In Between Spaces

Several years ago, on a warm summer afternoon, I was handed what appeared to be a standard-issue toothpick. I had just eaten a plate full of Hunan-style cumin lamb and I was sleepy. My mouth was tingly and cuminy. I remember this moment particularly well because of what happened next.

An outrageous, aggressively fresh sensation followed. The chilly tingle combined with the cumin tingle to create an overwhelming, ultimately painful feeling in my mouth. I removed the toothpick and stared at it. My lunchtime companion, Paul, the pick pusher, dramatically removed a plastic pack from his pocket and rattled it mischievously, then presented it to me. The pick was an Australian “chewing stick” infused with tea tree oil. I made note of this, popped the pick back into my mouth, and rode the tingle out until it subsided into a nice fresh sort of buzz. Later on, I bought a pack of picks of my own.

I did not get too deeply into the toothpicks until years later, after moving to Los Angeles. The problem with toothpicks and tooth picking, I’ve found, is that there is but a small window in which it is okay to have a pick in your mouth, and that is for approximately ten minutes post-meal, when it’s necessary to needle stuff out of your teeth. Unless you are Steve McQueen — not the director, but the actor, who is dead — if you walk around with a toothpick in your mouth trying to look cool, you look, instead, like a prick.

Los Angeles presented a different situation. The essayist David Ulin has written that “this is a city where the most basic cornerstones are understood to be private — private life, private architecture,” to which I would like to add: private car time. Tooth picking time. I pop a pick when stuck in traffic, or slaloming through downtown, or pretty much anytime I am alone behind the wheel and not singing along to something. Carefully, I work the pick, masticating it until it is frayed and turned into something more brushlike at the business end. Then, I brush my teeth with it. This is the best part, after the mouth tingle: when the pick has turned brushy, when one tool has become another. It’s in these moments, stuck in traffic, crawling through the endless anonymous, unremarkable space, that it seems as though time is both slowing and speeding up. That is, the pick project helps to pass the time, so there it goes, but also, dwelling on the minutia of the pick, pausing within the moment, savoring it, time slows. Frankly, it calls to mind Aboriginal dreamtime, often described as time out of time. Time can be slowed and sped up and sometimes it can even stand apart from itself altogether. Maybe the way a toothpick is also a chewing stick and a toothbrush too. Something like that.

Usually, within this moment, I search the space around me, outside the car. This surrounding space is routinely, almost aggressively boring. I love it. Rebecca Solnit, in one of my favorite essays ever written about LA, calls these regions on and around the road “drably utilitarian spaces.” Their ubiquity, she writes, is “in part because cars demand them, and it is a city built to accommodate cars. These spaces tend to be grey, the grey of unpainted cement, asphalt, steel and accumulated grime; and they tend to be either abandoned or frequented by people who are also discards, a kind of subterranean realm hauled to the surface. Or not.” Or: yes, yes exactly. LA is hell with mild weather.

What I like most about this notion of a subterranean realm hauled surface-ward is the sense of infrastructure laid bare. All the secret things, the in between things, the things that are supposed to simply exist and make our lives easier without thinking about them until they stop working or flood the bathroom, these things are just there, sitting by the side of the road, squat and duller than brick. There is even, on my drive to and from the airport, an oilfield. “The world seems to be made more and more of stuff we’re not supposed to look at,” Solnit writes, which is certainly true, but most things we’re getting so good at covering back up. So much of our technology is wrapped in sleek pieces of plastic or metal that we’d never dream of opening up and are even warned against ever opening. And so many of our things have been turned into, either through marketing or engineering or both, complex pieces of technology. Most people would rather not look at this stuff too closely, anyway. That feeling, of disgust, or boredom, or horror I’m told people get when seeing the insides of things they don’t normally see, that is exactly the thing that I like, maybe most of all.

One day, sitting in traffic and picking away, staring into the murky ceiling of a highway underpass, I turned my thoughts inward, towards the pick in my mouth, an ancient piece of technology. Even the use of tea tree oil was old: Aboriginal Australians crushed the leaves up and used them in healing poultices thousands of years ago, and still do so today; they also burn the leaves and inhale the smoke, and bathe in lakes infused with the leaves. I decided to get a hold of Kate Hammer, a researcher in the school of pathology at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, who studies tea tree oil. When I called her, she told me straightaway that she never had, and never would, stick a tea-tree-infused toothpick into her mouth. “I am not a huge fan of the taste,” she said. The only time she might be driven to dab a little tea tree on her gum is when she’s got a nasty canker sore.

All the Americans she knew enjoyed chewing gum, she said. Why was I so into these toothpicks? In my mind, I began to explain my traffic and toothpick routine, but thought better of it and just told her I was a journalist, working on a story (which is often my excuse for weird questions or behavior or being somewhere I’m not supposed to be). Hammer then explained that what made tea tree oil so tingly was its turpins — chemicals that, among other properties, are drawn to fat but not water. They’re drawn, specifically, to the fatty membranes of bacterial cells. “If the bacterial cell is a bit like a balloon,” she said, “the turpins sit inside it until it becomes leaky, and the bacterial guts leak out, and the bacteria cell dies.” Those tiny explosions of freshness in my mouth were the trigeminal deaths of a thousand bacteria?

“No, it’s more like millions,” Hammer said. Later that day, long after our call, I went for a drive through the hellscape of LA. It was evening, the sky was pink and purple, the ugly infrastructure was silhouetted black or fallen into shadows, disappearing completely. I put a pick in my mouth, allowing it to soften, then bit down enough to release a burst of tea tree oil, and thought of the bacterial apocalypse I had unleashed. It was satisfying. I lingered at a stoplight, chewing slowly, murdering millions of mouth bacteria while the light went green and the driver behind me began leaning on the wheel and only then, with the drone of the long honk behind me, did I begin to speed up.