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There are simple things in life that many of us take for granted, things that aren't as common for those in poverty, like dental care.George Rodgers knows that firsthand. He owns a place called Customized Dental Laboratory on Mack Avenue near Joseph Campau, a little box of cinderblocks and bricks over on the east side.
The elderly and poor from the shabby neighborhood that surrounds it often knock at his door, imploring him to fix their broken false teeth or give them new ones.
"See, people who have their teeth, they don't think about these kind of things," says the 50-year-old Rodgers. "And a lot of times these dental offices don't care. If you ain't got insurance or got the kind of money they want you to pay, they don't care less if people have their teeth or not."
But on-the-spot tooth repair isn't even Rodgers' job. His lab usually only takes orders from local dentists for denture repairs, which he fixes on site. It's a one-man show.
And dental visits are expensive, and getting to and from them is difficult for those without reliable transportation. So those neighborhood residents with few options come here.
"They call me to death — 'please help me!' It's kind of hard to turn them away," Rodgers says. "That's the toughest part about being here."
Rodgers learned his trade at the now-closed Highland Park Community College, and managed a large denture company when he quit to work for himself 15 years ago. He started his own denture-repair business in his home before buying this little building in a run-down part of town. "Back in '92, Coleman was still the mayor, and he was offering abandoned buildings at [an] auction, so this was an abandoned building," he says.
He bought the place for less than two grand. It took a couple years of hard work to fix it up.
"It was an old grocery store, and there were these big windows, so I had the windows kind of closed off," he says. "I took it and gutted it, put the windows and doors and walls in here. It didn't even have a sidewalk then. Some guy had raped a girl right at the side, so I put a fence there and I put trees there, so that ain't gonna happen there ever again."
He got off to a slow start, drumming up business where he could, trying to get his name out there. "When I first came here years ago, my friends said, 'George lost his mind — he done gave up his managing job to move down in the city,'" he says, laughing.
Over the years, he's slowly earned clients by word-of-mouth, going from barely surviving to doing OK, mostly on contract work from offices treating Medicaid patients.
Here's how it works: Dental offices send Rodgers a wax mold of a patient's teeth, from which he creates an acrylic copy. A full set of teeth and gums is made by mixing two forms of acrylic — a powder and a liquid which, when combined, create a thick, dizzying odor that fills the small room with the smell of a cheap nail salon. Fake teeth come arranged by the dozen on cardboard displays; he matches them up, pulls them off the sheet and puts them into the denture. A little filing, some polishing, some time in a pressure cooker, and they're good to go.
Even the color of gums is made to order. "Teeth come in a variety of colors — so do gums," he says. "They tell you what the nationality of the person is. They tell you if they're African-American, if they're white, if they're Latino, Indian. I do it for everybody. I do all types of people." Various powder blends create different gum colors from pink to purple to brown.
He knew it would be a tough slog at first. What he didn't expect was the street traffic, the walk-ins from the neighborhood desperate for help but too broke to seek it elsewhere. "Sometimes I know I can only go so far in helping, but I tell them I do what I can. Most of it is repairs, dentures. These teeth will pop out; you can put 'em back in. I do it 'cause a lot of times older people, I always feel like they shouldn't have to be without their teeth." He charges them a fraction of the going rate.
Other times it's routine repairs for friends or relatives who drop in, who don't want to wait for an appointment. "Sometimes it's like, 'You know, my grandmother lost her tooth and we're going to a family picnic.'"
Box fans blow the pungent air around the big room, and a large TV on a counter blares loud voices from daytime talk shows. "I've just been trying to give back in a different way," Rodgers says. "If I ever wanted to get rich doing this I could've stayed as a manager. That was paying well. I was prosperous, but the people I know was suffering."
Outside, an elderly man pushing a shopping cart full of scrap metal walked by and looked at the building. "They make teeth in there?" he asks. "What they charge for 'em?" With that, Rodgers had another walk-in customer from the neighborhood.
Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.