King, 41, couldn't believe it when a friend told her about the two-day mobile clinic held Saturday and Sunday at the Chua Viên Thông Tu Buddhist Temple in west Houston. Free medical care. Free vision screenings and prescription glasses. And, most important to King, free dental.
This was the chance she'd been waiting for. To gain access to the Remote Area Medical clinic, she just needed to be one of the first 400 people in line before it opened 6 a.m. Saturday.
King wasn't taking any chances.
When she arrived at 4 p.m. Friday — a full 14 hours early — she was the first. Thirty minutes later, another car parked behind her outside the temple, a retired husband and wife who'd driven four hours from Dallas, hoping for new dentures. An hour later, another car pulled up, this one driven by a retail worker from Pearland who'd gone four years without new glasses. Then another, a 19-year-old construction worker from Dickinson who for more than a year had suffered the constant pain of an untreated toothache.
By 3 a.m., a few dozen cars had lined up behind King, each carrying a story of despair.
Similar scenes play out every time Remote Area Medical arrives in a town. The Tennessee-based nonprofit, better known as RAM, has hosted similar clinics across the country, each time drawing massive crowds. In a country where more than 114 million people have no dental coverage — far more than the 28 million who lack medical coverage — RAM clinics and others like them are a lifeline for those most desperate for help.
"There are tens of thousands of people in Houston who lack access to affordable care," said Stan Brock, who founded RAM in 1985 and, of late, has made headlines by inviting President Donald Trump to attend one of his events. "No matter how much we talk about improving our health care system, unless we add vision and dental coverage, people will continue to be in pain and suffering."
King has endured her share of pain and suffering, but she didn't want to dwell on her past as she waited at the front of the line Saturday morning. She leaned back in her driver's seat and tried to sleep, but she couldn't. She distracted herself by reading on her phone or listening to the radio, but mostly she just sat in silence, daydreaming.
She thought about what her life would be like after RAM's volunteer dentists implanted bridges and crowns in her mouth to replace the teeth that she'd lost to tooth decay. She imagined how she'd look without the "ragged smile" that has made her embarrassed to even smirk in public. King described the hopeless cycle that's led her here: Without a steady job and dental coverage, she can't afford to see a dentist; as a result, her teeth look terrible, which makes it harder to land a job.
She doesn't blame employers for passing her over after they see the gaps in her teeth.
"A person's smile is like a window into their soul," King said around 4 a.m. "This is a chance for me to regain that and to start letting people see me for who I really am. This is my big break."
I agree with Erik Loomis on this, there's no greater indictment of American late-stage capitalism than a government that prioritizes tax cuts for billionaires and corporations over basic dental care. The great breakdown is coming, millions of us living on the same cliff as Shanda King are going to go over the edge and the America that will follow will not be a pretty sight.
Yes, right now they are willing to vote for Trump and even fight for him. Whether they are ready to die for Monsanto or Merck or Apple on the streets in a Great Depression is another matter entirely. Some will. I'm betting most won't.