The Price of Crowns & the Freelance Life

Six months ago my dentist took some x-rays of my mouth and told me that I had some decay behind one of my crowns. “You should make an appointment to take care of that,” he said.

I said I would, but I didn’t. I figured “some” decay wasn’t “a lot of” decay, so I stalled. When I went for my next cleaning, he came in, looked at my file, and said, “You haven’t taken care of that decay. We should get you in next week.”

I asked him how long a crown is supposed to hold up. He said, “Ten years, sometimes longer.”

And how long did the one that now needed replacing hold up?  He checked. “We did that in 1989, so you got your money’s worth out of that one. I’d say you’re looking at four or five more crowns giving way over the next five or so years.”

That wasn’t good news.

“How much you getting now for a crown?” I asked.

“$2400,” he said, without even blinking.

“What!” I exclaimed. “You’ve never charged me anywhere near that.”

“Yes, I have,” he said.

No, you haven’t. Because if you did, I would have reacted like I’m reacting now. I’d have remembered that. You’ve been my dentist for over thirty years and you’ve never charged me anywhere near that.”

“Let’s see,” he said, and went to my file again. He found the last crown I had done. “2000,” he said. “I charged you $1300. I gave you a $300 discount. That seems about right.”

“Yeah, about $1100 less than what you just told me.”

“But that’s seven years ago. Things double every seven years. Inflation.”

“Inflation?”  When did my dentist get political?  “Tell that to my editors. I’m making less now than I did seven years ago for stories I write.”

“You’re in the wrong business,” he said, this time with a laser white smile. “My lab fees have gone up. The price of materials have gone up. You know I only use the best, so it’s more expensive.”

“God bless you,” I said. “I’m not trying to bargain you down. If you can get that for your services, all I can say is go for it. But I’m going to have to shop around, because I don’t think I belong in a Beverly Hills zip code.”

My dentist belongs to a rich man’s country club. He has invited me to play with him twice. He drives a rich man’s car. He vacations in rich man’s vacation spots and hangs out at rich man’s fancy watering holes. He’s been divorced twice and can afford it, has a girlfriend and can afford her. He’s a happy camper and why shouldn’t he be. He gets $2400 per crown, and a lot more to whiten your teeth and alter your smile.  Dentistry–and inflation–has been good to him.

For me, it’s a different story. Seven years ago I was getting between one and three dollars a word for articles I wrote for national magazines, a price roughly comparable to my high priced Beverly Hills dentist.  Today, 9 out of 11 publications I’ve written for have had editorial changes. My editors have either quit, retired, or been downsized. The new editors don’t know me personally, have never worked with me, have their own crew of writers they’ve used to move up the ladder into their current positions, and have no remorse whatsoever telling me that their budgets have tightened, I have to be willing to work for less, and that they’re not even sure they can fit me into their scheduling.

This is the part of the freelance life that no freelancer is prepared for. This comes as a shock, all at once. What they call the “writing on the wall.”  When one makes a decision in one’s early twenties to freelance for a living, it’s a bold, even an audacious move. It means not going into an office, not sharing a job experience with other co-workers, not having a regular paycheck or a retirement plan or health benefits.  There are no golden parachutes at the end of the line.  There is no line.  Freelancing is walking on a tightrope high above the ground with no net to catch you if you fall.  It’s a balancing act.  You are constantly applying for work—in my case, in the form of new assignments, new articles to write, interviews to do, book proposals to put together in the hopes of landing a contract.  It’s dealing with new editors who have their own standards.  It’s a constant juggling act. You have to be friendly to everyone who answers your call or your e-mail, because you quickly learn that eight out of ten don’t respond to your queries.  And it doesn’t matter that you’ve built up a stockpile of stories in your portfolio because most of the pieces you’ve written over the years have become dated. So what that you’ve profiled Mae West, Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, George C. Scott, Lucille Ball, Lillian Gish, Linus Pauling, Richard Feynman, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley, Joseph Heller, Luciano Pavarotti, Norman Mailer: they’re all pushing up daisies.  The same with some of your book subjects: Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, John Huston, James A. Michener. You can’t convince new young and ambitious editors that you’re relevant by hauling out dead people, no matter how many Oscars, Nobel Prizes, book awards and life achievements they received.

And when you do manage to get an assignment, you can’t balk at the fee offered, because if you do it won’t matter, they will just find someone else who will be happy to work for half the price you received seven years ago. Is this the fate freelancers have to face: to peer into the looking glass at Reverse Inflation?  What will happen to our teeth if this keeps up?  Will we become toothless in our old age?  Will we be unable to afford the most basic commodities because everything will double every seven years?

When my dentist tried to convince me of his right to double his fees he pointed out the price of cars and how they have risen. I didn’t want to get into a price comparison with him, because it’s true that top-of-the-line Cadillacs, Lexuses and Mercedes’ undoubtedly cost more now than they did seven years ago. But what about the new Chinese entry-level cars that are selling for what my dentist charges for five crowns? My Dell Inspiron laptop cost a third of what I paid for a Toshiba laptop seven years ago.

When I sent an e-mail to all my friends in L.A. asking them who they used and would recommend when they needed some oral repair work I got back a list of dentists to call. One was in Westwood, two in Santa Monica, one in Studio City, one in Pasadena.  I discovered that none of them charged what my top-of-the-line dentist was charging. My guy set the platinum standard, but these others seemed perfectly content to charge between $800 and $1200 for crowns, and between $66 and $88 for a cleaning (my dentist’s oral hygienist gets $125).

So maybe there’s still hope. A freelancer can live the best of all lives—without a boss, without the chatter of fellow workers, without having to punch a time clock—and still get clean teeth and new crowns. They may not be made of the same fancy material the rich get pushed into their mouths, but if they hold back decay, that’s good enough for me.  I’m a man of the people.  Or maybe I’m not. I’m a one-man show. A man of the person. And this person ain’t willing to succumb to the over-inflated price of gas.  I’m going to find a good used bicycle…and rise above it.

With or without nitrous oxide.

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