October 29, 2009
When we were preparing to move to our Puget Sound island, a filling broke and I needed a dentist in a hurry. I decided to bite the bullet, so to speak, and go to a dentist on the island. The phone book listed two dentists in the nearest small town to where our home was being built. I called one. The receptionist I talked to presented her boss and office very well, but the best day for me at that time was Friday, and that dentist closed his office on Fridays.
So I was left with Frank. I did a search for information about Frank on the web. I found one odd but promising comment on the web site of Powell’s books (the leading bookstore in Portland, Oregon.). I came across an interview with a moderately successful writer who told a charming and admiring anecdote about Frank the dentist. I won’t put it here because it has too much distinguishing detail, but if you really want to read it, email me and I will link you to it if I trust you. If a fairly successful author plugs a dentist on Powell’s Books, that’s good enough for me to give him a try, so I made an appointment. Apparently all of Frank’s patients have used him for many years, so his receptionist must have been a bit surprised to have a new patient call her out of the blue, but she handled the surprise with aplomb.
When I went in to see Frank and to get my painful tooth attended to, I met a tall, laconic man about a year younger than myself. His pleasant, competent, attractive receptionist is also a dental assistant, but I was a bit surprised to discover that Frank almost never called her in to assist him.
Unlike every other dentist I ever had, Frank did about 95% of his work by himself. He grabbed all his tools of torture by himself. When it came time for my six-month cleaning, Frank did the cleaning himself instead of using a hygienist.
“Do you ever use hygienists?” I asked him.
“Oh, yes, I have a few times, but they always have babies and move on, so finally I decided it was easier to do it myself,” he replied.
I figured if my dentist does the cleaning himself instead of handing it down to a hygienist, I am either getting the best dental service in the world, or I am living in a world of delusion.
“Did you ever work with another dentist, or have you always been a sole practitioner?” I asked him.
“Yes, I tried working with other dentists,, but it just never works out,” he told me.
He always has jazz and blues playing on a stereo in his office, and he had a large painting of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (with Roy holding a guitar) on his dental chair room, as well as an actual guitar hanging in the same room.
“Do you play the guitar?” I asked.
“Yes, but as my arthritis has gotten worse, I can’t play much any more.” I wondered a bit as his handling of dental tools seems deft enough, but I decided not to worry about it until a drill slips enough to make me scream.
“Did you ever consider music as a career?” I asked him. He said he enjoyed playing music, but the dedication necessary to be professionally successful took all the enjoyment out of it. (This is a bit similar about RG’s Mommy’s comment about her reasons for abandoning her one-time goal of being a concert violinist.)
One time he told me, “The first year I worked as a dentist, I joined another dentist in Alaska. The oil drilling and pipeline construction was at its peak. We worked 12 hours a day and charged whatever we wanted. Boy, I made a lot of money. However, when winter came I had never been so cold in my life, so I left Alaska at the end of that winter. There was no way any amount of money would compensate for being that cold.”
I could identify. One of the six high schools I attended was in Wisconsin, and I still remember waiting for the school bus when the temperature was -38 degrees. I swore once I became an adult, I would not live some place that got that cold.
“How did you decide to become a dentist?” I once asked him.
“When I was in college, I couldn’t get the classes I wanted. I noticed if you were in pre-med or pre-dental, you got to the top of the list when it came to getting classes, so I told the university I was planning to become a dentist. After a while, I actually applied for the dental school, and, to my surprise, they accepted me.”
I told Frank how a friend of mine once related the following anecdote to me.
My friend said, “My dentist was working on me and suddenly exclaimed, ‘When I think about the 18-year-old kid who made this career choice, I could kill that kid now.’”
Frank chuckled but indicated that dentistry wasn’t that painful for him.
He mentioned a wife once, so I asked, “Do you have any children?” He immediately answer in a manner that mixed a charming combination of determination, strong opinion, self-awareness, and cheerful geniality, “God No! I hate kids!”
I said his exclamation reminded me of comments by W. C. Fields such as:
Children should neither be seen or heard from – ever again.
I never met a kid I liked.
I like children – fried.
I began to put together a portrait of a person who had arranged his life fairly quite well to suit himself but cheerfully makes adjustments as he has to.
His final comment to me was, “Pretty soon every doctor and every dentist will be working for the government; it’s inevitable. Fortunately, it will be too late to get me.”