Post-Traumatic Bronx Bargainism
ad bellowed, "Okay, Bobby, time to go!"
Out popped an audible "Grrohhnn!" My onomatopoeic misery ricocheted around the kitchen and hallway where I zipped up my baseball jacket and dejectedly trailed after my dad out of the Marble Hill Project apartment door. My appointment with doom grew nearer. My posture sagged as we waited for the elevator. I became even smaller than my actual diminiutuve11 year-old body as I tried to become invisible.
Any other time, I would have loved to be traveling with dad, taking the borough streets or highway in our gently used, two-toned, green and white 1956 Buick Super, our two-and-a-half ton behemoth with the stately 3-hole design in its fenders. It offered the sound of security and promise of comfort as you slammed the door shut. Any other time, it would have been a great time for a ride. Any other time, dad would even have let me "feed the gas," as he used to do when it was just me and him; sitting next to him up front, using my left foot to carefully press on the accelerator while he maintained steering and breaking duties. Any other time it would have been great, but not this time. Looming ahead was a mandatory visit to Benny Pensky, a.k.a. Benny the Butcher!
From the rear parking lot in back of Building 1, we set out across West 225th Street, bearing toward the top of the Bailey Avenue hill across West Fordham Road, traversing the much steeper, twisting climb up Loring Place; then veering sharply to the left, heading west past the Bronx Hall of Fame rotunda of NYU-uptown. Facing the Francis Martin Library at the stop light, making a right turn onto University Avenue and heading south would then take us somewhere into the West Tremont section of The Bronx, where Benny plied his dubious trade.
My mouth went dry. Pin-pricks of anxious voltage surged through my gut, then down into nether regions "where the sun don't shine." I was now mere minutes from The Torture. I had to shake it off, look past it, pretend I was somewhere else, pretend I was someone else, pretend it was almost over.
Dad lucked out and fell in to a parking space nearby, as perhaps another customer was departing. "Good enough!", he declared, as he maneuvered the car back and forth with it coming to rest within feet (perhaps yards), rather than inches, of the curb. Getting out of a car you always knew to first look down rather than just bound out upon the Bronx streets. All children became rapidly trained from toddler age onward to avoid the omnipresent dog excrement potentially under foot. Within a few strides of disembarking, we neatly side-stepped a hot steaming pile of freshly deposited brown-red swirled dog shit; large breed variety. An omen! It looked like it was dispensed from a Carvel custard machine unto the ground, but without the cone or cup. The brilliance of its color was amplified by the bright sunlight on this cool Saturday morning in the early Spring of 1963. As I quickly reflected on the differing scenes one might remember in nature, within the next twenty feet or so, we managed to again avoid another batch from a smaller pooch. Recovering from our fancy footwork of hops, skips, and jumps utilized to get past the first canine challenge, instituting a separate set of Fred Astaire steps, we cleverly sidestepped this second obstacle, then narrowly avoided crashing into the ironically placed, rectangular sign set into the concrete street- which clearly stated in black and white block printing: CURB YOUR DOG! 25 DOLLAR FINE!
Entering the non-descript pre-WWII apartment building where Benny had his antiquated office, the contrast from bright sunshine to near total darkness was disorienting. Yellow and orange spots blazed against blackness. We had to feel along the wall for the buzzer until our pupils gradually expanded to adjust for the low level of light. Upon entering the waiting area, there were lamps with low wattage bulbs, barely illuminating the interior of dark green chairs and a darker green couch. The dim light, not much brighter than that in the hallway, also revealed standing ash trays in every corner of the room, including an amber bubble glass model and a dark a green multi-level glass variety. Through the cigarette, pipe and cigar smoke, one could make out black and white pictures, perhaps engravings, along the walls which showed medieval barber-surgeons performing operations and Civil War army medics performing emergency procedures. My stomach dropped another level as I spotted a series of alabaster busts against the wall by the window nearest the street. There were the chiseled faces of a solemn-themed gallery of famous torturers throughout history: Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, Jack-the-Ripper, etc.. Others might have thought they were depictions of famous classical musicians, or figures of greater beneficence, but I knew better. Coming into that gruesome room with the thick green damask curtains, ominous art, lack of light, reeking of smoke, medicine, and "burning chicken feathers," the setting seemed to speak more of a situation from which no one would get out alive, rather than enjoy a brief musical interlude.
Make no mistake. Benny Pensky was a menace, but you wouldn't know it by looking at him. Five foot-six inches tall, balding chrome dome, easy smile, placid appearance. Non-imposing, round, non-muscular physique. Not a knuckle-cracker. Absent the prominent, bent nose of a wise-guy. In fact, rather meek looking, he looked more like the kind of guy who might drive a Bungalow Bar ice cream truck, work as a night janitor, or maybe a grocery clerk. Though he didnít look one bit intimidating, believe me, he was more frightening than Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price put together. For Benny was not an ice cream man, janitor, nor grocery store employee. He was in a position to inflict heavy damage. For, despite not looking the part, Benny was a professional man, and not just any old professional man either: a doctor. Benny Pensky was a bona fide doctor! A "DDS," Doctor of Dental Surgery, licensed by the State of New York.
Benny wore a smock. Perhaps he would be garbed in what would be called scrubs today, but it sure did look a whole lot like a butcher's apron. White, but kind of a dull white. Beneath his black, baggy pants, he wore square tipped, orthopedic, rubber-soled shoes, which squeaked loudly as he crossed to and fro, from one part of the room, his "business office" behind the white drape where he kept "the books" (appointment and accounting ledgers) to the other, where the actual dental office stood: an isolated green leather chair bolted into the floor and porcelain spit bowl, both splayed under the worn looking drill and yellowed, pitted overhead light.
Benny did not use a professional-looking pen when making entries into his books. Not a Waterman, not a Schaeffer, nor a Parker. He used what looked like a grease pencil, the ones used by grocers which they would pull from behind their ear to add up figures on the brown paper bag when tallying the sums of the fruits and vegetables that their customers purchase and would carry home in said bag.
Benny was never spoken of or addressed as "Doctor" by his patients. Thus, I never heard the words, "Doctor Pensky" but always "Benny Pensky" or just "Benny". For example:
Mom: "OK, kids, looks like we have to make an appointment with Benny Pensky." This said in response to dental notices brought home from school.
Dad: "Damn, I think we still owe Benny Pensky a couple-a-bucks."
Uncle Davey: "Benny's been working on me since the early forties."
Adult Patient (overheard by me in the waiting room, as he screamed in agony from the dental chair): "Fer Chris' sakes, Benny, how much LONGER?!" to which Benny would always answer, "Al-most through-Al-most through" in sing-song fashion.
My dad was anything but a wimp, far from it. As a teen, he survived a fire, which scarred his shoulder. He ran through a plate glass business shop window to beat out a hit in a stickball game on a Brooklyn street corner. A Darby Ranger in WWII, captured in Anzio with his troop due to a slow moving reinforcement outfit, he survived a lengthy German POW camp ordeal. Diet while captive: raw Potatoes, when available. He never said a bad word against his captors, saying that they, too, didn't have much. At home, he considered raw eggs a delicacy. He would crack three in a cup and quickly drink them down. "Ah, now there's a meal fit for a King!", he would exclaim. For a headache, he would take a few Anacin tablets out of a tin, crush them between his teeth, and swallow them down without water. He smoked Camels. To please my little sister, he ate her rock-hard "concrete" Suzy Homemaker toy oven "muffins" with a wink and a smile. In other words, my dad was no slouch when it came to physical distress.
Now, imagine what it was like when I, in the waiting room, heard my dad from the dental chair, let out a wince of discomfort. If he was hurting, what possible chance could I have? Dad finally came out of the office into the waiting room. He looked a little green around the gills.
He greeted me with a meek smile and offered up a white lie to reassure me. "Well, that wasn't so bad, Bobby!"
My stomach churned worse than ever. My gut wretched up a huge belch. My skin was clammy. My legs wobbled as I got up. I couldn't look up at my dad, as he patted me on the shoulder, then nudged me towards the dental chair. I'd never been more scared.
Very reluctantly, I took my place in the chair, which looked like something taken from an abandoned lunatic asylum where electric shock treatments were administered. The drill had issues - slow moving ones. When he stepped on the foot pad that provided the power, it never seemed to be humming or whirring along. Rather, it sounded more like a used car with a drained battery, deciding if it would turn over and start or not on a cold winter's morning. The slow rotations of the drill piercing the enamel and then, with more pressure applied, cracking through the dentin, resulted in that "burning chicken feather" smell that seeped out into the waiting room and mixed with the other malevolent odors. My body went rigid on a 45 degree angle from the chair as the pain registered when the pulp was contacted by the antiquated drill. Non-understandable noises arose from somewhere in my body as tears streamed without emotion.
It was with this chair, where Benny's victims opened their mouths wide as asked, as he calmly smoked his cigar while working on them, its ash getting longer as the pain intensified (along with their anxiety that the ash would drop into their open mouths) that Benny perfected his techniques, which I am quite sure would not make it into today's "Best Practices" dental guidelines.
In cases of children twelve and under, he advocated the use of administering "Half-a-Novocaine". I do not remember the rationale for this particular clinical intervention, whether it be medical or economical. I only remember the pain.
Another highly suspect procedure was dubbed the "Half-a-Root-Canal." In this Island of Dr. Moreau-like intervention, I believe only two of the four live nerves in the affected tooth were removed, the others left intact. I have posed this procedure to modern dentists who, not surprisingly, have never heard of such a process. Fortunately, I did not experience this questionable methodology first hand. However, my late Aunt Janice, who somehow coincidentally ended up losing all her teeth, did relay her own tales of dental horrors to bolster my own.
My mom and her brother, Uncle Herb, both former victims of Benny, still of sound mind and body, confirm: 1. The Cigar and its Ash, and 2. Benny Pensky's prices. At least through 1965, Benny was still charging $2.00 per filling. Let me repeat that: two dollars...per filling! Now, even in the days of the Eisenhower Administration, this was quite the bargain. Most dentists of that time within the boroughs of New York City charged ten dollars per filling. Benny also had some extra perks to offer his customers. Should any filling he created, installed, or prepared ever become worn, cracked, loosened, or otherwise fail within the first three years of insertion, he promised to fix it or replace it, free of charge. However, there was no mention of it being free of pain. On the contrary, the pain was always free.
I finished my appointment that Saturday in the Spring of '63, as morning turned towards noon - a morning and afternoon which would have otherwise been devoted to "Spring Training" workouts, either on the pavement of Seaman Brother's parking lot by the New York Central Railroad Tracks or in the playground near Buildings 10 and 11. I somehow staggered out under my own power to join my dad in the waiting room. I had no need to hide the tear stained cheek rivulets which were clearly visible. As my dad and I got into the car, just before he turned over the Nailhead V-8 Engine, I asked him about the experience we had just weathered with Benny. He frowned, under his 1963 grey felt hat, looked at me pensively and said, "Bobby, there's an old expression that's certainly true in this case. You get what you pay for!"
I let that sink in long and hard. Before the next dental visit came 'round, I had already stated my personal Declaration of Independence to my parents. I would be going to the dentist that my friends went to on West 230th Street off of Broadway. If I had to, I would be willing to cut down on expenditures of Topps Baseball cards and sports magazines, but it would be worth it to escape Benny's cruel and unusual punishment of my childhood.