Dental Cares



Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Dental Cares
Photo by how_long_it_takes

I have had a lot of trouble with my teeth, having been born with weak enamel in store in my childhood, a nutritional illness that almost killed me as an infant, and then a horribly incompetent dentist during my adolescence. Norbert Vaughan, who sadly encouraged his patients, even his teen-aged patients, to call him Norby. Norby’s office was above an A&P in Rockland County, New York. His father was a dentist and made him be a dentist–like the young dentist I went to later in New York who inherited his father’s practice, talked your ear off before he did his vile work, and snuck vodka drinks in some inner office. The Rockland dentist killed himself. Dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Swedes have the highest suicide rate of any nation. So don’t let your children grow up to be Swedish dentists, whatever you do.

Anyway, I have had to have many procedures done on my poor teeth. Many root canals, caps, etc. Now it’s the time for implants. My dentist now is superlative. I would match him against any dentist anywhere. Frederick Sterling, with offices in the famous House of Pain, at 1 Rockefeller Plaza, overlooking the skating rink, which you can see in a mirror as you recline in Dr. Sterling’s chair, but often through half-slanted Venetian blinds, so that if you do look, you may be in danger of a stroboscopically induced, Japanese-style epileptic seizure. The only thing he ever did wrong was say to his assistant, two hours into a three-hour procedure, when there was a break in the action and he saw that I was beginning to relax and unwind, "He thinks it’s over!" Mean. A sailor, a fine Waspy man, and the architect of many of my lovely porcelain caps. (Some sycophantic apprentice–a short bald, mincing I’m-pretty-sure-gay dentist who fawned over Cliff as part of his apprenticeship, said, when the capping was done, "cured" –in a darkened room, with some kind of blinding purple light–the caps sanded a little to create a beautifully artificial natural look–"Dr. Sterling, you. are. a. GENIUS!!")

Anyway I went to the dentist on Thursday for the regular cleaning of my teeth, which I think of roughly the way I think of the Maginot Line of the First World War. Dr. Sterling has a new hygienist named Vera, whom I think of as Severa, partly for good reason, partly just because that’s the kind of Aspergers pun that I like to make. Vera has taken the place of Margaret, a lunatic yakker in her own right, who gave you like three dozen free toothbrushes and enough floss to girdle the globe. Vera is a monster right out of Saw V, I swear. My daughter bled from the mouth for four days after a "routine" checkup. I had Vera once myself, and she went at the plaque removal–I have no plaque; I am a demon tooth-cleaner now, every night–like a desperate Irish potato farmer of the past trying to hoe the unyielding stony soil in Southwestern Cork as his family starved. The spit bowl looks as though it’s marbled with pasta sauce when she tells you to spit. I now believe that my body gave itself lung cancer in order to avoid the regular checkup with Vera.

(I had surgery and have a good prognosis )

But here’s the secret. Don’t tell any of Dr. Sterling’s other patients. There is another hygienist who comes in one or two days a week. The fabulous Maria. Half Puerto Rican, half vaguely "Latin American," she lives on Long Island with her husband and three daughters. Her youngest, now two, was born three months premature, but she’s fine!!! Thank God. The neurologist at Long Island General loves her because save for some small lung weakness–two pneumonias in her first year (of which she spent the first three months in the hospital)–she is doing great. Maria said that this neurologist started out very impersonal and then got warmer and warmer, and I suggested to her that he probably can’t let himself get too attached in most cases, since the preemies often have serious problems. She found that hypothesis very convincing, as did I, since it was mine. Maria’s husband is Italian. His parents, both immigrants, wanted the newly married couple to
live with them forever, in what is apparently the Italian way. After a while, Maria told me, she said to her husband, "It’s them or me." So they moved out and began turning out daughters. "My husband is very grateful that we moved out," she says. "Because now he can do so many things for himself, like even the laundry."

Maria does almost all the things that Vera does, but with so much more bonhomie and chairside manner that you don’t mind!! And she is pretty. I thought Vera was very pretty when I first saw her–she looked a little like my current fave, Jessica Biel, until she took out her "Hostel" torture tools and an hour later left me a broken man. This time when I went in, she looked more like Rene Zellweger at her worst, which is very bad, like a Sun-Kist prune kist by alum. And she also looked daggers at me, because she just knew that I had insisted on Maria. Evidently, Dr. Sterling’s patients in droves are trying to insist on Maria. I don’t give Vera long, unless she goes to the dental hygienist’s equivalent of anger-management training. But Dr. Sterling’s clerical staff, which appears to number in the scores, has cottoned on to the Vera Movement and they try to deny as many patients as possible access to Maria . But when Molly, the receptionist, called me a few weeks ago with her nagging ways about finally coming in for a cleaning–she has the persistence of a great telemarketer–I insisted on Maria and I won. I am "older," you see, and I had lung cancer–may that preterite tense be forever accurate–so she couldn’t steamroller me out of it.

This pissed my wife off–did she celebrate my Maria scheduling triumph with me? No, because she was thinking of herself, because she had a month or so earlier allowed herself to be denied Maria–had been hornswoggled into accepting the she’s-almost-never-here strategy adopted by the huge clerical staff who may sympathise with Vera and may thus be trying to salvage her position. Anyway, my wife went to Vera for the second time, and it was just as bad as the first.

But so now I have to begin the implant process for my molars, and Dr. Sterling doesn’t do implants. So he sends me to a maxillofacial surgeon–have you ever heard a more frightening seven syllables?–named Dr. Richter, who I am sure comes from however long a line of Nazis one can come from. I have been to him before. His operating theater is as clean and clear as a morgue. He has a bald head and glasses so reflective that you can’t see his surely beady eyes behind them. He has already done a couple of maxillofacial things to me–I can’t even remember what they were, and now he gets to start the implant process. I go to Dr. Sterling for a half an hour, and he numbs me up, as he puts it, and removes–to put it very gently–a couple of the caps on the lower left, and while I am numbed up, I actually go up to Dr. Richter’s office on the Upper East Side to have him clean up the rest of those molars’ roots, add some crystallized bone grafts (I believe they are from goats or cows or sheep; I’m not kidding) and then screw posts into my actual jawbone, onto which he will six months later screw implanted tooth-like objects, after re-slicing my gum open. And then more of that. Dr, Sterling told me that Dr. Richter might "bulk up" the novocaine when I got to his office. Something else to look forward to.

Dr. Richter appears to be unmarried and is by his own bragging account a great antiques specialist–an extremely troubling combination by itself, but to make matters worse he is also a bow-and-arrow huntsman, as he has proudly told me, at the obviously rehearsed prompting of his mouse-like Irish assistant. "Ask Dr. Richter what he did last June," the assistant says. "What did you do last June, Dr. Richter?" I dutifully ask, knowing that he holds the power of maxillofacial surgery over me. "I went to to a private estate in Ireland that very few outsiders are ever allowed access to," Dr. Richter said. "I got up on a Saturday morning with my guide, and together we crawled on our stomachs for almost a mile to where some great game was to be found. And it was just my luck that morning to come across–guess what?" "I can’t guess," I said. "A royal stag!" Dr. Richter said. "Twelve-point antlers! And I felled it with a single arrow to the neck at a range of almost two hundred yards!" "Wow!" I said. "That must have been some kind of thrill!" "It was," he said. "Now, would you like me to explain the procedure I’m about to perform?"

That is my report.

Daniel Menaker is the author of five books, most recently "A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation." He has won two O. Henry awards for short fiction, was an editor at The New Yorker for twenty years, and served as Executive Editor in Chief at Random House for five years. He is now an editorial consultant for Barnes and Noble’s eReader The Nook.

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