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facts & arguments

KIM ROSEN/The Globe and Mail

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A simple act of kindness can nudge a life in a better direction, even if we don't appreciate it fully at the time. I know I didn't. But as I approach 65 this spring, one turning point has come into sharper focus.

In the spring of 1966, I was a high-school dropout scuffling for a living in Vancouver. My father was violent, and I had left home the year before to get away from his beatings. I tried a few low-paying jobs, then got drawn into the street scene of petty crime and fell in with some bad people. I had standards, though: When a beefy low-rent gangster named Larry wanted me to sell drugs for him, I said no. Wrong answer.

Larry cornered me in an underground parking garage and punched me twice in the mouth, very hard, before climbing into his Sunbeam Alpine and laying rubber all the way up to the street. I leaned against the cold concrete, listening to his shrieking tires recede while my tongue probed a pair of jagged stalactites where my top two front teeth had been.

My teeth had never been in good shape. Dentists cost money our family didn't have. Sometimes cavities were drilled and filled, but usually bad teeth were just pulled out, sometimes at home with pliers. My teeth were tombstones in an untended dental graveyard. Larry just added to the mess.

I didn't wait for him to come back. I stuck my thumb out heading east on the Trans-Canada Highway, and several days later was in Toronto. Jobs were plentiful. I worked as a bricklayer's helper for a while, then as a barista at a club in Yorkville. Music was everywhere. I learned to play blues harp and hung out with real musicians who let me play along.

For the next several years, I lived on the fringes of the music scenes in Boston, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver and New Mexico. To support my habits, I worked as a window washer, pretzel salesman, short-order cook, book bindery drone, actor and carpenter's assistant.

But my harp playing wasn't setting the world on fire, and my teeth weren't getting any better. I lived on soft food and C-2s, codeine-laced chewable pills that kept the toothaches at bay.

In 1975, after being laid off from a landscaping job in Kelowna, B.C., I decided to go back to school. At the age of 27, I was accepted as a "mature student" in the arts program at Okanagan College. By day I studied English, psychology, sociology, anthropology and geography. By night I drove a cab to pay the rent.

One afternoon, I was part of a study group in the cafeteria. Over the course of a couple of hours, most of the students drifted back to class, until there was just me and another student, discussing our psychology notes.

She was maybe a decade older than me, and extremely bright. In class, she posed intelligent, direct questions. Like the one she asked me that afternoon: "Why don't you get your teeth fixed?"

Her steady gaze allowed no time to make up a lie.

"It's too expensive," I said.

"How much?" she asked.

I didn't know. I'd been broke so long there had been no point in asking.

"Find out," she said. "I'll pay for it."

There were no strings attached, no romantic involvement, no expectation of future payback. Her unselfish generosity surprised me, but I took her up on her offer and went to see her dentist.

My bottom teeth were okay, but the upper ones were mostly rotten. The dentist took an impression of what was left, and then extracted every tooth. A week later I went back to be fitted for an upper denture. Shortly after that, I had a brand-new smile.

Total cost: $250. Effect on my confidence: priceless.

Of course I thanked my benefactor at the time, and I paid back the money. At the end of that school year she moved to California and we lost touch.

I finished that first year at Okanagan College with straight As. I began writing for a local newspaper – Kelowna Today – and within a few months was a full-time journalist. I even had my own column (it was a small paper).

Then, using Bob Kerr's CBC show Off the Record for inspiration, I hosted Everybody's Classics Sunday mornings on a local FM station, despite knowing nothing about classical music or the operation of a radio studio.

Within a year, based on these sketchy credentials (and perhaps my winsome smile), I had my foot in the door at CBC Radio in Charlottetown.

For the next 30 years, with stops in Regina and finally back home in Vancouver, I covered everything from fisheries and agriculture to politics and the arts for CBC, including more than a dozen years hosting the jazz show Hot Air.

On the side, I helped create and co-host a TV gardening show called The Concrete Jungle, which is still out there in syndication limbo somewhere. And with my wife Laurie Dickson, I wrote The Stanley Park Companion, a book about Vancouver's favourite park.

Now, I am in good health and enjoying a retirement that allows me to travel with my wife and play golf with our son.

Who knows how things might have turned out had I not met my tooth fairy all those years ago? Maybe I would have been in and out of jail, selling bad drugs for Larry and his pals. Maybe I'd be dead.

It may be hyperbole to say my tooth fairy saved my life. But she showed me that it is never a bad idea to give in to a good impulse. So, thanks again for the smile.

Paul Grant lives in Vancouver.