Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Straight from the patient's mouth

My dental appointment is almost over, and as I wait for the hygienist to bring me my usual “goodie bag” of toothpaste, a new toothbrush and floss, I can gaze out the window and look at the State Tower Building, the tallest building in town, and indulge in some remembrances of appointments past….

I’m about 15 years old as my mother and I get off the eighth floor for my first appointment with a guy I’ll call Dr. G.

I need an orthodontist. My parents can’t afford one, but they have heard that Dr. G, a regular dentist, dabbles in orthodontics and isn’t that expensive, so here we are.

We check in with the receptionist, who is young and quite cute. The office’s music system is playing “The Fool on the Hill” by the Beatles.

Dr. G is a pleasant man who favors Hawaiian shirts. He also resembles Robert Benchley, whom I like and who once wrote a funny essay about his own dental woes. The room where Dr. G works is dominated by teeth — sets of choppers (maybe a couple of hundred?) line the walls. They’re molds taken from the mouths of his other young patients.

Dr. G says he is going to make a mold of my teeth and put it on one of the walls, and every time I come in he’ll have me try to pick it out on the wall. Dr. G doesn’t seem to realize that I’m not a little kid and that at this stage of my life I’m far more interested in the cute young receptionist.

He makes the mold (the cement tastes a little like sherbet), and weeks later I begin wearing an “appliance” fastened to the top of my mouth with a loathsome substance called Fasteeth, which definitely doesn’t taste like sherbet. For a few years after I stop wearing the appliance I will sometimes dream that it is still in my mouth, Fasteeth and all. And whenever I hear “The Fool on the Hill” I will always think of Dr. G and that cute young receptionist, though never in that order….

Years later I am taking another scary trip on the elevator that goes all the way up to the top floor of the city’s tallest building and the lair of Dr. X, who is a gum surgeon. Alas, I have developed gum problems. Who knew? When I was a kid the toothpaste commercials only talked about cavities, and I almost never had any, which ticked off my sister Mary, whose teeth would begin to rot if she looked at them sideways.

Dr. X slightly resembles Lionel Atwill, an actor you’ve probably seen if you watch a lot of old movies. Atwill was the go-to guy if you wanted a mad scientist, and at least once he played Professor Moriarty (and a character actually named Dr. X). Dr. X has an assistant named Inga, and if that isn’t a mad scientist’s assistant’s name, I don’t know what is.

Having performed gum surgery on me a while back (I’ll spare you those details), Dr. X is about to check my progress by “charting” my gums. This involves measuring the “pockets” of my gums (in millimeters, I think) with a small device that is not pleasant. As he charts the gums, he calls out each number (anything above three isn’t good) so Inga can write everything down.

During this process, Dr. X, his tone sometimes accusatory, sounds as if he is running a bingo game in hell: “Two … three … two …. FOUR! … Three … two … three … FIVE!” And so on.

After this performance, he turns on a machine and theatrically dictates a note to my dentist, telling him that despite a few FOURs and FIVEs I am on the whole doing OK and will not need any more gum surgery. For now.

Whew! That’s a relief. But I still have to face the elevator ride all the long way down to the lobby. Yipes!

I wonder whether Sir Isaac Newton looked like Lionel Atwill.

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