Smile When You Say That


My daughters are mighty Amazonion warriors in the war against tooth decay, plaque and gingivitis.  They brush and floss and all that stuff dentists and their latex-gloved henchwomen preach.

Me? I’m just a handful of steps above conscientious objector in this war.  Yeah, I brush my teeth every day, and I’m getting better about flossing more than only when I get a tough shred of steak or some celery strings caught between my teeth.  I don’t visit the dentist with the regularity of the rest of the family. I’m not lazy.  I’m not really fearful of pain or anything like that.  I just have this block about lying there and letting someone futz around one of the very few means of entry and egress my body has.

A lot of this stems from experiences I’ve had with dentists since I was a kid.  You know, traumatic instances that have laid psychological minefields between me and a smile like Julia Roberts’.

For instance, my first dentist was Dr. X.  He was a nice enough guy, I guess. But we’re talking about the dark ages of dentistry, before Americans learned that you could win fabulous prizes by suing the bejeezus out of imperfect health-care providers.  Back then, Mom would put me on a bus and tell the driver to let me off at such and such corner and I would just hop off and walk into the Doc’s little office on Allen Street in Albany.

If I remember correctly, it was a dark little place with magazines like Life and Look in the waiting room, sporting covers with Douglas MacArthur or Francisco Franco on them.  And, no I’m not so old that they were current.  Let’s just say General MacArthur had faded away a few years before I visited the Doc.  Occasionally Mrs. Doctor K. would be sitting behind a counter where she would handle appointments and bookkeeping.  You know, Mom and Pop dentistry.  About half of the time, though, you walked in, rang a bell and waited for The Man to come get you after he washed the gore from his hands.

Eventually, Dr. X. would usher you into his little museum of ancient torture implements.  Mind you, we’re talking the 1960s here.  First off, Doc did not use anesthesia of any type.  No Novocain, no gas, and, since you had to keep your mouth open, no bullet to bite on.

If I remember correctly, Dr. X. also didn’t believe in electricity much, either.  I have a vivid memory of having a tooth filled, in which Dr. X. used a drill that was powered by a foot pedal he pumped, like my Grandma had on her sewing machine.  Before I passed out, I know I smelled and saw smoke floating from my mouth.  Yep, smoke, like a signal for help when no one could hear my whining gurgle.  Every time I went to Dr. X, it was like the college of enamel cardinals had elected a new Pope.

Pained and disoriented, I would stagger outside to catch the bus home.  One time, I was so whacked out and blind from his keeping me smiling, that I caught the bus going in the wrong direction and sat panicked through a tour of parts of Albany I had never seen before without the security of Mom and Dad driving.

I successfully dodged full-fledged dental visits for quite some time after that.

Eventually, though, the price must be paid for allowing genetics and Crest to serve as one’s sole purveyors of oral health care.  It was then that I visited the offices of the dentist we’ll call Dr. Y on the recommendation of my Mom.

She said, “Oh, Dr. Y’s so nice, Joe.  He and your father were friends in grade school and high school.”   That sounded benign enough, so I made an appointment.

The weekend before my initial visit to Dr. Y, I was visiting the folks and mentioned to my Dad that I was going to see his old friend in a couple of days.  “Oh, Jesus,” he said.  “That guy!  He was such a weird kid, nuts about germs.  We would all go the Boulevard Cafeteria and sit in a booth and take turns spitting on his silverware.”  Uh, thanks, Dad, I thought.  I hope this guy is a professional and doesn’t carry a grudge.

That Tuesday, I walked across the big open porch that sat like an old lady’s lap on one of those great Victorian homes on upper Madison Avenue.  I checked in, noticed the yellowing dental hygiene cartoons on the bulletin board and waited for the call.  Lotsa yucks in dentistry when you’re the only one in the room who’s vertical, I guess.

“Joe?”  I looked up to see this beaming professional-looking guy standing in the doorway — glasses and brown hair, light blue scrub shirt like a real doctor.  “Hi,” he said, “I’m Dr. Y.  C’mon in and let’s take a look-see.”

Whew, I thought, as I lay back in his long cushy chair.  He seems like a nice guy.  Gentle timbre in his voice – I like that.  Pretty new equipment.  OK!  Very friendly demeanor.  This should be all right.

“Okay, Joe, lean back and open wide.  Let’s take a look,” Dr. Y said.  I remember he had these little magnifier lenses perched low on the bridge of his nose. I could see them as I gaped, wide-eyed at his face, thinking that Mom was right and Dad was kidding and exaggerating again.  Dr. Y’s eyes, even through those magnifiers, gave me a feeling of care from a true professional.

Just then he sighed and said, “You know, Joe, seeing you here, you remind me so much of your Dad when we were young.  You look so much like him.”  At which point, his kind eyebrows took on the form of a “V,” its acute angle pointed directly to the cavity-sprinkled target of his abuse for what would be the next nine months.  Damn that old man of mine.  How does that saying go?  Something about the “sins of the fathers?”

I now go to another dentist.  Between Dr. Y. and my new one, I was a patient of another.  He was a real good oral surgeon and did a great job saving a couple of my teeth and did some great crown work for a pair he couldn’t completely save. Let’s call him Dr. Z.

If he’s so good, why do I go to a new dentist?

Well, I used to like to take the very first appointment of the day and Dr. Z. and I would open the office together.  One morning, he was scheduled to do a couple of fillings, so he plopped me in the chair and fired up all the lights and equipment in his area, yawned and took a look at my x-ray.  “Hmm, okay,” he said.  Grabbing a long-needled syringe, he proceeded to fire about a pint-and-half of Novocaine into multiple sites around my right lower jaw.

He walked away to greet the staff as they wandered in. Meanwhile, my jaw went to sleep.  Dr. Z. came back, smiled, and said, “All numbed up?”  He was so sure that I would be, that he didn’t even look at me for an answer.  His back was turned to me as he held my X-ray up to the light.  Just then I saw him freeze, flip the X-ray over and hiss, “Oh, shit!”  There are  only a few professionals who you do not want to hear those two words from as they are applying their skills to your person.  I’m told one is a bikini waxer.  Another is a mortician. Another is your dentist.

The perennially tanned Dr. Z. whirled around, ashen-faced.  He poked my now-droopy right lower lip.  “Uh, Joe, I’m sorry,” he said.  “It looks like I’ve anesthetized the wrong side of your jaw.”

I’m sure I looked like a goggle-eyed corpse laying there—mouth open and oozing drool, no chatter emanating from my normally peppy orifice, paralyzed in mind and body.  I lay, unblinking, staring at this once-Olympian god of gum health, now reduced to imperfect mortal.

“What do you want to do?” he sheepishly asked.  “We could numb up the other side and take care of your cavities. Or you could make an appointment for another time, which I fully understand you wanting to do.  We could take care of you then.”

I think the Novocaine had seeped into my brain, because I know I wasn’t thinking clearly when I grinned like a pole-axed stroke victim and replied, “Thathps okay, Dox.  Lethps get thithps over withps.”  I sounded like I was talking with the remnants of a popped balloon between my lips.

Dr. Z. worked his usual magic after that, efficiently and expertly anesthetizing, drilling, and filling my left jaw and its imperfections.

Waddaya gonna to do? I thought.  It’ll all be over in a couple of minutes and you’ll be done for six months or more.  What’s the worst that could happen?

“Okay, Joe, we’re done.  Rinse and spit,” Dr. Z. said.  That’s when I got a preview of “the worst.”  I lifted the water cup to where I believed my lips were and poured it in my lap.  I tried again, squishing it through the corner of my mouth where there was a slight sense of pressure.  My attempt to rinse and spit left nothing dry within a five-foot radius of my mouth–in three dimensions.

“I am so sorry, Joe,” Dr. Z. kept saying.  “Please, don’t have anything hot to drink for the next few hours and don’t eat anything solid for that time, either.”  Embarrassed and professionally de-pantsed at my expense, Dr. Z. moved me over to his partner’s half of the practice that afternoon.

Of course, I left the dentist’s office and sped right to work, where I discovered that Dr. Z. might have miscalculated on the amount of painkiller he had given me.  By noon I was still drooling, doing my best to keep my lower lip from hitting the space bar on my keyboard, and having a very difficult time speaking clearly.  How difficult?  I made Sylvester the Cat sound like Lord Olivier, spraying saliva around the office like a defective fire sprinkler.

My chin began to itch a bit then and I felt that I was getting some feeling back, so I joined my friends at an office pizza party for which I had previously kicked in a few bucks.  “Heck,” I said, “I can feel my jaw now.  I’ll just be careful.”  So, I grabbed myself a big gooey wedge of cheesy goodness and bit off a chunk.  Chew, chew, chew.

“Jeez, this crust is chewier than I thought.  And it’s a little oily, too,”  I said to myself. I could actually feel the ooze on my chin, which I felt was progress.

Wiping a napkin across my chin, I noticed that the oil was red and I had been eating my lip for the previous thirty seconds or so.

I decided to forego lunch to suck on a cold compress the rest of that afternoon.

But my teeth were perfect!

Okay, pass the floss and stand back while I spit.

2 thoughts on “Smile When You Say That

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