Working the margins of speculation made the payoff of actually corroborating a local legend much sweeter. I was already feeling good about doing some “boots on the ground” investigative reporting but I was still mystified by a section of town I had never been to, a bicycle map that made me wonder if I’d reach the possible denture burial sites I’d heard about and that my pursuit of looking for fake teeth in concrete was making me the Mayor of Crazy Town. There was research. I credit that to Will Simmons from the Pittsburgh Orbit. He’d been giving me gentle, long distance nudges to get out of the house. I had to act before he offered up shoves. Will put an announcement on Reddit asking about the teeth legend/denture art installation project and he’d gotten a few responses along with some positive rating points, whatever those mean. With concrete (pun intended and beautifully executed) intel, I set out to verify if there were any planted teeth left. I’d poured through a South Portland history book from the library that I’d heard mentioned a teeth installation but I couldn’t find it. How about including dentures in the index Laflar?
With my map confusion, I was surprised to find that the streets mentioned intersected. I was able to visit cross streets identifiable by street signs and hunt down dental evidence. In a correspondence, Will had made an an amusing cavity reference. At the very least I was hoping to see a hole or broken section of curb where the teeth had once been. I was getting the feeling that I was writing another post about my being a schlub blogger in search of a legend turning up empty. The Arthur/Water intersection seemed the most promising. A legend had already sprung up about “Arthur Water’s teeth” and although there was no famous Portlander named Arthur Water related to the story the nickname stuck. I went to the four corners of this intersection looking for clues and wondering what sidewalk planted teeth would look like when I noticed a neighbor down the street beyond a sidewalk closed sign.
Approaching the neighbor, I had concerns about how I’d be perceived. It’s odd enough to be approached by anyone. It usually has me reaching for my wallet. My opening was something about whether the man had lived in the neighborhood for a while and if he had heard the legend of buried teeth. He didn’t skip a beat pointing out that they had been underneath the street sign. “They’re gone. Somebody dug ‘em up,” he said. The use of the word somebody may explain why I didn’t ask who dug them up. That didn’t matter because I was hearing they had existed. He explained that they’d been gone over ten years and had looked like a jaw bone. I mentioned what I’d heard, that the teeth had been planted fifty years ago, I realized I was off by some number of years. He responded that the dark gray sidewalk had looked like they’d been there since the 30’s.
My journalist skills, having eroded, made me realized I had neglected to ask the man his name. I later learned it was Jesse. I asked him about the neighborhood being tucked away between Naito and I-5. He voiced a legitimate gripe about the condo building that had replaced the green house, next door to his, where there had been a stage for house parties. It was rumored that the Dead Kennedys had played there. Jesse revealed he had an old cell phone image of the teeth that he promised to hunt down and send me. (See above!) I left thanking him for being willing to talk to me when I had felt like I was creeping around the neighborhood asking about teeth. He responded, “And then you’re like he’s actually seen them, that’s crazy.”
I headed off to locate the other sites. The intersection of what I thought was Corbett and Sheridan (actually Water and Sheridan) lined up in an industrial way station surrounded by fences tucked under highway overpasses. It looked like an area stray teeth could be found. The street post was surrounded by dirt and gravel with little concrete, besides the curb, that would have secured teeth for any time. I could have searched more but I had already gotten lucky enough to discover one good denture story and there was no one in the vicinity to offer another.
I walked past the west side of the Ross Island bridge, another possible location. There was no indication besides slabs of concrete in line for an upgrade. I noticed possible cavity fill from whatever industrial dentistry may have been performed to remove dentures that may have been there. As I walked down SW Kelly Street past signs posted about a missing cat named Dexter, I reached the last location, the intersection of SW Water Street and SW Abernathy near Barbur Boulevard. The area was over grown, with sidewalk moss that would have a required a giant toothbrush to clear it away. There seemed to be little chance to spot teeth in this concrete.
I’d already accomplished more than I thought I would. With my brain full of images of broken down sidewalks, my ears full of the traffic swishing sounds, I caught the last glimpses of the setting sun’s splashes of autumnal hues cast against a late afternoon sky while walking through the shadows of the urban neighborhood to my car.
I still had questions. I never had a sense of how many dentures were planted. While wandering around it occurred to me that I would have planted hundreds of dentures as a spider unleashes hundreds of babies onto the world hoping that like the spiders some of the installed teeth would survive. I thought about how the teeth were placed in the sidewalk. It couldn’t have been easy to chop up concrete and then seal up the dentures. One answered question took the sting out of the remaining mysteries. A day later Jesse sent an email that included the promised photograph. I saw it the morning after he sent it and it made my day. Something felt magical when I received that evidence along with experiencing a Portland neighborhood I’d never seen, meeting a receptive neighbor and hearing a story of a long ago punk rock show. I had a boost of civic pride. There could have been magic in those teeth. They gave me hope that Portland will always have pockets of weirdness to be discovered.