August 23, 2017No Comments

Trade-offs of dental school care

In 1999, I landed a job that offered excellent medical benefits with one hitch: no dental coverage until after the first year. Perhaps I could go without dental benefits for one year? It seemed a calculated risk worth taking, my then-husband and I thought.

We were enrolled in his medical plan, paying almost $100 a month out of pocket. (Goodness that sounds cheap in 2017.) It included dental coverage, but the monthly contribution took too big a bite out of our very limited budget. The choice seemed clear: We would sign up for the free medical coverage at my new job. We would both schedule dental appointments right before our coverage ran out, and then cross our fingers and hope for the best for the next 12 months.

Then, a few months later, it happened: a nagging pain in one of my molars that continued to worsen over five days. A trip to a dentist friend confirmed my suspicion. I needed a root canal--and quick. Aware that I lacked insurance, my dentist offered a 15% courtesy discount, slicing the cost of the one-hour procedure to a still-hefty $500.

But the pain in my tooth was worse than the pain to my pocketbook. I knew I had to do something. I underwent the root canal, parted with my money, then discovered later that the surgery was just the beginning. I would need a crown to protect the now-brittle tooth at an additional cost of $700, even with a discount. And I had several cavities that needed to be filled, at $90 each. There had to be a better way, I decided--or at least a cheaper one.

A co-worker tipped me off to the UCLA dental school clinic, which provides full dental care to patients for about half of a practicing dentist's fees. The student work was supervised by dental school faculty. Not everyone can get in: Patients were pre-screened to ensure that their dental needs match the school's educational needs. Once accepted, patients paid $89 for a comprehensive exam, cleaning, and a full set of X-rays. Then patients were treated for correcting their dental problems. A filling had cost between $40 and $65; a root canal between $215 and $330. A crown had cost from $275 to $335.

It was a good deal for patients, but there were some trade-offs. Appointments at the dental school clinic lasted three hours, and were sometimes devoted to a single procedure, such as a teeth cleaning or a cavity filling. The lengthy appointments were made to accommodate the students' busy schedules, and the clinic was closed during school breaks and exams.

As I waited for my initial cleaning appointment--the first step to getting my half-price crown--I got an offer I couldn't refuse. Was I willing to be a test subject in a state dental board exam? I would get the crown and a filling for free, while also doing my part to advance the field of dentistry.

To become a licensed dentist in California, students needed to pass a tough written and clinical exam--the latter of which involves cleaning teeth, putting on a crown and filling a cavity, all under the watchful eyes of state dental examiners.

Because I needed a crown and had five cavities to fill, I was a great candidate for the dental hopefuls.

I decided to give it a try and duly went to the dental school several times, where my teeth were X-rayed and prepped for their debut as educational material. The good news: I had two perfect cavities for fillings. The bad: My crown was inappropriate for the exam. (I did get a free temporary filling as a consolation prize, though.)

Despite having lost the chance for a free crown, I decided to proceed as a guinea pig. By now I wanted to help and, heck, a free filling was nothing to sneeze at.

On exam day, I cleared four hours out of my schedule to be available for the test. I arrived early, signed a few waivers and headed upstairs to wait in the hallway outside the large exam room with my anxious dental student and his assistant.

The dental students seemed nervous as we waited for the exam to begin. Failure would be costly, and not just to their pride. Beyond the years of studying and thousands of dollars in student loans, the prospective dentists have shelled out $600 to take the exam and an additional $500 to pay the assistant.

My dental team started to work immediately, numbing my mouth and swiftly installing a "dental dam" in my mouth. The dam was basically a piece of metal propping my jaw open, and a rubber sheet isolating my teeth from my tongue. He drilled an opening and cleared out the decay. A portion of the freshly drilled tooth chipped away, and the assistant rushed off to find a supervisor for consultation. The white-coated, poker-faced referee deemed the chip unavoidable, and directed my dentist to correct the problem.

Two hours later, I was sent on my way with a new filling. I left without knowing whether my dental student passed his exam. (I later found out he did.) While the price was right for my new filling, the three-hour ordeal left me with a "sprained" jaw, restricting me to a soft-food diet for several weeks and delaying my other dental work for several months. But discomfort aside, I was satisfied with the experience--and my free filling.

When my dental insurance finally kicked a few months later, I decided to go back to seeing a private dentist. It was a decision based on convenience more than anything. But even with the safety net of insurance safely in place, it is still nice to know that quality dental care at a reduced cost is there if I ever need it again.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times on January 4, 1999.

June 17, 2015No Comments

Homelessness in LA | Let’s Not Look Away

There are more homeless people in Los Angeles in 2015 than there have been since the homeless census in 2007. The biennial homeless count, released in mid-May, reported a 16% increase in the number of men, women and children living on the streets or in shelters. And the most notable change? A huge bump of 85% in the number of people living in tents, cars and recreational vehicles. My North Hollywood neighborhood is proof of this. A virtual tent city has cropped up around the 170 freeway near Magnolia Blvd.

Personally, I've noticed an uptick in panhandling around the freeway exits and the Metro stations, and I've been trying not to avert my eyes, but to really see the faces of people so down on their luck that they are asking strangers for money. They are mainly single adults, with a heart-breaking 20% of families with children. Collectively, they paint a picture of the life problems that can knock a person to the fringes of society: 20% are mentally ill, 17% have substance abuse problems, 15% are victims of domestic violence, 14% are physically disabled, 6% are veterans.

Their stories are mere sketches of details. A disability or disease or mental illness that makes it impossible to work. A boyfriend who beat her and abandoned her in LA with no money and no way to get home. I get the sense listening to these stories that a gigantic iceberg looms underneath these simple details. For a problem as intractable as homelessness, is there ever one cause? So many problems have deep roots.

So how does the city of Los Angeles respond to this uptick? Yesterday (June 16), the City Council gave preliminary approval to two ordinances designed to make it easier to break up homeless camps. The new ordinances would replace the current city practice that gives the homeless three days' warning before seizing their belongings if they're left on sidewalks or in parks. Now, homeless people will be given just 24 hours' notice, and large personal items like tables and couches can be taken without warning.

This is wrong. Criminalizing homelessness isn't a cure for it. It's averting your eyes and saying "not in my neighborhood."

When I was younger, I used to dodge panhandlers in Westwood on my way to work. I never gave them money because I didn't think they were really homeless. One of them had a car and drove to the same spot every day. He said once, in a moment of a candor to one of my co-workers, that he made more money panhandling than working. I don't know if that was true.

I'm less judgmental now. I don't try to guess another person's motivation behind asking for money or sleeping on the street. I think asking strangers for money must feel degrading and awful.  If there are those who find it fun or love doing it, they are a tiny majority.

I give them all the benefit of the doubt, a smile and some spare change. If it funds alcohol or drugs, then I hope it dulls the pain that day, and I hope they get further help. I wish we could find better long-term solutions. In the meantime, here are eight great organizations fighting on the front lines.

Downtown Women's Center
Provides permanent supportive housing and a safe and healthy community fostering dignity, respect, and personal stability.

Fred Jordan Mission
On Los Angeles' Skid Row, this 71-year-old Christian-based mission feeds hundreds of hungry people and provides assistance to impoverished individuals and families.

Los Angeles Mission
Provides emergency services such as shelter, food, clothing, as well as professional medical and dental services from its Skid Row location. Christian-based. Also offers long-term residential rehabilitation programs including education, professional mental health counseling, job training/placement, and transitional housing.

Provides emergency food, clothing, medical, vision and dental care, job skills training and job placement assistance, English as a Second Language classes, youth activities, and a Christmas program. In the San Fernando Valley.

Midnight Mission
Provides emergency services like food and shelter, and addiction recovery, job training, education and work programs from Skid Row location. Founded in 1914.

Ocean Park Community Center
Offering services related to housing, domestic violence, physical health, mental health, life skills/wellness, income services and substance abuse in west Los Angeles.

San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission
Offers 90 days of emergency shelter to families, traveling shower trucks and hot meals. Also operates three thrift stores, and is always taking donations of household items, baby stuff and clothes. A fire destroyed their emergency shelter in May 2014, and the newly built one in North Hollywood will open soon.

Union Rescue Mission
One of the largest Christian-based missions in the nation and preparing to celebrate its 125-year anniversary in 2016. Offers emergency and long-term services to men, women and children from its Skid Row location.

Learn more about the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and its biennial census.


October 3, 20141 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Killer app

Ashley and Calvin stood behind their orange shopping cart, arms touching but eyes fixed on their smart phones as they waited for the one Big Lots cashier to work her way through a line of 20 customers.

“That candy corn display has me thinking," Ashley said. "Let’s go to one of those haunted house thingeys. There is a zombie one at Universal Studios."

“I’m so over zombies,” he said, his eyes flicking through football scores on the tiny screen. “Anyway, tickets to that are, like fifty-five dollars. We don’t have that kind of money.”

Ashley sighed. He was right. The ramen noodles, no-name laundry detergent, and scratchy toilet paper in their cart were a testament to their lack of funds. She swiped and clicked the phone’s touchscreen, looking for budget Halloween festivities.

“Hey, here’s a free app. Spooky crime scene sites in Los Angeles. Says it guides you around haunted sites in LA.”

Calvin pulled his eyes from the sports mobile app to Ashley. “I bet I can name most of them,” he said, tapping his fingers against his crinkled forehead. “Black Dahlia murder site near USC. The Manson murder site in Benedict Canyon. Fairfax & Wilshire where Tupac was shot. Nicole Simpson's condominium in Brentwood. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel.”

“You’re a trivia ghoul, Calvin,” she said. “Look, one of the places is right around the corner. It’s that boarded up house on Weddington.”

Calvin squinted at her screen. “A young couple was found brutally murdered in an abandoned house in North Hollywood. Suspects were never found; no motive was discovered. Does it say when that happened?”

She scanned the text and shook her head. “Nope. But let’s load the stuff in the car and walk over there. Cheap thrills.”

The house was a shell of neglect, its yard a wasteland of dried up plants and fast food wrappers. Sandwiched between two derelict warehouses, it smelled faintly of burning trash. Calvin shivered. 

“This is stupid, Ash, let’s go home,” he said, but she just smiled and scrambled through a hole in the fence to stand on the porch. “Take my picture, honey,” she said. 

The front door creaked open. Ashley screamed as a man’s dark silhouette covered her and disappeared into the house.  

Heart pounding, Calvin ducked through the cut chain-link and ran through the door. A second man stood in the shadows, light glinting off of the gun he held.

“Come on in,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

September 19, 20141 Comment

Fiction in a minute: North Hollywood Park

Urban Camping

Urban camping along Tujunga Blvd.

The normals abandoned the park to the squirrels and the homeless that white hot afternoon. They retreated to air-conditioned hinterlands with their fancy red headphones and silly dogs and trilling smart phones and neon sneakers, and left in their wake an easy and welcome camaraderie among the urban campers who called this patch of city land home.

Squinting in the sun on the doorstep of his shabby RV, James was relieved to be free of the ever-present normals. Their sidelong glances barely masked their quick judgments about people who lived in vehicles parked along Tujunga Boulevard. And their whispers were so easy to overhear. I can’t imagine living like that, can you? Where do you think they shower?

James wanted to tell them he’s between jobs. That this was better than sleeping on concrete or in a shelter. But he doubted they would listen.

They would not want to hear that he’s just like them. Nor would they believe it.

Shaded by the weeping branches of a eucalyptus tree, James smoked marijuana and drank warm beers with his neighbors. They swapped made-up stories about where they came from and let the sun and the drugs and the laughter convince them they'd get back there someday.

August 26, 2014No Comments

Drunken lit in real life

Ever read that melancholy writing that romanticizes alcoholic, desolate characters as broken geniuses hiding their light under dirty hair and scruffy clothes? I've heard it called drunken literature. Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs owned the genre.

I just finished reading a short story along those lines, so I was intrigued to stumble upon a real life example. A stoned, disheveled man and woman sat outside a sandwich shop in North Hollywood where I was having lunch. They had been nursing one salad between them for so long that the lettuce was turning brown along the edges. I couldn't decide if they were mother and son or drinking buddies. The woman had the weatherbeaten skin of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, and grey, coarse hair sticking out from a black baseball cap with stylized flames stitched on it. Her sneakers matched the hat. He was bald and overweight and wore a navy tshirt and jeans.

I took the table next to them, outside on a sunny August day with a cool breeze, and settled in to eat my lunch and see what gems of wisdom these two might have to offer. It's all about finding wisdom and life lessons in unusual places. And didn't Confucious say something about teachers being all around us, if only we are willing to be students? Bring it on, I thought.

And here is the conversation:

"Isn't that Shane?" the man said.


"Shane. Shane. Shane."

"Who's that?"

"Shane. Your boyfriend."

"I don't have a boyfriend."

"Shane. Right there."

"He's stupid. He's got no common sense."

"Isn't he your boyfriend?"

"He's stupid. No common sense. Stupid."

Several minutes of silence pass. I sneaked a look at the woman. She pushed shredded lettuce around with a fork. She seemed ready to pass out, then blinked her eyes open.

"He's stupid," she said."I'm intelligent."

This was not the stuff of literature, I thought to myself. This was the stuff of the dark, slippery path to the bottom, and minds that are tuned out in a bad, boring way. Nothing romantic or insightful about that. I finished my sandwich and left.

January 6, 2014No Comments

Things to do in NoHo in 2014

New year, new experiences. And my North Hollywood neighborhood has lots of new and stand-out restaurants, shops, theatres and studios to try out this year. Here are ten I'm going to put on my list for 2014. 

IMG_0925Bob's Espresso Bar, 5251 Lankershim Blvd (at Weddington)

Cute little coffee house with room for just about 20 people. Hosts open mic nights and you've got a fair chance of ordering your Americano from the owner, Robert Romanus aka Damone from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Antaeus Company Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd (at Otsego)

Critically-acclaimed classical theatre company proves LA art is more than movies. Last year's line up included David Ives' adaptation of "The Liar" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." Plus they did a hilarious naked fund-raising video on YouTube.

California Institute of Abnormal Arts, 11334 Burbank Blvd (at Lankershim) IMG_0933

I've simply got to see a show this year at CIA, which calls itself the ultimate FreakShow experience. The venue hosts the best of the underground featuring art, music, magic, puppetry and independent film.

The Road Theatre Company, two locations: 5108 Lankershim Blvd & 10747 Magnolia Blvd

One of the few theatres dedicated to plays you've never heard of by playwrights no one knows.

SC Fitness, 5101 Lankershim at World Fitness Center

I've heard great things about the Zumba and Cardio Body Sculpt classes taught by Sandy Campy at the World Fitness Center. High-energy, fun, good music and reasonably priced.

Yoga Noho, 5257 Vineland (at Weddington)

Yoga studio with the usual vinyasa flow classes plus Tai Chi, belly dancing and something called a sound healing offering cleansing vibrations from planetary gongs and crystal singing bowls.

Movement Lifestyle Studios, 11105 Weddington (at Blakeslee)

Hip hop dance studio offering drop-in classes for intermediate and advanced dancers. Would love to check out one of their exhibitions.

Besame Cosmetics, 3505 W. Magnolia (at Avon)

Technically in Burbank but a stone's throw from NoHo, this store features its modern reproductions of classic luxury makeup from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. It offers hand-crafted lipsticks in vintage packaging to die for.

Pinup Girl, 3606 W. Magnolia (at Cordova)

Not too far from Besame Cosmetics is the California rockabilly headquarters, Pinup Girl, a clothing store devoted to vintage-looking dresses and outfits from the glam days of Hollywood. Pick up wiggle dresses, thigh-high stockings, leopard car coats and more.

Skynny Kitchen, 5166 Lankershim Blvd Unit D (at Magnolia) Skynny Kitchen NoHo

Boasting a menu where every option is under 500 calories, Skynny Kitchen offers bison burgers, protein shakes and tempeh bacon (whatever that is). I hope Skynny Kitchen has better luck than its location's previous tenants, the now-defunct Otis Jackson's Soul Dogs and Cefiore frozen yogurt.

September 11, 20131 Comment

Dinosaurs, bottles and cans

Collecting cans

No one in North Hollywood collects cans and bottles with more style and whimsy than this man. My Spanglish was good enough to get a shy smile and permission to snap his photo in my apartment building garage, but not enough to get the story behind the diorama featuring Jesus, dinosaurs and ponies on his shopping cart. Love his creativity.

August 4, 2013No Comments

You know you’re a Los Angeles dog owner when…

Your dog has taken Intermediate Animal Acting...twice, but still no breakthrough role.

Your dog has taken Intermediate Animal Acting...twice, but still no breakthrough role.

You keep trying to schedule a play date with your dog and the neighbor's pot-bellied pig but you're just too busy.

You keep trying to schedule a play date with your dog and the neighbor's pot-bellied pig but you're just too busy.

You've complained about cell service at the off-leash dog park.

You've complained about cell service at the off-leash dog park.

While at work, you've watched videos of your dog playing at doggy day care.

While at work, you've watched videos of your dog playing at doggy day care.

You've driven the dog 10 miles to Runyon Canyon for a hike (and spent 15 minutes looking for parking) instead of walking her around the block.

You've driven the dog 10 miles to "see and be seen" Runyon Canyon for a celebrity-spotting hike (and spent 15 minutes looking for parking) instead of walking her in your own neighborhood.

Courtesy of Flickr by Heartlover1717

You have considered asking your medical marijuana doctor to label the dog as an "emotional support dog" so she can go into Whole Foods Market and Target with you instead of waiting at home.

You've used dog-sitting services at the local farmer's market so you could pay too much for organic apple butter and handmade soap.

You've used dog-sitting services at the local farmer's market so you could pay too much for organic apple butter and handmade soap.

You take the dog to Olvera Street every year on the Saturday before Easter for the Blessing of the Animals.

You take the dog to Olvera Street every year on the Saturday before Easter for the Blessing of the Animals.

You've brought the dog to a screenplay writing class.

You've brought the dog to a screenplay writing class you bought through Groupon.

You underwent a background check and two home checks to adopt your chi-weenie/labradoodle mix from a local rescue group.

You underwent a background check and two home checks to adopt your chi-weenie/labradoodle mix from a local rescue group.

March 31, 2013No Comments

Bless You, My Pet

Forget the marshmallow chicks and chocolate bunnies. In Los Angeles, you can save the calories and feast your eyes on the furry and feathery versions at the city's Easter tradition, the Blessing of the Animals at Olvera Street. Now in its 83rd year, this annual event brings goats, cows, roosters, boa constrictors, iguanas, a brave cat or two and lots and lots of dogs for a sprinkling of holy water and blessing by the head of LA's Catholic community.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles blesses the animals on Saturday before Easter.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles blesses the animals on Saturday before Easter.

The organizers of today's event claimed its roots in the blessing of farm animals, back when Los Angeles county was a more well known for agriculture than for movies, traffic and chihuahuas tucked into designer purses. The blessing part, anyway, is reminiscent of the Polish tradition my mother grew up with -- taking paska (homemade bread), pysanky eggs, butter and cheese to the Catholic church for a blessing on Easter Saturday. The pampered pet part, well, that seems uniquely LA.

It's an event the fosters a sense of community in this spread-out metropolis. We traded dachshund stories with a retired Marine, had our picture taken by a Japanese grandmother, accepted an offer of free water from a tough looking guy with neck tattoos and two shih tzus, and met a man who hitchhiked from Alabama with a wild rabbit he adopted along the way. All of us united in love for our animals and their companionship. Happy Easter!


Goats lead the procession.

Goats lead the procession.

Me and Chloe, my miniature dachshund, post-blessing.

Me and Chloe, my miniature dachshund, post-blessing.