Smart Ass Cripple: The Price of Replacement Heads


I’ll tell you what gets me worked up into a revolutionary frenzy: buying replacement heads for my electric toothbrush! It’s a demeaning ritual that provides me with a harsh reminder that most of us are neutered hostages of a brutal, taunting, capitalist web.

That’s something I often forget. I live in a two-income household in a nice neighborhood. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got it made.

But then the bristles on my toothbrush head look so sad, bedraggled, and smushed that I know I can no longer put off buying a new one. And I am confronted with my acute vulnerability, the fragility of my facade of control.

I mean, look at some of these prices! At my local drugstore, a package of three Oral-B replacement toothbrush heads costs $31.29! Three from Sonicare sell for $36.99! That’s $12.33 for one damn head! The generic brand is five heads for $31.49! But that’s still $6.30 per head! And for what? Are they studded with rare sapphires? They’re just cheap plastic with bristles. It doesn’t take somebody with an engineering degree to put them together.

Replacement toothbrush heads are so insanely overpriced that at my local drugstore they’re locked up, just like the condoms. The nose hair trimmer hanging right next to the toothbrush replacement heads isn’t locked up. Neither is the nearby tweezers. But if you want to purchase toothbrush replacement heads, you have to flag down a salesclerk who has the secret key that unlocks the display case. Then the clerk takes your package of toothbrush heads to the register and rings them up and makes you pay before you even get to touch the package.

Which proves this is no accident! The evil cartel that manufactures toothbrush replacement heads knows damn well how much they’re ripping us all off. They know that if their precious product wasn’t locked up, even law-abiding, upstanding citizens would be so angry and frustrated by the prices that the temptation to stick them in their pockets and walk off would be overwhelming.

Replacement toothbrush heads are so expensive I bet they’re available on the black market. If I probe the corners of the dark web, I’ll probably find an illicit site that sells them. I bet if I ask the right people, I could arrange a rendezvous in a dark alley or secluded region of a parking garage with a shadowy figure who has replacement toothbrush heads under his trench coat.

A long time ago, I was arrested in St. Louis with a bunch of other cripples for protesting. The city police kept us all in jail overnight and gave us each a bologna sandwich (a single slice on cottony white bread) and a plastic bag full of toiletries. The toothpaste had the consistency of water and the bristles of the toothbrush literally came off in my mouth as I used it.

That toothbrush was so cheap, I don’t think Dollar General would sell it. It wouldn’t meet their quality standards. The St. Louis police department probably paid about ten cents apiece for those toothbrushes, which is about how much I think replacement heads should cost, in a just universe.

But no! That’s not how capitalism works.

When I was in kindergarten, one of the first things I learned was that when someone is in desperate need, that’s when you’re supposed to show them the most kindness and compassion. But capitalism is the opposite. The more desperately the customer needs what you have, the more it’s your duty to stick it to them.

The more desperately the customer needs what you have, the more it’s your duty to stick it to them.

The toothbrush replacement head tycoons know I am a desperate customer. My dentist says if I don’t practice diligent dental hygiene, my gum disease will flare up and my teeth will start falling out. So I bought a fancy-pants electric toothbrush. But what good is it without a head? And what am I going to do, make my own heads? That’s how they get us trapped!

The electric toothbrushes themselves don’t generally cost that much. But when you need heads, they stick it to you! They’re like those sleazy credit card and satellite television companies that lure you in with their fabulous introductory rates for a few months and then zap!

They lied to me in kindergarten!

When I shop for replacement heads, I feel so powerless. And I hate feeling powerless. So how to fight back? I feel an obligation to take some action.

This happens to me a lot because I roll through life in a motorized wheelchair. So every day I encounter places I can’t access. Most of the time I just roll on by because if I stopped to raise hell about every single barrier, I’d be the human bitching machine. And that’s exhausting. It’s like working three full-time jobs and not getting paid for any of them. And besides, who wants to be that annoying guy who bitches about everything?

But if I don’t bitch I feel guilty because what about the next person in a motorized wheelchair who comes along? If he/she complains about not being able to get in, the proprietor will probably say, “Well, nobody ever complained before.” I hate it when I’m the guy that happens to.

So I feel an obligation to Team Cripple to not pass by a single barrier without putting up at least a token bitching effort.

The same applies to shopping for replacement toothbrush heads. I refuse to succumb to despair. Even if I was able to shoplift, that would be unsatisfying, especially if I get away with it. Who will know what I did besides me? It does nothing to publicly address the larger issue, which is the callousness of capitalism.

I’ll have to do something that involves more personal risk. Shoplifting might still be an effective strategy if I got caught on purpose. Then I could turn my prosecution into a big political show-trial circus. I’d get a hot-shot human rights attorney to represent me and claim the defense of necessity. “Yes, your honor, I shoplifted that package of replacement toothbrush heads. But I did it to prevent a greater crime from being committed. Have you seen the price of these things?”

If I am lucky, my trial will become a cause célèbre. Crowds will protest outside the courthouse. They’ll wear buttons that say “Free Smart Ass Cripple.” I’ll stand trial with brash confidence, knowing that no jury of my peers would ever convict me.

Because if they really are my peers, they also brush their teeth every day. So surely they also have felt the demoralizing sting of replacement toothbrush head sticker shock. My defiance heartens them. They know they are not alone. Hallelujah! By acquitting me, they too can strike a blow against the arrogance of Big Toothbrush and all the oppressiveness for which it stands.

Maybe I could turn it into something even bigger, I could become the Robin Hood of replacement toothbrush heads. I could put together a band of underground freedom fighters. Through our reconnaissance, we’d determine which delivery truck pulling up to the drugstore is carrying replacement toothbrush heads.

We’d don Halloween masks, hijack the shipment, and take the replacement toothbrush heads to our secret lair. Then we could distribute them to the masses, free of charge. If we really want to be dramatic about it, we could also commandeer a helicopter and fly over the poorest neighborhoods, showering down replacement heads.

Human history teaches us that people will put up with an enormous amount of soul-crushing crap. We’ll toil in mines for sixteen hours a day. We’ll wrestle alligators to entertain the king. We’ll work as greeters at Walmart. But what makes us snap is when we have to pay too much for rice or gasoline or whiskey.

That blows the lid off the pressure cooker. It’s not really a revolt about the price of replacement toothbrush heads. It’s about self-determination, economic justice, gentrification, police brutality, shitty health insurance. It’s like when a married couple gets into a bitter brawl because one of them left the cap off a bottle of shampoo. The shampoo bottle is just the catalyst, the last straw.

Ordinary people hit the streets. General strikes break out. Despots cower. So often, it all begins when one fed-up citizen says enough is enough is enough. I can be that person.

The revolution begins with me. 

Mike Ervin, a writer and disability rights activist in Chicago, writes the blog Smart Ass Cripple at His most recent book is Smart Ass Cripple’s Little Chartreuse Book.


USA News


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