Why you should care
Because it’s worth wondering: What is an equal trade?
In the summer of 2005, without health insurance, a job or good sense, I found myself hopelessly indebted to a dentist.
I’d moved from Indiana to Philadelphia that January, but once there I couldn’t find work. I was living in a dingy room on the third floor of a row house a friend had bought, the price low because of the house’s state of disrepair. We got good at fixing the surface problems, painting over brown stains that indicated leaks somewhere above, that sort of thing, and letting the bigger issues go.
Which is exactly how you end up lying one morning on a mattress left by previous tenants, drunk on stolen vodka and hallucinating with a 104-degree fever that tiny spiders are descending from the ceiling to hatch eggs in your cavernous molar. I called Philly’s community clinics, but the waiting list was weeks long. I lay there for two days, moaning, before I remembered the barter section on Craigslist. It was worth a shot. I dragged myself to the computer and managed to type:
Need cavity filled. Will trade for carpentry, Web design, ditchdigging, anything. Please. I’ll be dead soon.
A dentist one county away answered within the hour. He could get me in tomorrow, he wrote, and we’d work something out. He needed some shelves hung in his garage, for starters. “For starters” might have set off alarm bells for some, but I was desperate at that point.
What I found the next morning was not a dentist’s office but a shiny, glass-walled fortress taking up more real estate than I could have imagined the profession requiring. The sign identified it as a cosmetic orthodontist center, and had the dentist’s name — oh, let’s call him Dr. Sandalwood — at the top.
Inside I was greeted by several runway models, one of whom escorted me to a dimly lit room on the second floor and proceeded to massage my hands with oil while asking about the plan for my mouth. Having never considered my mouth as having a future separate from mine, I had trouble answering. “I think it’s an important question,” I said, on my best behavior. It seemed now as if something more important than my tooth troubles was at stake. Maybe it was the lighting, perfect for a confessional.
I hung shelves in his garage, built a mudroom, cleaned his pool while his scantily clad teenage daughter read a romance novel nearby.
There was a full consultation, involving a rotation of people, all of whom flashed blindingly white teeth, pointing to different areas on a map of my mouth, or someone’s mouth. I asked twice for Dr. Sandalwood, afraid this might be going too far off course from our agreed-upon plan, and was told he’d be right in. Eventually, he was. He filled the cavity in an hour or so, then left me in the care of a woman who escorted me back downstairs, to another woman who flashed a perfect smile and handed me a $2,000 bill.
They assured me there had been no mistake. When I tried to explain that I’d bartered for the work on Craigslist, the two women behind the counter smiled at each other knowingly. “Oh, that Dr. Sandalwood,” their smiles seemed to say.
I drove every weekend that summer to Sandalwood’s mansion, a lovely home set on multiple green acres, where he told me what he’d like done that day. I hung shelves in his garage, built a mudroom, cleaned his pool while his scantily clad teenage daughter read a romance novel nearby. I washed his car and walked his poodle — one of the big ones — dutifully picking up its poop and dropping it into a tiny plastic bag. I once drove his daughter to a dance class in my beat-up pickup truck, a bag of poodle poop riding between us the whole trip.
In all this time, I still had no job. I had to scrounge change just to get to Dr. Sandalwood’s, half an hour outside the city. And yet out of a combination of Protestant work ethic and a Midwestern sense of duty, I kept going back, thinking that after all, this man had saved my life.
One Saturday morning, weeks after my mouth was good as new but knowing only a fraction of the bill had been paid off, I pulled up to his house to find him and his daughter splashing soap on a shiny Lexus with temporary tags. He acknowledged me with a nod, and in that moment I knew I was done. What had once seemed a fair barter had become preposterous, a class issue it was hard to make sense of from my vantage point. Maybe it was the fact of his new car, worth enough to pay a guy like me to come work every weekend for years. I’d come to this man for help, and he had helped me. And yet, it no longer felt right.
And I knew it wouldn’t change his life a bit if I never returned. I backed out of the driveway, waved politely, and drove away, uncertain now who was the one taking advantage.