NEW PORT RICHEY — They camped out behind the faded convenience store all day, on a small patch of grass by a parking lot and two busy roads. By 6 o'clock Thursday evening, some of these people had already been there for 10 hours, huddled, wearing layers, bracing themselves. It would be one of the coldest nights of the year — dipping to 30 degrees — and it hadn't even begun.
They weren't camping out for concert tickets or some kind of door-buster sale. They just wanted to get their teeth fixed.
One day a year, a dentist next door to the convenience store, Dr. Vincent Monticciolo, gives away his services for free. Usually, people start lining up the night before. This year — in this economy — the first person showed up, with sleeping bags and determination, at 8 a.m. Thursday.
That's nearly 24 hours before the dentist's doors would open. By 6 p.m., the line had grown to about 25. The first 500 people in line get their choice of a cleaning, filling or extraction.
Monticciolo, whose practice is on Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey, has been doing this since 2001, and the numbers grow each year.
"We are honestly and truly excited," said Nikki Hartman, a 33-year-old traveling artist who lives in Spring Hill. She grinned. "How many people are actually excited to see the dentist?"
She left her house a little after 7 a.m. with her boyfriend and another friend. Her boyfriend needs a tooth pulled. Her friend needs a filling. Hartman needs her teeth cleaned. She hasn't seen a dentist in 15 years. Her gums bleed easily when she's eating or brushing her teeth. They hurt. But she doesn't have dental insurance, and everything she earns goes to bills.
"It's amazing," she said of Monticciolo's donation. She and her friends came prepared — tarps, blankets, sleeping bags, several layers of long johns and clothes, foods, drinks, books, flashlights.
They read and napped while others filtered into the waiting area. For people who were going to spend a night out in the freezing weather, just to get their teeth drilled on, they were all in a good mood — joking, laughing, making new friends. Those who came alone were quickly adopted by others and given blankets and food.
Judi Allan got there at 3 p.m. and had a good place in line. She is 42, lives in Holiday and hopes to get a cavity filled on her front tooth. It's black and it embarrasses her. She thinks it hinders her from getting a job — no one wants to hire someone with a black tooth. She hopes, after this, life will get better.
"I'm so thankful," she said, wiping her eyes. She isn't complaining about camping out.
"To get free dental work done," she said, "it's worth it."
The grass behind the convenience store was a temporary waiting place while the dental practice saw patients during the day. Later Thursday night, the people in line were moved closer to the building. The staff bought 166 blankets and several space heaters to fight the chill.
The doors open at 7 a.m. today, and there will be 12 dentists, 10 hygienists and 80 volunteers. They usually finish within 12 hours.
Rita Helsel, who is 60 and from Moon Lake, held the second place in line. She got there at 11 a.m., alone. She lives on a widow's pension.
She fell down two years ago and broke all of her front teeth. She didn't have the money to get them fixed and, after awhile, she got used to the pain. It took her some time to learn how to talk again and how to chew. It made her very self-conscious.
When she heard about the day of free dental care, she knew she needed to come, just to see if there was anything that could be done.
"It's terrible missing your teeth," she said quietly. She brought a sleeping bag and a cooler of sandwiches and drinks. By 5 p.m., her thermos of coffee was long empty. She thought of her cat, Bo, a Siamese mix she got for free as a kitten two years ago. The two of them live in a mobile home.
"He's my companion," she said and smiled, though her whole body shivered. She wrapped the scarf around her head tighter.
Before she left Thursday morning, she gave him some extra Meow Mix dry food and turned off the heat, to save money, but Bo is used to it being cold in there. Heat is a luxury when you're broke. She kissed him and said she would be back soon.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.