Working the margins of speculation made the payoff of corroborating a local legend much sweeter. I was already feeling good about doing some “boots on the ground” investigative reporting but I was mystified by a section of town I had never been to, a bicycle map that made me wonder if I’d reach the possible denture burial sites I’d heard about and a pursuit of looking for fake teeth in concrete that was making me feel like the Mayor of Crazy Town. I credit Will Simmons from the Pittsburgh Orbit for his research methods. He posted on Reddit asking about the teeth legend/denture art installation project and he received a few responses and some positive rating points, whatever those are. Will had been giving me gentle, long distance nudges to get out of the house and finish this story. I had to act before he started shoving. With concrete (pun intended and beautifully executed) intel, I set out to verify if there were any planted teeth left.
With my map confusion it was great to find that the streets mentioned actually intersected. I was able to visit cross streets and street signs to hunt for dental evidence. In a correspondence, Will joked about my finding evidence of a cavity from a teeth site. I was, at the very least, hoping to see a hole, a broken section of curb or some evidence of where the dentures had been. I was getting the feeling that I was writing another post about being a renegade blogger in search of a legend and turning up empty. The Arthur/Water intersection seemed the most promising. A legend had already sprung up about “Arthur Water’s teeth.” I went to the four corners of this intersection looking for clues and wondering what sidewalk planted teeth would look like when I noticed a neighbor down the street beyond a sidewalk closed sign.
Approaching the neighbor, I had concerns about how I’d be perceived. It’s odd enough to be approached by anyone. My opening was something about whether the man had lived in the neighborhood for a while and if he had heard the legend of buried teeth. He didn’t skip a beat pointing out that they had been underneath a street sign. “They’re gone. Somebody dug ‘em up,” he said. The use of the word somebody may explain why I didn’t ask who dug them up. That didn’t matter because I was hearing they had existed. He explained that they’d been gone over ten years and had looked like a jaw bone. I mentioned what I’d heard, that the teeth had been planted around fifty years ago. He responded that the dark gray sidewalk had looked like they’d been there since the 30’s.
I neglected to ask the man his name which I learned later was Jesse. I asked him about the neighborhood being tucked away between Naito and I-5. He voiced a legitimate gripe about the condo building that had replaced the green house, next to his saying it had once had a stage where it was rumored the Dead Kennedys had performed at a house party. Jesse told me he had an old cell phone image of the planted dentures. He promised find it and send it to me. I left thanking him for being willing to talk when I felt like I was creeping around the neighborhood asking about teeth. He responded, “And then you’re like he’s actually seen them, that’s crazy.”
I headed off to the other sites. The intersection of what I thought was Corbett and Sheridan (actually Water and Sheridan) lined up in an industrial way station surrounded by chain link fences tucked under highway overpasses. It looked like an area stray teeth might be found. The street post was surrounded by dirt and gravel with little concrete, besides the curb. No dentures would have lasted long here. I could have searched more in that area but I had already gotten lucky enough to discover one good denture story and there was no one in the vicinity to offer another.
I walked past the west side of the Ross Island bridge, another rumored location. There was no indication besides slabs of concrete in line for an upgrade. I noticed possible cavity fill from whatever industrial dentistry may have been performed to remove dentures that may have been there. As I walked down SW Kelly Street past signs posted about a missing cat named Dexter, I reached the last location, the intersection of SW Water Street and SW Abernathy near Barbur Boulevard. The area was over grown, with sidewalk moss that would have a required a giant toothbrush to clear it away. There seemed little chance of spotting teeth in this concrete.
I’d already accomplished more than I thought I would. My brain was full of images of broken down sidewalks as swishing traffic sounds rang in my ears and the last of the setting sun offered splashes of autumnal hues cast against a late afternoon sky. I walked through the shadows of the urban neighborhood back to the car.
I still had questions. I never knew how many dentures were planted. It occurred to me that I would have planted hundreds of dentures in hopes that some of the installed teeth would survive but it couldn’t have been easy to chop up concrete and then seal up the dentures. One discovery took away any disappointment of the remaining mysteries. A day later Jesse sent an email that included the promised photograph. It made my day. Something felt magical about seeing evidence of the legend, experiencing a Portland neighborhood I’d never seen, meeting a receptive resident and hearing a story of a long ago punk rock show. I had a boost of civic pride. There could have been magic in those teeth. They gave me hope that Portland will always have pockets of weirdness to be discovered.
The origins of this story can be found here: