Since arriving in prison I've been surprised at the number of compliments on my teeth that have been given to me by other inmates. I've never thought of my teeth as a special feature of mine. Sure, I get regular dental care and don't mind smiling for photos, but I'd never be mistaken for those models in toothpaste commercials who have perfect teeth.
Generally throughout my life, whenever I receive a compliment I return it by showing appreciation, and by attempting to return the compliment. I think my mother taught me that long ago and it has stuck with me my entire life. Since all women wear the same clothing in prison there is nothing to compliment there. So I usually compliment the other person's tattoo. The majority of women in prison have a tattoo. Or two or three. Or eight or ten. I had never seen a tattoo on anyone's neck until I came to prison. They look so painful. And I am in the minority by not having a neck tattoo. Heck, in this place you'd think I was from a completely different planet by having no tattoos at all.
Clearly, I am in the lowest percentile when it comes to the number of tattoos worn by the women in prison. Apparently, though, having a full set of teeth qualifies me to be in the highest percentile in that category. I first noticed this in chow hall when I realized that the woman sitting across from me had only one tooth! All of a sudden I started noticing that many women had numerous teeth missing. I know I'm naive, but how is it that an entire group of women have so many missing teeth? How do they chew? Eat? Speak correctly? Not to mention the effect on their appearance. An adult mouth with only one or two teeth is, well, quite an aberration!
As an adult, I had always joked with my mother (who raised three small children as a single parent in a blue-class working neighborhood after my father died) that she needed to move out of that neighborhood at the point in which her neighbors had "more tattoos than teeth." The neighborhood in which I had grown up was changing, but I thought my "more tattoos than teeth" label was clearly a joke, and there weren't actually people that fit that description. Little did I know that someday I, myself, would actually live in a world where more tattoos than teeth was the norm.