Dental or Mental, I Say It’s Spinach – S.J. Perelman

My friend Sophie was a trifle nervous about visiting the dentist today, and I thought S.J. Perelman’s experiences, which I read recently, might put her at ease. Good luck Soph! x


A few days ago, under the heading MAN LEAPS OUT OF WINDOW AS DENTIST GETS FORECEPS, The New York Times reported the unusual case of a man who leaped out a window as the dentist got the foreceps. Briefly, the circumstances were these. A citizen in Staten Island tottered into a dental parlor and, indicating an aching molar, moaned, “It’s killing me. You’ve got to pull it out.” The dentist grinned like a Cheshire cat — The New York Times neglected to say so, but a Cheshire cat who was present at the time grinned like a dentist — and reached for his instruments. “There was a leap and a crash,” continues the account. “The astonished dentist saw his patient spring through the closed window and drop ten feet to the sidewalk, where he lay dazed.” The casualty was subsequently treated at a nearby hospital for abrasion and shock by Drs. J.G. Abrazian and Walter Shock, and then, like a worm, crept back to the dentist, apologized and offered to pay for the damage. On one point, however, he remained curiously adamant. He still has his tooth.

As a party who recently spent a whole morning with his knees braced against a dentist’s chest, whimpering, “Don’t–don’t–I’ll do anything, but don’t drill!” I am probably the only man in white America equipped to sympathize with the poor devil. Ever since Nature presented me at birth with a set of thirty-two flawless little pearls of assorted sizes, I never once relaxed my vigilant stewardship of same. From the age of six onward, I constantly polished the enamel with peanut brittle, massaged the incisors twice daily with lollipops, and chewed taffy and chocolate-covered caramels faithfully to exercise the gums. As for consulting a dentist regularly, my punctuality practically amounted to a fetish. Every twelve years I would drop whatever I was doing and allow wild Caucasian ponies to drag me to a reputable orthodontist. I guess you might say I was hipped on the subject of dental care.

When, therefore, I inadvertently stubbed a tooth on a submerged cherry in an old-fashioned last week and my toupee ricocheted off the cailing, I felt both dismayed and betrayed. By eleven next morning, I was seated in the antechamber of one Russell Pipgrass, D.D.S., limply holding a copy of National Geographic upside down and pretending to be absorbed in Magyar folkways. Through the door communicating with the arena throbbed a thin, blood-curdling whine like a circular saw biting into a green plank. Suddenly an ear-splitting shriek rose above it, receding into a choked gurgle. I nonchalantly tapped out my cigarette in my eardrum and leaned over to the nurse, a Medusa type with serpents writhing out from under her prim white coif.

“Ah–er–pardon me, ” I observed, swallowing a bit of emery paper I had been chewing. “Did you hear anything just then?”
“Why, no,” she replied, primly tucking back a snake under her cap.
“What do you mean?”
“A–kind of scratchy sound,” I faltered.

“Oh, that,” she sniffed carelessly. “Impacted wisdom tooth. We have to go in through the skull for those, you know.” Murmuring some inconsequential excuse about lunching with a man in Sandusky, Ohio, I dropped to the floor and was creeping toward the corridor on all fours when Dr. Pipgrass emerged, rubbing his hands. “Well here’s an unexpected windfall!” he cackled, his eyes gleaming with cupidity. “Look out–slam the door on him!” Before I could dodge past, he pinioned me in a hammer lock and bore me, kicking and struggling, into his web. He was trying to wrestle me into the chair when the nurse raced in brandishing a heavy glass ash tray.

“Here, let me hit him with this!” she panted.

“No, no, we mustn’t bruise him,” muttered Pipgrass. “Their relatives always ask a lot of silly questions.” They finally made me comfy by strapping me into the chair with half a dozen towels, tilted my feet up and pried open my teeth with a spoon. “Now then, where are his X-rays?” demanded the doctor.

“We haven’t any,” returned the nurse. “This is the first time he’s been here.”

“Well, bring me any X-rays,” her employer barked. “What difference does it make? When you’ve seen one tooth, you’ve seen them all.” He held up the X-rays against the light and examined them critically. “Well, friend, you’re in a peck of trouble,” he said at length. “You may as well know the worst. These are the teeth of an eighty-year-old man. You got here just in time.” Plucking a horrendous nozzle from the rack, he shot compressed air down my gullet that sent me into a strangled paroxysm, and peered curiously at my inlays.

“Who put those in, a steamfitter?” he sneered. “You ought to be arrested for walking around with a job like that.” He turned abruptly at the rustle of greenbacks and glared at his nurse. “See here, Miss Smedley, how many times have I told you not to count the patient’s money in front of him? Take the wallet outside and go through it there.” She nodded shamefacedly and slunk out. “That’s the kind of thing that creates a bad impression on the layman,” growled Dr. Pipgrass, poking at my tongue with a sharp stick. “Now what seems to be the trouble in here?”

“Ong ong ong,” I wheezed.

“H’m’m’m, a cleft palate,” he mused. “Just as I feared. And you’ve got between four and five thousand cavities. While we’re at it, I think we’d better tear out those lowers with a jackhammer and put in some nice expensive crowns. Excuse me.” He quickly dialed a telephone number. “Is that you, Irene” he asked. “Russell. Listen, on that white mink coat we were talking about at breakfast–go right ahead, I’ve changed my mind… No, I’ll tell you later. He’s filthy with it.”

“Look, Doctor,” I said with a casual yawn. “It’s nothing really–just a funny tickling sensation in that rear tooth. I’ll be back Tuesday–a year from Tuesday.”

“Yes, yes,” he interrupted, patting me reassuringly. “Don’t be afraid now; this won’t hurt a bit.” With a slow, cunning smile, he produced from behind his back a hypodermic needle of the type used on brewery horses and, distending my lip, plunged it into the gum. The tip of my nose instantly froze, and my tongue took on the proportions of a bolt of flannel. I tried to cry out, but my larynx was out to lunch. Seizing the opportunity, Pipgrass snatched up his drill, took a firm purchase on my hair and teed off. A mixture of sensation roughly comparable to being alternately stilettoed and inflated with a bicycle pump overcame me; two thin wisps of smoke curled upward slowly from my ears. Fortunately, I had been schooled from boyhood to withstand pain without flinching, and beyond an occasional scream that rattled the windows, I bore myself with the stoicism of a red man. Scarcely ninety minutes later, Dr. Pipgrass thrust aside the drill, wiped his streaming forehead and shook the mass of protoplasm before him.

“Well, we’re in the home stretch,” he announced brightly, exctracting a rubber sheet from a drawer. “We’ll put this dam on you and fill her in a jiffy. You don’t get claustrophobia, do you?”

“Wh–what’s that?” I squeaked.

“Fear of being buried alive,” he explained smoothly. “Kind of a stifling feeling. Your heart starts racing and you think you’re going crazy. Pure imagination, of course.” He pinned the rubber sheet over my face, slipped it over the tooth, and left me alone with my thoughts. In less time than it takes to relate, I was a graduate member, summa cum laude, of the Claustrophobia Club. My face had turned a stunning shade of green, my heart was going like Big Ben, and a set of castanets in my knees was playing the “Malagueña.” Summoning my last reserves of strength, I cast off my bonds and catapulted through the anteroom to freedom. I bequeathed Pipgrass a fleece-lined overcoat worth sixty-eight dollars, he’s welcome to it; I’ll string along nicely with this big wad of chewing gum over my tooth. On me it looks good.


S.J. Perelman (1904-1979) was one of the most prominent humorists of his generation, writing countless pieces for The New Yorker, plays for the stage and screenplays for the Marx Brothers. If you enjoy acrobatic prose, and a vocabulary that has you repeatedly reaching for the dictionary, then I thoroughly recommend The Most of The Most of S.J. Perelman.

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