Thursday, March 15, 2012

"An Unusual Dentist"

“Teeth, teeth, teeth, teeth,

Teeth, teeth, teeth.

The bottom of the sea

Is covered with teeth.”

Do you see how many times I repeated the word, “teeth”? Seven times. You’re a writer. So you know that’s exactly the right number of times to repeat it.

“Teeth, teeth, teeth, teeth

Teeth, teeth, teeth.

The bottom of the sea

Is covered with teeth.”

You repeat it seven times. Nine times is too many. Five times is not enough.

This was my introduction to my first dentist when I moved to Los Angeles, Dr. Sydney Garfield, recommended by Lorne Michaels (who had arrived in L.A. a year earlier) which he supplemented with the credit – not a professional credit, of course; this was Hollywood – “He does Jack Nicholson’s teeth.”

Jack Nicholson’s teeth looked all right. So I went.

Before moving on, three things are worth mentioning about the above-quoted poem: One, Dr. Garfield had written it himself, including it in his book, entitled, not surprisingly, Teeth Teeth Teeth. (He had quoted it to me to demonstrate the timeless indestructibility of teeth, the bottom of the sea being covered with them.) Two, he believed he was a writer – hence, the certainty concerning the seven-time repetition of the word “teeth.” And three, while he was quoting the poem, he was simultaneously scraping plaque off my teeth, having previously anaesthetized me with Nitrous Oxide, also known as “Laughing Gas.”

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the poem.

Dr. Garfield’s Beverly Hills office was unique in my dental-office-visiting experience. The walls (and ceiling) were plastered with sketches, paintings and murals, all of them painted directly onto the walls (and ceiling.)

Imagine a person, totally tattooed from head to toe. This was that tattooed person, as an office. There were also assorted sculptures, which, if not executed by the same artists, seemed products of the same artistic school – The School Of People Making Wacko Art And Paying For Their Dental Work With It.

For most of the years that I went to him, Dr. Garfield worked entirely alone. No receptionist. No dental hygienist. No partner. In fact, thinking back, I also do not recall any other patients going out or waiting to see him. I’d come in, and it was just Sydney, me, and the artwork.

Physically, Sydney Garfield is hard to describe, partly because I’m not a great describer, and partly because he did not look like anybody I had ever seen before. His face had a polished, waxy quality, as if recently buffed at a nearby carwash. His hair was shiny, jet black and surreal. It wasn’t a toupee, I don’t think, though by contrast, it gave toupees a comparative credibility. These slightly “off” characteristics made me think that if those parts were less than authentic, which parts of him could I actually rely on?

His age? Elusively indeterminate. He told me that, prior to becoming a dentist, he had been an aeronautical engineer, working on the design of Howard Hughes’s The Spruce Goose. The Spruce Goose had been built in the 40’s. So he was at least twenty-five years older than World War II.

Equally elusive was his career track. He started out as an engineer, he gave it up for dentistry, and when I met him, he was determined to switch his line of work once again. This time, to screenwriter.

This change in employment was not always enthusiastically received. He told me how, when he mentioned it to his celebrity patient when he flew up to work on his teeth during the filming of The Misssouri Breaks, Mr. Nicholson had replied, (imagine here an indeterminately aged engineer turned dentist turned screenwriter’s imitation of a world-famous movie star):

“Sydney, you’re a great dentist. Whaddaya wanna be writer for?”

But that’s what he desperately wanted to be. And as his initial effort, he had penned a spec (unpaid for) movie script, entitled, Le Juicy Giraffe, whose subject was – again, not surprisingly – plastic surgery.

The script read like a medical manual, typed in a screenplay format. Not just a medical manual, but a medical manual that had been written by a writer, who, it would not be a giant “reach” to believe, had been under the influence of Nitrous Oxide when he did so.

Every dental visit was the same. I’d arrive for my appointment, and there was Sydney, sitting alone in his waiting room, screenplay in hand, eager to read me his latest scenes or revisions from Le Juicy Giraffe.

He had chosen me to read to, it was assumed, because I was a writer. Though this is hardly a certainty. Once, he called my house, and finding me not at home, he read his most recent material to my stepdaughter, Rachel, who was, at the time, less than ten.

Years later, I caught him on a Cable Access Channel, where, for a small fee, you could appear on television. Sydney had purchased airtime so he could sit and read his movie script to whomever happened to be tuning in.

Sydney’s show biz connections were limited, at least, as he assumed, compared to mine. Once, he called to ask if I could get him a meeting with Jerry Lewis. I informed him I did not know the man.

Have I adequately sold “unusual” concerning this man? I believe I have. But you should also know that his unusualness had its touching side. Knowing I was fearful of treatment, Sydney once drove out to Santa Monica, to pick me up and take me to his office. I already mentioned his providing me with Nitrous Oxide, an anesthetic generally restricted to more serious dental work than a cleaning. And finally, you know how after they work on your teeth, dentists always say, “No food or drink for at least an hour”? Immediately after my appointments, Dr. Garfield invariably took me to lunch.

His passing came as a shock to me. One day, a friend called and said, “Did you read that your dentist died?” And so he had. It was in the paper. Sydney Garfield had been hit by a car, while crossing an intersection. A sad but perfect ending for a mind-wandering dreamer.

He was probably thinking about Le Juicy Giraffe. And how he might interest Nicholson in playing the lead.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr Pomerantz; most days you make me laugh or smile, today you brought a tear to my eye. Well done.


Tania said...


Randy Ontegues said...

Today we genuinely need the nitrous. Well done.

Frank said...

Sounded a great dentist.

Pierre Cardan said...

Sydney Garfield was a man full of dreams. He will always be remembered as a great dentist who aspired to become a writer. It’s amazing to think that he was able to achieve two professions in his lifetime. He could’ve reached his dream of becoming a writer as well, if he was given more time in this world. Well, I would love to have a dentist like him, if I were given the chance. He seemed fun and interesting to be with, just by reading your story.