The summer before I started graduate school, I had to find a job. I was responsible for paying half of my college tuition, and I still owed my father for my senior year at Mount Mary College. My sister Susan had worked for several summers at our brother-in-law’s dental office, and my parents saw this as the ideal job: Mel would drive me to and from work, he paid a good wage, we knew I would have a reasonable boss, and the hours were steady. What more could I want?
I wanted to spend my summer reading novels, watching the ongoing saga of Luke and Laura on General Hospital and going to the pool. I was a twentieth century version of Bartleby the Scrivener; my go-to response to “Get a job” was “I’d prefer not to.” Bartleby didn’t owe money to my parents, though. I did. It was fated to be my summer with The Good Dentist.
I thought of Mel as The Good Dentist because of my mother. When my sister Marbeth got married, my mother often worried out loud about her new son-in-law’s dental talents: what if he was a terrible dentist? Would we have to go to him anyway, because he was family? And ruin our teeth? How far must family loyalty go? Would we have to lie and tell him he was a good dentist, even if he was a terrible dentist? Would we need a Stealth Dentist to keep our teeth healthy and only pretend to entrust our teeth to Mel? And would he give us a family discount? Luckily, my mother’s concerns were put to rest once she actually had Mel perform dental work on her; he was an excellent dentist. For the rest of her life, my mother would periodically remind us what a stroke of good fortune Mel’s dental talent was, sparing our family from all manner of angst and possible dental infidelity.
As a brother-in-law, I liked Mel a lot; I just didn’t want to work for Dr. Foley. Mel’s office was in a depressing place called South Milwaukee; he was located in the heart of that city’s downtown, which was approximately 2.5 blocks long. From Mel’s office, one could walk to the bank, to Walgreens, to the tavern, or to Lloyd’s Lunch, a decrepit looking diner where the glitterati of South Milwaukee dined every day. The office itself was small and beige, tucked in right next to an insurance agency that reminded me of the Ardlou Insurance Agency, the job I had abandoned for my dental apprenticeship. (For the story of my one-day career at the Ardlou Insurance Agency, see Jobs I Have Loathed, III: The Ardlou Insurance Agency)
I had visited this office many times as a patient, and not once did I think, “What a fun place to hang out! I wish I could stay longer!” Mel was a good guy, his staff was nice, but the music playing in the background made my teeth hurt and my sister Marbeth ordered the magazines. For reasons I never understood, she offered the dental patients of South Milwaukee Chicago Magazine, Golf Digest and The New Yorker. I was willing to go to Mel’s office at appropriate intervals for teeth maintenance, but I was always happy to leave after an hour or so and go home.
Mel worked really, really hard. Two summers of watching Susan come home taught me that when Mel worked hard, everybody worked hard. And Mel always worked hard. I had been hoping for a less intense summer job experience. My sister Susan had dealt with the stress of life as a Dental Assistant by stress-eating her way through many tubs of ice cream. Having finally lost 100 pounds the previous year, I was determined to fatten up only my bank account that summer. Graduate school was on my horizon and was certain to feature at least a few brilliant-yet-soulful young men. I wanted to greet all potential boyfriends with my newly svelte figure. I would be a Dental Assistant for three months, but I was determined to transition from my Dental Summer to my new career as a graduate student in size six blue jeans.
Once I started working for him, Mel was no longer Marbeth’s husband and my affable brother-in-law; he was now Dr. Foley–my boss. On the first day at my new job, I walked to their house (they lived just one block from my parents’ house) and together Mel and I made the forty minute drive to South Milwaukee. It was a very hot summer, and Marbeth and Mel didn’t believe in air-conditioned cars. They had grown up without air-conditioning and figured they had turned out just fine without such frivolous excess.
One of my Dental Assistant Tasks was to man the reception desk, and so I had to dress well every day. In 1980, that meant wearing pantyhose. There is no experience quite like sitting in an oven-hot car in pantyhose, feeling little tributaries of sweat snaking down one’s legs to puddle in one’s shoes. We always rolled down all four windows, but that merely allowed the sauna-like air to blow directly in our faces and hair. By the time we arrived at the office, I was at least one pound thinner from water loss, which I actually counted as a real plus in my whole “weight maintenance” program.
The office, thank God, was air-conditioned, so arriving at work felt good. We always arrived well before Dr. Foley’s first patient, so it was quiet and cool when we walked in, a state of affairs that changed fast. Every day was a busy day at the Dental Office, which was great for Mel’s bottom line but hectic for his staff. Several of Milwaukee’s biggest factories were located in or near South Milwaukee, and the women and men who worked in those factories had very good medical and dental benefits. (Which, in my mind, they richly deserved; we drove past some of those hulking factories enroute to the dental office, and they were clearly places where a great deal of hard physical labor was going on.) Those factory workers and their families were Mel’s patients; there were a lot of them, and they took good care of their teeth.
My place at the Dental Office was behind the reception desk; I answered the phone, ushered patients back to the inner sanctum when it was their turn, and at the end of the day, I “balanced the board,” which meant that I made sure that the amount of money we took in matched the amount of money that was charged that day. There were two columns of numbers on “the board,” and if they didn’t match at the end of the day, we stayed until they did, no matter how long that took. Balancing the board was definitely the task I worried about the most. I dreaded those times when the board didn’t balance and we couldn’t leave. The Dental Office was already devouring most of my life, and on those late days it snapped up the precious few hours I could still call my own.
It was pretty clear to me that Mel loved being a dentist. It’s a good thing he did, because he was at the office all the time. That meant, of course, that I was at Mel’s office all the time as well. And I did not love being a Dental Assistant. Five mornings a week, we jumped into the SaunaMobile and drive to South Milwaukee in time to greet Mel’s first patient at 9:00 a.m. On a routine day, his last patient came in at around 5:00 p.m. But there really were no “routine days” at the Dental Office. Mel probably saw the various “surprises” that cropped up during the day as interesting new challenges that kept him fresh. I viewed them as random sneak attacks on my personal life.
Teeth are not as predictable as one might like, and peoples’ mouths can go all to hell whether they have an appointment or not. Mel had to deal with “emergencies” as they happened, which they did with infuriating regularity. A Dental Emergency meant that everything else on the schedule had to be pushed back to a later time. I started to secretly despise those people with their broken teeth, their cracked crowns, their smashed up dental plates, and their bleeding gums. Their emergencies robbed me of my evenings. I had to work hard not to glower at them and mutter under my breath about stupid people who did ridiculous things to and with their teeth. I had to stop myself from saying things like, “You thought it was a good idea to rip that tag off the pillow or open that beer bottle with your teeth? You’re an idiot! A fool! And now it is I who must pay the price!”
Mel gave the office staff an hour for lunch, but of course I rarely ate lunch, because I was terrified of gaining weight. I would use my hour walking the hot and dusty streets of South Milwaukee. Not exactly a thriving metropolis, the city had little to offer me as diversion. By the end of my first week as a Dental Assistant, I had “seen the sights” in South
Milwaukee, so I spent my lunch hours on a bench outside the bank, reading and sweating. In a dental version of the Stockholm Syndrome, I would long for my free hour to end so that I could get back into the air-conditioned office. Once in a while, I would stop at Walgreen’s and buy an ice cream sandwich, but then I would castigate myself for endangering my new Graduate School Svelte Self for mediocre Walgreens food. Had I remembered that I was surely going to sweat that ice cream sandwich off on the ride home, I might have relaxed more.
Each day at the Dental Office was a strange combination of stress and mind-numbing boredom. The stress would flare up when a patient called or came in with a Dental Emergency, or the board wouldn’t balance, or a patient’s bridge came back wrong from the lab but didn’t fit in the patient’s mouth. Sometimes a patient would come in who hadn’t paid anything on her bill, and then my job was to be The Enforcer. When this part of the job was explained to me, Jeanette the Office Manager told me that I really had to impress upon the patient that this nonpayment was a Serious Situation. I wondered if I might have to come out from behind my desk and whisper in my best Marlon Brando voice, “Nobody sees Dr. Foley without putting some the money in the till.” “Well, no,” Jeanette replied. “Not like that. But Dr. Foley does let us say, in a very stern voice, “PLEASE.”
Whereas stress resulted when the schedule was ruined, epic boredom accompanied a routine day. One of my responsibilities was answering the phone. The phone never actually rang; it did a sort of “ding-dong” thing. All Day Long. Then there was the “soothing background music” that was piped into the office from radio station WEZW—thus named because, according to the breathy low-voiced announcer, all of their songs were “eee-zeee.” Much of this “eee-zeee” music was produced by a band called The Living Strings. In the odd quiet moment at the Dental Office, I would contemplate the irony of this band name and imagine more accurate monikers such as “The Embalmed Bodies,” “The Very Dead Strings,” “Theme from the Myth of Sisyphus,” or “Music to Listen to When You Wish You Were Already Dead.” If I am ever put in charge of getting classified information out of a government source—not likely, but I am prepared just in case–I am going to force that source to listen to WEZW—“eee-zeee”–for forty hours a week. I guarantee results.
When I wasn’t busy renaming The Living Strings, I conducted internal debates about which days were worst: the stressful days where Anything Could Happen If It Involved Teeth, or the boring days when the monotony was so relentless that I awaited my bathroom break the way a four year old awaits a trip to Disneyworld. My answer changed from week to week. Even though emergencies made for a less rip-my-own-eyeballs-out boring day at the dental office, I did long for the steady boredom of an ordinary day when confronted with Dental Chaos. One day about halfway through the summer, the schedule had been interrupted by two emergencies, which meant we were hopelessly backed up. The waiting room was filled to the rafters with increasingly cross patients waiting for their delayed appointments. Every chair was filled and people were standing. There was so much noise we couldn’t even hear The Living Strings, which was actually kind of a bonus. Mel was harried, the staff was harried, the phone was ringing and I felt like an air traffic controller at O’Hare Airport during rush hour.
As we were trying to juggle these many crabby balls, the office phone rang. I picked it up, trying to sound less cross and panicked than I felt, and I said “GoodAfternoonDr.Foley’sofficeHowCanIHelpYou?” A woman’s voice at the other end of the line breathed, “Luke Lives.” Just as I was trying to puzzle out who was calling and who Luke was, an elderly gentleman walked into the office, strode up to my desk, and handed me a tissue. Inside the tissue were several bloody teeth.
Holding what I assumed were this man’s teeth (unless he had stolen them from someone else, which seemed unlikely), I said to the caller, “Excuse me?” The mystery caller turned out to be my cousin Kathy from Chicago, giving me an update on the adventures of Luke and Laura on General Hospital. I told my cousin that I needed to hang up now and give Dr. Foley some teeth that I was holding. No one in the office that day made it home on time, I lost complete track of Luke and Laura, and I hurt my cousin’s feelings.
When we were finally finished for the day, Mel and I would jump back into the SaunaMobile and head for home. It was almost always well after 6 p.m. when I peeled my damp legs from the seat of Mel’s car, waved a weak “Hey there” to my sister, and walked back to my parents’ house. Sweaty and exhausted, I would shower and eat dinner, which just about brought me to bedtime where I could rest up for the next day’s Sisyphean Dental Labors.
It was a formative summer. I learned how to balance a board. I swore that I would never buy a car that didn’t have air conditioning. I concluded that The Living Strings were almost certainly the cause of most migraine headaches in the greater Milwaukee area. And I saw my brother-in-law in a new light. While I groaned and complained and drowned in self-pity enroute to South Milwaukee every morning, Mel hummed cheerfully along with the radio.
When the summer ended, I was more than ready to get back to school. But it was an education to have spent the summer watching someone else love work that seemed utterly unlovable to me. And despite those occasional ice cream sandwiches from Walgreens, I only gained three pounds. My debts paid, I was ready to be a student again. Even during my Summer in Dental Hell, though, I had learned some important things: Walgreens makes inferior ice cream, silence is better than bad music, people do incredibly stupid things with their teeth, the only fun thing in a New Yorker magazine are the cartoons, there is a point at which panty hose will actually start to melt, and human beings are lucky that there are some among us who are willing—even eager—to put their hands in our mouths and fix our teeth. Or, as my mother would say, “Thank God for Good Dentists.”