside the picture window. I turn back the clock over four decades, reflecting on the teeth I still have and the teeth I no longer have.


For the first time in my life, my gums hurt. It’s a dull ache as if at night someone pounded away at them. I’m a Volunteer In Service to America on a subsistence monthly stipend of less than $200 in snowy, tree-lined Grand Rapids, Michigan. I turn to an old family remedy — I brush my teeth with added vigor, making sure to give each one a good going over. My gums turn red. The ache deepens, except when I sip black tea. But before long my heart says: "Stop! One more drop and I'll pop!"
I moan about my gums to Karen. Surely, a few words of empathy will reduce the pain. But all she has to offer is: "You probably need to get your teeth cleaned."
She shows me a strong set of teeth and healthy, pink gums. Karen is a volunteer from New Jersey.
I try to mirror her smile. Maybe it comes off as a scowl. "Teeth cleaned?” I query.
“I brush twice a day. A minimum of fifteen minutes each time.”
She gives me a calming smile.
“Everyone in India brushes,” I explain.
Her eyebrows ascend; the smile prevails.
“With toothbrush and paste (Colgate or Binaca) or a neem stick. The last is an Ayurvedic all-in-one, paste-in-brush trick.”
She keeps smiling, as if it to say, “I know all this.”
I feel I must get some acknowledgment from her that cleaning isn’t what I lack.
“My father's in his sixties,” I say. “Still has all his teeth. How many Americans can say that? If he's brushing in the bathroom, you can hear him in the verandah. Neighbors in Bombay say they hear him downstairs and upstairs. I learned how to brush my teeth from him."
That only gets me a bigger Karen smile.
Was that all of New Jersey written large on it?
"Not that type of cleaning," she says.

Karen is lanky and pretty, eager to bring peace and health and prosperity to the world. There’s little I can say that can make her angry with me. But empathy for my gums that day comes only in the form of a referral:
"Go to the Junior College's Dental Clinic on Bostwick. You'll understand what I mean. I went last month. Got the best dental cleaning I've ever had."
If anyone else gave this advice, I’d ignore it. Instead, gums screaming with pain,
I explain my reservations about dentists: “I remember over twenty years ago in Bombay running around Dr. Pandit’s chair, while his assistant tried to corner me so that his boss could insert a huge needle into my mouth. I yelled, ‘Doctor Sir, why can’t you understand I’m just a little boy, not a giant? Mummy says you’re a gentle man full of Kashmiri grace and politeness. Why have you suddenly become my torturer?”

Karen smiles, but says no more.
That day her empathy was the referral. I go to the Dental Clinic on Bostwick. The supervising dentist is a solid, no-nonsense Dutch-American. How can I, I wonder, make this Michigander, who must adhere to the highest ethical standards, understand why I don’t trust dentists? I begin to tell her about Father’s full set of teeth, despite years of a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit. I am hoping to convince her that all I need is for the hygienist to give me this mysterious procedure called “dental cleaning.”
The Professor of Teeth shakes her head. “You obviously don’t have your dad’s teeth. Tell me about Mom’s,” she says, probing my aching gums.
I squirm—not only because of the poking.
“Mother’s teeth?” I ask, avoiding the no-nonsense professor’s eyes.
“Mr. Daniels,” she says, “we need a patient’s history for a treatment plan. That’s what we teach all our students.”
Still squirming under her double probe, I give her what I want to give: “Mother’s teeth? Hers is a different story. She had all of them extracted when she was just 45.”

The teacher pauses in her poking. I can see that behind her infinite composure she is interested in this Third World horror story. I decide to give her more of the same:
“Her consulting Bombay dentist advised her, ‘You have pus pockets here. You have pus pockets there. You have pus pockets everywhere.’ The man was from her native place—Kerala. Like her home-state folks, Mother often boasted that in highly-educated Kerala they had more dentists than anywhere else in India. ‘You have pyorrhea, Mrs. Daniels,’ said her home-state dentist. ‘It will eat away at your gums and bones. Eventually, reduce your brain power. Why suffer? I will remove all your teeth painlessly and make you the world’s best dentures, completely First Class, one-hundred per cent. GUARANTEED TO PLEASE. Fit for the stars of Hollywood. And best of all no more pus pockets— here there everywhere.’”

(I don’t tell the good Professor of Teeth, who holds her dental probe with martial arts efficiency—for all the best purposes, of course—that Mother was only convinced when her respected home-state dentist also said, “Mrs. Daniels, you are no longer in Kerala. You are now in India’s commercial capital, urbs prima in Indis. Western-educated Bombay people do not like Kerala backwaters people with —

pus pockets here
pus pockets there
pus pockets everywhere.”

That’s more history than the good teacher needs to have.)

“We at J. C.,” the teaching dentist says calmly, “are into prevention. Not extreme measures. Now tell me what you eat.”

After she discovers from my mumble that my only vegetables are:

P o t a t o e s
C a r r o t s
P e a s,

she says, “Not a proper diet. How old are you?”
“Thirty,” I say.
“Your teeth need more,” she says. “Your body needs even more. A proper diet, with regular, professional cleaning, will protect your teeth into old age. Without it, the prognosis for both teeth and life span are . . .”
She stops, puts down the probe, and says, “If I were you, as soon as I leave the clinic, I’d make a beeline for Kingma's Produce, and, for goodness sake, I’d get some brassica and eat them regularly for my teeth and my long life.”


The four-faced clock on the 245-foot tall Ferry Plaza tower in my beautiful San Francisco marks the hour four decades later and I think about the years I have and the years I don’t have. Hidden in the hollow between two buildings, a young man is staring at his cell phone, a cigarette smoking from his right hand. I cross The Embarcadero to the Tuesday Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market to purchase a week’s supply of brassica.

Vendors assure me that their broccoli, both dark and light green; cabbage, both green and purple; cauliflower, both white and orange; kale, both red and green; and Brussels sprouts are all pesticide free.

I am ready for the years I still have.
Choosing small measures
I buy both red and green kale and purple cabbage.
And venture once more into the breach with brassica.
© M C Daniels 2017

Zach Runs from a Great Man
Michael Chacko Daniels
When his stories cautioned him, “Go slow and easy, Bombay boy, you’ve had only six months in the mysteries of the Brahmins of Boiled Bean Town; they need to see that you value every moment with them,” Zach reassured himself ...

Michael Chacko Daniels lives and writes in San Francisco. He grew up in Bombay, where he attended St. Michael’s High School, Wilson College, and University of Bombay’s Department of Economics. He has a Master’s from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. His parents grew up in an ancient Syrian Christian community in the South Indian state of Kerala. In their middle years, in Bombay, they joined the local Baptist Church out of conviction. His adventures in the United States include five years as a Volunteer In Service To America (VISTA); four as editor/publisher of the New River Free Press of Grand Rapids, Michigan; four as assistant editor in San Francisco at The Asia Foundation; and sixteen at Berkeley’s Center for independent Living. He helped start the Jobs for Homeless Consortium of Alameda County in 1988, and to run it through mid-2004. He is a naturalized citizen of the United States. Writers Workshop, Kolkata, has just published his latest novel: Savages and Other Neighbors. Several of the encounters in this novel first appeared in Hackwriters.

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