It was over a nice seafood lunch at Pappadeaux that I was introduced to the world of grills. The specially molded pieces of jewelry worn on the front teeth, popular among Southern rappers for years, were now hitting the big time: suburban malls, I was informed by my dining partner, a sweet seminary student. Even I, most WASPy of WASPs, could be a little crunk. Until then, I'd lived a life devoid of oral fabulousness, content merely to stick shiny things in my ears and nose. Time to cram my largest facial orifice chock-full of solid gold, no?
Deft Googling brought me to K.D.'s Masta Grillz, a dealer in Six Flags Mall. Once a bastion of commercialism, the mall is now full of custom spray-painted T-shirt stores. One hot Saturday, amid jewelry stands and a Dillards clearance outlet that probably had some good deals on blazers with shoulder pads, I found my bling mecca under a giant black sign with a yellow smiley face wearing--what else?--a grill.
A guy in a baseball cap sat behind a weathered table, leaning way back in his chair and staring at the ceiling. Behind him, the store was filled with shirts that came in two sizes: scandalously small (women's) and roughly the size of extra-large trash bags (men's).
"I'm in the market for a grill," I told him, smiling. Silently, he scrambled for several pages of photos under the desk, laying them out for my perusal before returning to the ceiling-staring process.
My teeth could be made to look like shiny dice or silver fangs. I could get a pink stripe on the top and a diamond stripe on the bottom. Or crushed diamonds on every other tooth. But none of these really felt, you know, like me. Luckily, ceiling-staring guy's super-sized associate Leon was there to help. He told me I should get a "six" on the top. So that's what I agreed to. Nothin' fancy, I told him. Something classy. Understated. Six gold teeth across the front of my mouth.
Five minutes later I was sitting in a metal folding chair in the back of the store next to a plywood dressing room with a large man holding a dental mold in my mouth as white goo ran down my face. It'd be a couple of days, Leon told me, and then I'd be in business--right after I forked over $180, cash.
Of course, it wasn't a couple of days. The first mold broke, and I came back a week later to meet K.D. himself, a diminutive guy with a whole lotta cell phone business to take care of. I was in and out in a matter of minutes with K.D. sliding that smooth mold in and out like a pro, all the while talking on his mobile. Two days later, I was back for my solid gold mouthpiece.
When I cranked up my radio on the way home, a chorus of children sang a new version of the nursery rhyme "Do your ears hang low?" I popped my grill into my mouth and hummed along.
Do your chain hang low/Do it wobble to da flo/Do it shine in da light/Is it platinum; is it gold?
The words of that great bard, St. Louis rapper Jibbs, rang true for me: I didn't have a chain, but I was blinging. For real.
Obviously the first thing I needed to do was hang out with a local rap star. Nothing predictable and stereotypical about that. No, sirree. So Pikahsso, one-third of innovative local hip-hop group PPT, came out to Club Dada one night to spread some cred on me.
He stopped laughing after about 45 seconds. Every time I smiled at him, he'd start it up again. We tried having a normal conversation about PPT's upcoming album but to no avail. The giggling was unavoidable. For most grill-wearers, their mouthpiece is a serious status symbol. For me, it was comedy gold. Literally.
Later on, I saw an episode of Girls Next Door, a train wreck of a reality show about Hugh Hefner's blond, big-breasted girlfriends. The "sporty" one, Kendra, had gotten a grill. Pink. Top and bottom. Real diamonds. Cost her (or, more likely, Hef) thousands of dollars. Kendra was an inspiration: She was Caucasian, grilled-out and proud. I decided I could lamely misappropriate black culture and attempt to be ghetto in what would ultimately turn out to be a sad farce, or I could be like the Playboy model sleeping with the 80-year-old white dude and go about my daily business--with bling.
When an invitation to my fifth-grade sweetheart's wedding came in the mail, I knew immediately that my grill would be a key accessory. I'd be running into people I hadn't seen in years.
Things were quiet until the reception at WASP headquarters, the Walnut Creek Country Club in Mansfield. With my man of the hour on my arm, I strutted around the ballroom in a royal blue strapless dress, black velvet heels and $180 worth of metal in my mouth. Cheek kisses abounded. Former youth ministers, high school crushes and sworn enemies smirked politely as I lisped out hellos. (There's a reason, I had learned, you hear the word "toof" instead of "tooth" in rap songs. It's cooler to make up a new word than to spit out madd phat rhymes with a speech impediment.)
After the bride and groom had made their grand entrance, the groom's father asked that everyone bow in prayer before we got busy in the buffet line. Just then, I flashed a smile at a childhood friend and caught the eye of several old buddies standing next to him. Their giggling started at "Heavenly Father," catching on with each person who'd seen me that evening until I found myself amid a jiggling, laughing herd. It lasted all the way to "Amen," which became a mere muffled grunt. I spent the rest of the night out on the patio, hanging my head in shame for disrupting the holy blessing of the meatballs and giant cheese plate.
A week later, I woke up with a sore throat, two swollen tonsils and a fever. I had been smote down, either by a pissed-off Jehovah or, more likely, by fermenting bacteria. It never occurred to me to make any attempt at sterilizing the piece of metal I'd been taking in and out of my mouth several times a day. I survived a round of antibiotics and decided to take the thing to a jeweler to find out exactly what I'd been carrying around in my mouth for weeks.
Ten-karat gold. Worth about $25 if I wanted to melt it down, I learned. Obviously K.D. charges a lot for labor costs. Then again, sticking your hand in and out of people's mouths all day probably isn't the sweetest of gigs. It's a small price to pay, if you ask me, for the right to call oneself a grill masta.
But the most impressive performance of all was by a woman I'll call Sherri, a sales lady in the Barneys shoe department at NorthPark Center. With a mouthful of 10-karat bling, I told her I needed something to go with a Prada dress for an upcoming society soiree.
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For a split second, Sherri nearly lost it, fixating on my mouth and contorting her face to hide the emotion within--amusement, pity, sheer terror. She turned away quickly, walking over to a shoe rack and asking me, her back turned, if I needed open-toe or closed. In a remarkable display of composure, she left me to fondle the $1,200 shoes and, presumably, let it all out in the storeroom.
For a half-hour, I had her running all over the store fetching Manolos. Gold, I insisted, was the only thing that would match this dress. Occasionally one of her co-workers would come over to check on the progress--and my mouth--by asking if I needed anything else.
Finally, standing in front of a mirror wearing the tackiest pair of $795 gold 5-inch platform shoes ever manufactured, I bemoaned my plight: "I just can't do gold on my feet. Only in my mouth."
Sherri nodded sympathetically. She never cracked.