Tag Archives: Ron Singer

Deep Cleaning

Deep Cleaning

Ron Singer

 

The first time you make a mistake, you can usually shrug it off. But, if you make it again, you may be stupid. (Is there a saying to this effect?) I also believe that serious pain can teach enduring lessons. In the course of two recent cleanings, for example, I have become a poster boy (aged 72) for dental hygiene. Not to belabor the obvious, but this means thorough brushing and flossing after every meal, and no shortcuts with what Scott, my dentist, calls “the electric”: two minutes every night, before bedtime. I have also put an end to procrastination over office visits (to his office—I don’t have one, anymore). These days, I’m not especially busy, and since Mary is still toiling away in the vineyards of primary-school education, we continue to enjoy adequate dental insurance. Ergo, I go. No excuses. 

Accordingly, three months after the last, routine cleaning, and the day after receiving Scott’s friendly reminder (by snail, still), I made a new appointment, then showed up at the appointed hour, on the appointed day. As I climbed out of the cab and paid the driver, I dared to anticipate another “shallow” cleaning. 

While I waited in the anteroom for Scott to finish up with another patient, my whole dental life flashed before me (the last two visits, anyway): two voyages around the eight surfaces of the four quadrants of my mouth (each, recto and verso); my thoughts during the first, “deep” cleaning, which had included the sudden death, from a brain aneurysm, of a thirty-something friend, Charles Goldstein, and the funeral and sightings of his unquiet ghost; and, finally, Scott’s having confided in me that his son had been diagnosed with bi-polar disease. To my subsequent self-flagellation, his unspoken plea for sympathy and guidance had gone unanswered. 

By now, all that seemed like old hat: omissions, obsessions, and mistakes, there was no reason to dwell upon them–or repeat them. Charles’ restless ghost was long gone, even from my dreams. And, at the start of the second visit, I had asked about the boy — albeit rather brusquely. Not to be cynical, but the best good deed may be when you are rewarded for the intention. Scott had replied that his son’s illness had turned out to be “blessedly mild.” After a dicey start, they had regulated the lithium dosage, and the young man seemed to be doing better. 

“Thanks for asking, Marty.”

As soon as he ushered me into his office, I asked again. This time, although I couldn’t remember the son’s name, I tried to put a little feeling into the question: “How’s your boy doing these days, Scott?” In response, I received the same information as last time. Even Scott’s words, if I remember correctly, were the same: “…regulated the dosage … managing better.” Did he use those words with every patient? For an instant, the possibility hurt my amour propre. But then I remembered my cold reaction when he first confided in me. By what right could I now expect a personalized response? As you sow…. Besides, it would have been strange if Scott enjoyed this topic of conversation.

The moment before asking the question, I had hesitated for a single beat. I was having a little tussle with the residue of superstition that I suspect lingers even in rational people. When my wife holds her breath as we drive past that mile-long cemetery in western Queens, or when my daughter throws spilled salt over her shoulder, I confess to a feeling of amused superiority. But I don’t believe anyone is completely un-superstitious. 

Speaking of which, although I stopped seeing the ghost of Charles Goldstein long ago, it occurs to me that the sightings may also have been a subtle form of superstition. When someone several decades younger than you drops dead on the street one day, resurrecting them could be a way of shrugging off the actuarial implication that you are living on borrowed time. And don’t give me that crap about how “we all live on borrowed time.” The borrowed time of a thirty-something is nothing like the borrowed time of a seventy-something.  

As I was saying, at the moment of opening my mouth to ask Scott how his son was doing, I was brought up short by superstition. To ask the question might upset the stasis that the boy had apparently reached. But, then, I thought how superstitious it would be not to ask. And I realized something else: if the stasis (like a bad dental crown) had not held, I did not want to know. The fact remained that I still didn’t really want to share Scott’s burden. What an ignoble feeling! What a relapse into the coldness for which I had berated myself after the deep cleaning! So, as I have indicated, I did ask, after all, and Scott replied, also as indicated. After that, he changed the subject.

“Let’s get started, Marty, I’m running a little late today. Open, please.” 

And he launched into his usual expert renewal of my mouth. Scott’s care is personalized. As usual, he had hung my x-rays from a clothespin in front of a magnifying light three feet from the chair, so he could refer to them. After the hygienist had glided in, painted a little of the “local” onto my gums, and glided back out, Scott did a quick survey of the territory, accompanied by a blow-by-blow description. 

“Ve-ry good. That old crown, back bottom left, seems to be holding. We can postpone replacing it until the new insurance year kicks in…. And, let’s see … the temporary filling, third one in, top right…” Scott has an exceptional chair-side manner.  

Twenty minutes and three quadrants later, as we paused for a rinse and a jaw stretch, superstition once again pounded at the portals of my mind. (Whew!) Perhaps it was because, for whatever reason, we had not been saying much. Under the circumstances, of course, my own capacity to initiate conversation had been very limited. (“Ehhhee, aaww ett.”) But what about Scott? Had his excellent wife run off with the postman? Had his other, “normal” son disappointed? 

Not that our silence had been uncomfortable, but it was anomalous because, normally, Scott natters. Come to think of it, I would be surprised if there were many silent dentists. If he is typical (and I’m not forgetting the bi-polar son), it could be that many dentists suffer from incipient melancholy, which, most of the time, they fend off by nattering. But now and then, their motors must run down.

Thus far, the cleaning had been smooth and easy –a little picking, a little scraping, nothing that tested my medium-low pain threshold. So now I almost said, “Seems to be going much better this time, Scott. All those two-minute sessions with the electric must be paying off.” Yes, I may as well admit it: I was feeling a little cocky about my newfound dental fitness. But I kept my proverbial pie hole shut. Why? Again, superstition: I feared the evil eye (or tooth). So I rinsed (very little blood), he reinserted the sucker, and we proceeded without incident to the northwest quadrant (top left, verso). As we glided toward this ultima thule, I filled our still-companionable silence by revisiting images from a favorite film, Master and Commander. 

“Which of us is which?” I wondered. And “do Galapagos tortoises have teeth? If so, do they decay and fall out as the animals approach an age not unlike eternity?” In fact, as I have since determined via a thirty-second visit to the Google Virtual Public Library, no modern tortoise has so much as a single tooth. 

On we sped, coming without incident into port. Toothbrush, floss, and paste were proffered, hands shaken, and that was that. Promising to “keep up the good work,” I danced from the office, mentally clasping my clean bill of dental health. As I sailed across the sidewalk, hoping to catch a cab home, I did not suffer, as I had after the deep cleaning, from any self-flagellating thoughts about insensitivity or stupidity, connected, of course, with ever-encroaching mortality. But I did recall something else, which made me freeze right there on the curb, on this typically warm June day. 

Early in the course of today’s session, an unwelcome image from another film had flashed, like heat lightning, across my mental horizon. (The careful reader –frequent sailor on these strange seas of literary thought– will see an epiphany about to appear on his own horizon. Not even a shot across the bows could make it tack and turn.)

The unwelcome image was of Lawrence Olivier, the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, torturing poor Dustin Hoffman. Fleetingly, back there in the bottom right recto, it had occurred to me to ask Scott his opinion of this film. The question could possibly have started us on a survey of famous movie dental scenes, like the hilarious one in which biker/dentist Bill Murray tortures Steve Martin. But, once again, I had kept my pie hole –well, not shut, but silent. 

No, I had not asked, “Uhht ooo ink uh Awruhnce Oeeiuheh …?” etc. That question might have been given point by the fact that Scott (like many New York dentists) is, as am I (like many of their patients) a member of what I refer to as “the Jewish perversion” (i.e. persuasion). Not to mention that Hoffman plays the eponymous (Jewish) runner, and that Scott is himself a serious jogger. 

Back out on the sidewalk, on this morning of only moderate humility (boom boom), as I stood at the curb, arm upraised for a cab, I imagined how, had I given rein to curiosity and asked the Olivier question, the conversation might have gone:

Marty (I, me):  You’ve seen Marathon Man, right, Scott?

Scott: Hasn’t everyone seen Marathon Man? 

Marty: Well?

Scott: ‘Well,’ what? (Note: doesn’t want to answer. Drop it!)

Marty: What did you think of the dental scene? 

Scott: What do you think I thought? It was horrible.

Marty: Well, of course, Olivier was playing a Nazi.

Scott: Yeah, I noticed. But he was also playing a dentist. A very bad dentist, one who intentionally inflicts pain. 

So, as my raised arm began to tire, and I realized that this was the hour when the taxi drivers’ shift ends, and that I might have to resort to the hated subway, I decided I had done the right thing, after all. Had this conversation actually taken place, during subsequent procedures of any kind, if Scott happened to inflict any pain on me –unintentional, of course—we would both have awkward flashbacks to the Marathon Man conversation.

Yes, over the (I hope) years to come, during numerous visits (not, I hope, too numerous) to Scott’s office, as I try to preserve my teeth, in order to help sustain a Galapagos-like longevity (if I may be permitted a little latitude), I can schedule my regular appointments, then settle into the familiar chair and enjoy Scott’s wizardry, with the small satisfaction of not having evoked the confused archetype of cruel dentist/Nazi/Jew and hapless patient/victim/also Jew. When one visits a dentist repeatedly over the years, one does not need to bring along needless mental plaque. No, the dentist-patient relationship is sufficiently fraught, without making it worse. Scott, the Dentist, and Marty, the Patient, must and will continue to work together in relative harmony.

Note: “Deep Cleaning” (1) narrates two earlier visits by Marty, a retired advertising copywriter, to Scott, his dentist. “Deep Cleaning” (1) appeared at www.snreview.org › Spring2009

Secrets of the Boardwalk

img_1445Secrets of the Boardwalk

Ron Singer
Last week, Amy, a close friend of ours, told Joan, my wife, that she was worried about Bob, her husband. On two consecutive days, he had uncharacteristically wandered off on his own. The first morning, out of the blue, he had announced his intention of taking the subway out to Coney Island “for a walk on the boardwalk.” Since they normally go to C.I. in tandem, and since she had to work that day (Office Manager for a law firm), she urged him to wait for the weekend. But he refused.

The next day, he went again. That evening, as they were having dinner, his nose red from the spring sunshine and the depleted ozone layer, he made a speech that she interpreted as a semi-confession. Or, as she put it, “His sunburnt nose kept getting longer.”

Joan, who has a practically phonographic memory, quoted Amy’s account of the semi-confession: ‘’’ “ ‘Boy, you wouldn’t believe the characters you run into on the boardwalk these days –junkies, winos, Three Card Monte sharps, restaurant touts who practically mug you. I even saw a couple of teen-aged prostitutes pretending to be fortunetellers! They had a card table, costumes, the works. Can you beat that?’ “ ‘’’
For Amy, the last part had been the kicker: “ ‘The way he described those girls, the look on his face… furtive… I smelled a very big rat!’ ”

Bob is a CPA who owns a small business specializing in the personal income taxes of civil servants, including teachers. (He does ours.) Anything but “furtive,” he normally sounds like an accountant: precise, laconic, on the dry side. Since he had been extremely busy for the two or three months leading up to the end of tax season a few weeks ago, it was easy to see why he had wanted to stretch his legs and suck in some sea air and sunshine. But, obviously, Amy didn’t see it that way.

“I think she’s right,” was Joan’s verdict.

“No opinion.”

* * *

Yesterday, putting their heads together, the women hatched a scheme to find out whether there was fire behind the smoke– a scheme that involved me! As Joan explained at breakfast this morning, “See if you can draw him into a man-to-man confessional, Jerry. Think of it as a chance to make positive use of those world-class social skills you’re always bragging about. You know, have a few drinks…tell him about the time…”

Uh, oh, I thought, here it comes! She was going to bring up the passionate kiss I had admitted to having shared with a sexy young colleague at an office party shortly before my retirement four years ago. Well, she did bring it up, but thankfully, without the pain and rancor that had greeted the original confession. I’ll say this for Joan: she wields a mean wit, but she’s not like that Marx sister, Carpo. (Or is it Carpa?) Even better, I was relieved that the old kiss was all she brought up.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

As soon as she had bustled off to her job (Assistant Principal at a charter school), I called Bob. Although the four of us occasionally went out for brunch together, and although he and I sometimes took walks, we never met for drinks. To keep him from smelling a rat of his own, I would do this my way.

“Beautiful day, eh, Bob?”

“Good morning, Jerry! Yes, indeed! Spring has finally sprung.”

“You must be glad tax season is over.”

“And how!”

“How about a walk in the Gardens today? I hear the cherry blossoms are out. You available?”

“Sounds good,” he said, “Actually, I promised Joe I’d look over an audit notice he got from the IRS. But there’s no hurry, I’m not even going to charge him.”

“That’s very generous of you. Hey, I have a better idea! Let’s take the train out to Brighton. We can have lunch at that Bukharin place with the big Plaster-of-Paris pierogi outside, then walk over to Coney Island on the boardwalk.”

“Actually, I was just there last week, Jerr. Twice, in fact.”
It was time to cut to the chase. “Aha! So you don’t want to go again. I can certainly understand why, after what happened to you with those two prost…”

“ ‘After what happened’ to me’? Nothing happened, Jerry! Amy told Joan about that?”

“Yep. She said something about a pair of ho’s tricked out as fortune-tellers.”

“Well, yes.” There was a brief pause. “But so what? Sure, let’s go for a walk on the boardwalk.”

“Great!”

By now, I wanted to end this conversation, which was making me feel like the guilty party. Maybe, Joan and Amy were right: uncovering the truth about Bob’s boardwalk adventures would require more finesse than I had realized.

* * *

Since we live only a few blocks apart, we agreed to meet at a nearby subway entrance in half an hour. Twenty-nine minutes later, I arrived at the station to find him already waiting. Hurrying down the stairs, we caught a B.B.-bound train. Since the MTA was doing their usual massive infrastructure repairs, we sped past some half-renovated stations without stopping, which made the long trip somewhat shorter. Isn’t it always like that when you’re not in a hurry?

This line goes back and forth between underground and elevated. When it is elevated, it runs above neighborhoods of great variety, ranging from tree-lined streets with big, fancy, stand-alone homes, to commercial districts featuring discount this-and-that stores, to industrial parks full of rooftop graffiti and deserted-looking factories. In some places, every sign is in Chinese. Brooklyn is an exhilarating place to travel through –fast. Since neither of us had brought along a book, we shared Bob’s paper, which we then left on the train, so (as he put it) “some lucky stranger will save $2.50.”

A few minutes before noon, we reached Brighton Avenue and climbed down the long flight of stairs to 6th Street. I love going to B.B. I have never visited Odessa, but I imagine it could be the model for this bustling, vaguely nefarious commercial artery. It’s always a pleasure to be back in old New York, for here you can still find real commercial enterprises –good, cheap restaurants, greengrocers, naughty nightclubs, cavernous ethnic food stores, and exotic clothing emporia. God protect B.B. from gentrification!

Bob and I walked the four short blocks south to 2nd Street, and turned left toward the big pierogi. But when we got there, to our disappointment, we were assaulted through the window by what sounded like the soundtrack from a Central-Asian soft-core porn video. We could also see that all five tables were occupied.

“Let’s take the walk first,” I suggested. “We can grab a hot dog at Nathan’s.”

“Sounds good. Get a little exercise before our unhealthy lunch.”

Even on the side street, we could feel a stiff, chilly wind blowing in from the ocean. Although we were both sensibly dressed, I worried we would freeze our butts off. At the boardwalk, we turned right, toward C.I. Pushing against the crosswinds, we must have made a funny couple. Bob is about six-two, and stoops, trudging along with his hands clasped behind his back. Several inches shorter, I’m “squat” (i.e. big gut), and I take quick little steps, like a kid learning to roller skate. Joan says I look as if I’m running away from something. My shadow? My past?

I had last visited B.B. (with her) about two years ago, just before the city suffered the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. As Bob and I hurried along now, some of the differences I noticed may have been Sandy-related. The ocean side of the boardwalk was dotted with new, one-story, very solid-looking buildings on stout concrete poles. Although there were no signs or other indications of their purpose, I would have guessed they were hurricane-proof restrooms, the proverbial brick shit houses, except that there were other buildings marked as restrooms, on the landward side.
Down on the beach, in addition to a few walkers and joggers, there was a large gathering of seagulls, forming an amoeba in the sand. They looked as if they had flopped down from the sky.

“Birds of a feather flop together,” I quipped. “What are they doing there?”

“Enjoying the sunshine,” Bob opined. “ Just like us, Jerr.”

Since it was a weekday, and so early in the season, traffic on the boardwalk was thin. Thin, in two senses, in number and, I could have sworn, girth: there seemed to be fewer jumbo Russians and others than in summer. Nor was there as good a selection of the hilariously garish outfits I always enjoy at B.B. But there were still a few doozies, such as a middle-aged peroxide blonde wearing a blue fake-fur vest over a paisley kaftan.

The demographic that day seemed deceptively like the peaceable kingdom. On a basketball court in a playground on the landward side (BB at B.B.), I saw a pale, fat boy who, although hatless, looked Jewish. He was gesticulating, and I heard him shout, “Paco! Paco! Pass it to Mohammed! Shoot, Mohamed! Shoot!”

Mohamed, a gawky boy wearing big black-rimmed glasses, launched a clunker off the side of the backboard. These boys belonged to the Bricklayers’ Union. At sixty-seven, I could still have schooled them in the art of the jump shot.

About halfway to Coney Island, spotting an empty bench facing the ocean, we decided to ignore the wind and rest for a few moments. By this point, I must say, I was disappointed that we had not encountered the fortunetellers. I pictured two young cuties seated at a card table, wearing turbans and leather hot pants. As if we were oxygen-deprived, Bob and I sucked in the sea air.

Then, suddenly, there they were, bookending us on our bench, squeezing us together! Showtime! They must have been eighteen or nineteen. One was a faux-redhead, the other a faux-blonde. They were heavily made up, siliconized, and wearing enough perfume to Ralph Laurenify “the multitudinous seas” –i.e. I could no longer smell the salty air. They were dressed like models posing as professional athletes: spandex running-suits in shocking pastels, and day-glow, multi-colored running shoes. Instead of turbans, they sported bright orange baseball caps, worn backwards.

“Hello there, Mr. Bob, baby!” said the blonde, who had plopped down on his end. Her accent combined Russian with Brooklyn-ese. Phonetically, the greeting sounded like, “Alloo there, Meezterr Pob, pay-bee.” You get the idea.

“And, also, hello to you, also, Meezter Zexie,” said the redhead, a contralto, flashing a high-wattage smile and poking me with an elbow.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?” asked the blonde. Not waiting for him to reply, she added, “How about going under the boardwalk again, Bobby? I think you loved that big kiss I gave you last week, didn’t you, you naughty boy! Or this time, maybe something a beet more … serious?”

“Perhaps, you would also like, also, to go under the boardwalk, with me, Mr. Bob’s Nice Friend,” suggested the redhead. “A wonderful soul kiss for only ten dollars, if you’re too scary to do anything else.” She winked at me.

“Or too chip! ” added the blonde. They laughed uproariously.

“ ‘Oh, when the sub goess dowwwn…,’ ” they sang, in unison, dissolving in more laughter.

Bob blushed vermilion. “Not today, girls. I’m still dizzy from last time,” he said, in a weak attempt at levity. Wearing what can only be called a shit-eating half grin, he turned and winked at me.
 Well, that cat had finally sprung from the bag! Joan had been right, after all –sort of. Poor Bob! All he had done was buy a kiss, just like we boys used to do at those carnival booths in the innocent old days. Except, back then, it had cost a nickel.

To make the rest of this long story short, I extricated us from the girls by tossing them a few compliments and ten bucks apiece, “for lunch money.” We left them on the bench, shouting lewd suggestions and blowing kisses as we hurried off. By the time I looked back, they were both texting away furiously.

The rest of the “outing” went pretty much as could be expected. We ate under an umbrella at Nathan’s (the smaller one, on the boardwalk), trying to warm our hands with hot coffee, which we did not drink for fear of being unable to sleep that night. (They didn’t have decaf.) I enjoyed my hot dog, but Bob did not look as if he enjoyed his, at all. ***
Thus concludes the day’s adventures of Bob and Jerry, two typical middle-aged men. All that remains to be said is that, on the way home, I easily persuaded him to confess his peccadillo to Amy. You may be able to guess how I did it. After swearing him to secrecy, I told him about the hottie I was seeing in the Bronx.

For fairness’ sake, the end of this story will be told from the wives’ point of view. The next day, Amy and Joan are in their respective offices, talking on their cell phones. As Amy recounts Bob’s spluttered confession, employing elaborate, hilarious mimicry, the women almost die of laughter. When she finishes, there is a pause. Neither of them wants to get back to work. This is too much fun!

“You know, Joan,” Amy remarks, “your Jerry is so clever and persuasive … cute, too. Quite a guy! In fact, I’d be surprised if he never…”

Joan clears her throat. “Now, now, that’s not nice, dear! Let’s not go there.”

And, closing their phones, they leave it at that.