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My front teeth, including slightly darker lower tooth (right/my left), two root canals later, May 14, 2012, (Donald Earl Collins).

A funny series of events occurred on the transition from Pitt PhD student to Carnegie Mellon doctoral student in the spring and summer of ’93. Well, not really funny at the time. Nineteen years later, the months between April and October ’93 look like a semi-hilarious blip on my screen of life compared to what I’d gone through before and have faced since. But for a three-week period in April and May of that year, one of my teeth helped me both begin grad school at Carnegie Mellon and brought home the truth of my impoverished existence at the same time.

The week before the end of spring semester at the University of Pittsburgh — as well as the end of six years of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral work there — I woke up with a throbbing that went around the left side of my jaw. It radiated up through my left cheekbone, ear and temple. It was a toothache, one that I assumed was stress-related. Between the transfer to Carnegie Mellon, my efforts to move out of my crappy studio in East Liberty, and my search for summer work, I assume that it was just me grinding my teeth.

I relieved my stress and pain the way any normal twenty-three year-old male would. I took some Advil, went to sleep, hung out with friends and at hole-in-the-wall bars once the semester was over, and had myself a pretty good time. I took the approach that “everything will work itself out” to all the worries I had.

I also met with Carnegie Mellon’s History department’s graduate advisor that first week, John Modell (I learned later that he had been Joe Trotter’s dissertation advisor back in the mid-1970s). Modell cleared me to take the written part of the PhD comprehensive examination that the department’s second year students could take at the end of the year, which in ’93 was on May 14. Modell cleared me despite the fact that my first course as a Carnegie Mellon student wouldn’t begin until the end of August.

Then, after a week or so pain-free, I woke up a little after 5 am. I snapped up in my bed, knowing that

Severe premolar tooth decay (abscess), December 17, 2006. (Lycaon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0 license.

something was wrong. Then, the pain came. It was like Mike Tyson had punched me in the left side of my jaw and I’d fallen head-first onto a boulder. The pain shot up and around like a puck in an NHL playoff game in overtime. The toothache was back, and it wasn’t going away.

Dumb-ass me, who rarely took meds for headaches, much less a rare toothache, tried to gut it out for a couple of days without much medicine at all. I went to Pitt that Monday and Tuesday to see if there was any chance to pick up a course to teach for the summer. There, I discovered how cold the History department administrators were regarding my time there. It turned out that there were two courses available. Even though I technically could’ve taught those courses, they held my transfer to the “other program” against me.

That made my pain worse. I couldn’t eat without a construction team of bacteria pounding my jaw. I couldn’t have a conversation without feeling brass knuckles punch my face in. I certainly couldn’t sleep more than four or five hours, and then only sitting up in a chair. By Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t think straight anymore.

I finally walked across the bridge on South Highland Avenue to a dentist’s office next to the local neighborhood laundromat, and after an hour, scheduled an appointment for 2 pm that Friday, and picked up a prescription for 800 mg Motrin pills. For someone as drug adverse as me, it might as well have been heroin. I was taking two at a time — the equivalent of eight Advil tablets — between Wednesday evening and Friday morning. In doing so, it became obvious that my lower left front tooth was the culprit, and that my dentist was correct. I needed a root canal procedure to drain the abscess.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

So it was that on that fateful May 14, with three more horse-sized Motrin pills in my system, that I took my written comprehensives on the second floor of dark and factory-like (with its sloped floors) Baker Hall. I hadn’t studied at all, and all I really wanted to do was sleep. I chose two questions: one on women’s history/rights and historiography, the other on immigration history. From 9 am until about 12:30 pm, I wrote page after page on both subjects and conjured all the books and articles that I knew on both topics, which turned out to be quite considerable. I found the comps quite easy. Easier than any hoop that I had to jump through while at Pitt.

Still, I felt the throbbing of my tooth. Not the pain — the Motrin did its job — just the nerve in the tooth and the blood supply pushing pass the well of abscess in that tooth. I handed in my essays (I filled out four booklets’ worth of essays) and meandered my way to my dentist’s office. The root canal surgery took about two hours, but it only seemed like a dream, as I fell asleep off and on throughout.

I floated the two blocks home to 6007 Penn Circle South, secure in the fact that I passed my comps (as it turned out, with high distinction, although one of the examiners was puzzled by the fact that I had used sources not taught by any of the professors in the department). Just before I hit my pillow, ready to snore for the next fifteen hours, I thought, “Boy, is this going to be a long summer!”