It’s a slender stick of wood, about two and a half inches long, thin enough to slip between your teeth and dislodge a morsel of meat or a crust of bread. Yes, how well you know the toothpick.
But you may not be familiar with its power to transform. I discovered it one day recently when I was driving to Home Depot. As I sat at a red light, a long line in front of me, I was into my usual bored, impatient mode. The car radio, connected to my antique iPod, was playing an old Billy Joel tune about the lights going out on Broadway. I dug around in the coin tray. Maybe I’d find an interesting receipt or forgotten note, anything to fill the waiting time.
That’s when I found the tooth pick. An old one. No telling how long it had been there. It didn’t matter. Here was a much-needed diversion. I put the toothpick in my mouth, rolled it around a little with my tongue, then clenched it between my molars. Lightning! I was transformed. I segued from an old guy on a boring chore to a tiger on the prowl, a gunslinger on the streets of Laredo. A Man on a Mission. Renewed confidence surged through my veins. the years dropped away, frailty gave way to muscle and sinew. I was ready to rumble, all because of that wooden sliver.
I switched the toothpick from one side of my mouth to the other. My tongue moved it to various angles - up, down, forward. My eyes became steel gray beads of intimidation. I turned off the radio. Billy Joel singing about New York didn’t with with my new persona.
The light changed. I tore through the intersection, my hands relaxed on the steering wheel but ready to snap into action instantaneously. I was King of the Road, my six-year-old Honda Insight now a new F-150 Ford pickup.
How often have you seen a character in a movie with a toothpick? Usually it’s a bad guy, mulling over administering a foreclosure, another ten lashes, a nod to the hangman. However a toothpick also works for the good guys. Gregory Peck. Matthew McConaughey. Paul Newman in “Hud” or “Cool Hand Luke.” I’m not sure if he even had a toothpick, but he could have. That confident smile that says, “You can’t keep me down.” Maybe Robert Redford as Sundance? Possible. I hope so.
There’s a great toothpick scene in “Rain Man.” Dustin Hoffman asks for a toothpick, the waitress opens a box and drops them on the floor. Dustin counts them, in his head, quickly, comes up with 246. Tom Cruise asks how many in the box. The waitress says “250.” He says “Close.” Dustin repeats, “246.” As they walk away, the waitress says, “There’s still four in the box.” And Dustin puts one in his mouth. The Granddaddy of all toothpick scenes I think.
This whole thing probably started out as an oral hygiene device. But it has assumed more meaning than that, from “Boy, that was a good meal” to “I’d love a cigarette but I quit.” The toothpick is a personality statement, a sign, clear as day, that says, “I know things; I’m extremely capable and sure of myself. Don’t mess with me.”
Now I keep a stash of toothpicks in my Honda. Whenever I feel a little unsure of myself, I reach for one. All it takes is that comforting feeling of the wood between my teeth, the tip just peeking out between my lips. A quick maneuver from the right side to the left, a slight smile to the world and I am unconquerable.
Maybe that’s the next Superhero. Toothpick Man. No cape, no ring, no metal claws or iron wardrobe. Just a slender sliver clenched between the teeth. Maybe this Halloween I’ll go to a costume party as Toothpick Man, see if anybody recognizes the new Me.