Daniel Menaker

Lucky Enough

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In getting ready to move from one apartment to another, smaller but fahncier [sic] one in the same building, we are winnowing books. Hundreds of them. At first the rule was take out the ones you don’t want. Foolish. Take out the ones you do want makes much more sense. So that’s what I’ve been up to, in preparation for going up to the, yes, now I’ll say it, penthouse. My wife likes to say 14E, but that strikes me as paradoxically more ostentatious than just coming out and saying it: PENTHOUSE. PENTHOUSPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSE

Oh, the books. It’s troubling and exhilarating to find out what you want to take with you and what you don’t. First of all, there’s the astonishment of how DEAD so many books are. This came to me first when I was cleaning up and clearing out my parents’ house in Rockland County, many years ago. Most of the books there were not, as the proverbs would have it, alive, but dead. There is nothing deader than a dead book. And most books are. Dead. Some of these books were books that almost surely no one in the world would ever read again. (In a terrifying, funny book of his own, “Nothing To Be Frightened Of,” about the acute thanatophobia he suffers, Julian Barnes writes about the eventual fate of every book: to have a “last reader.” But he takes only despondency from this fact–no Zen comfort.)

All those writers’ hours forced between covers, enjoying their brief lives, if they had any lives at all, and then evaporating into nothingness. It’s sad but also reassuring, about the levelling justice that time will sooner or later serve to books, and us. It’s always nice to believe you’re special, especially if you are. It’s also good to know you’re no different from everyone else.

But I had forgotten that first book-mortality experience until I started the weeding process here, a few days ago. “Vanity of vanities–all is vanity” came to embarrassing life with the establishment of my first criterion for what I would keep: Books and authors I have been lucky enough to work with, as an editor. (“Lucky enough” is like saying “14E” instead of “penthouse.”) So, for example, off to the Strand: Barbara Pym, Jonathan Coe, Angela Carter, Shirley Ann Grau, and Harrison Salisbury; up to the penthouse: Matthew Klam, Amy Bloom, Richard Dooling, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster,” Antonya Nelson.

The second criterion has been endurance, at least as I reckon it: Shakespeare, Yeats, Gatsby, Eliot, Eudora Welty, Munro (whom I was also, er, lucky enough to work with), Keats, Homer, etc. Books to which I might return and have returned, for many different reasons. Especially Yeats, again and again. “Turning and turning in a widening gyre,/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer” seems so timely, always. Right now puts me in mind of drones.

The third criterion has been–well, caprice. A book of funny names, dirty limericks, Freud. (I wasn’t sure if he belonged up there with the second criterion. He knows.)

Finally, my own books. What a surprise.

Hundreds of books will be gone. I have been pretty ruthless in general. Good memories, admiration, gratitude accompanied much of this jettisoning, but also a kind of executioner’s glee. Once you get into the rhythm of book-shedding, you want to keep up the dance. “Who am I kidding?” you say to yourself, if you hesitate. “I will never, ever read or even look at this book again.” A kind of mania sets in. It’s a purge of sorts. Flickers of sentiment and nostalgia begin to flare up; you enjoy extinguishing them as a child loves to blow the candles out.

From our penthouse, we can see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Riverside Drive at 89th Street. Those men never had the chance to refine and distill their lives near the end. They remind you about how lucky you are. They remind you that no one stays lucky.

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Dia, and Gnosis

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Just now, Katherine and I had this conversation:

D. [wearing a New Yorker T-shirt; takes some pills, taps his chest] I am so lucky.

K. What?

D. [taps his chest]

K. What–The New Yorker?

D. [taps his chest] No.

K. Your heart?

D. No. [taps his chest]

K. Your lungs–oh, cancer.

D. Yes. Even if it all goes wrong now, I have been so lucky.

K. You were lucky that you have diabetes.

D. Why?

K. Because that’s why you went to Dr. Bloomgarden [an endocrinologist], and he gave you a chest X-ray and found the [lung] tumor.

D. That’s not the only reason I’m lucky I have diabetes.

K. Why?

D. Metformin [a drug that sensitizes you to whatever insulin your pancreas does produce].

K. Oh, right.

D. They’ve shown that it also retards the growth of tumors.

K. Oh, right.

D. He doesn’t do regular chest X-rays anymore.

K. Even though he saved your life?

D. For now…jinx! No–it’s something about data and false positives. But just try asking me about whether chest X-rays are a good thing.

K. It’s the same with breast cancer. All these statistics.

D. Yeah, they say overall some of these tests end up doing more harm than good.

K. I got my doctor to prescribe a chest X-ray for me after you and my father and Aunt Freddie and Carol all got lung cancer.

D. Understandable.

I could just feel my JNK/p38 MAPK pathway getting activated as we had this talk, since I had just taken my morning pills–not only Metformin but Nateglinide, which stimulates insulin production. “Metformin” is a fairly handsome word but Nateglinide not so much–it’s the generic name for Starlix, which is sort of pretty.

Here are the other morning doses–Ramipril and (get ready) hydrochlorothiazide, for blood pressure, and Atorvastatin, for cholesterol.. They say that there’s a new cholesterol drug that makes that villainous LDL amost disappear.

When my daughter, Lizi, was about a year and a half, she woke up one morning in this Great Barrington house of ours looking as though she had a bad cold. Eyes watering, one eye sort of swollen-looking, and nose running. She was perfectly cheerful, as she is to this day. We left it alone for a day or two, but then Katherine, with that mother’s instinct for trouble which resembles a cop’s instinct for trouble on the street, became concerned. She took Lizi to a pediatrician in town, who diagnosed her with periorbital cellulitis– an infection which, because a baby’s head has much smaller infection-accommodating open spaces–sinuses– than an adult’s, can threaten her eyesight.

Ordinarily, the doctor would have admitted her to the hospital for IV antibiotic treatment, but someone had just then come up with an injectable. The doctor not only knew about it, he had it, and he injected it. Lizi got better. Dr. Murphy, our pediatrician in New York, who was famous in the way that only pediatricians in New York can be, was amazed that the GB doctor was so on top of things. He said that if it had happened in New York, he would probably have sent her to the hospital.

Dr. Murphy did his own strong diagnosis once, involving our son, Will. Katherine, again with that mother’s intuition, took Will in so that Dr. Murphy could examine a circular bite mark that Will had on his leg (I think). Dr. Murphy immediately called all his colleagues and nurses in to see this mark, because it had the “target” appearance that characterizes the tick bite that causes Lyme Disease. The thing was, Lyme Disease was just beginning to be recognized, but Dr. Murphy was on top of it, and he took the prudent trouble to make sure everyone in his office would also be on top of it in the future.

Lizi and I were up here in the late spring more than twenty years ago, and the weather was strange. Just weird. It was hot, the sky was the color of chicken stock, the air was still. We were supposed to stay the night, but I didn’t like the way things felt, so we left. Two hours or so later, a tornado ripped through the woods and across our road about half a mile from the house.

On the other hand, we once had a young woman who went to Barnard taking care of our kids in the afternoon. She stole drugs from us, and it turned out that she hadn’t gone to Barnard. A guy came to look at an old Oriental rug we had here and took it away for evaluation and we never heard from him again. And I had symptoms of diabetes–sinus infections, blurred vision, yeast infections– for maybe ten years before it was diagnosed.

“Diagnosis” comes from the Greek “dia”–apart, as in “dialogue”–and “gnosis,” knowledge. So it means to separate out, to tell one thing from another, to say what is different, medically amiss. But the word applies to every choice we make or fail to make in the face of puzzling or troubling circumstances, to be able to know when something is wrong and in what way it is wrong.

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The Necessity of Losing It

When my Uncle Enge died, he left this house and four outbuildings and the land around them to me and my family… He was gay, for many years the lover of Tom Waddell, a well-known Olympic athlete who finished tenth in the Decathlon in Mexico City, in 1968–the Olympics where John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute on the medals podium, the Olympics in which Bob Beamon shattered–and I mean shattered–the world record in the long jump by almost two feet.This is what Wikipedia says about that moment, which I myself witnessed because a lot of Enge’s and Tom’s friends went to Mexico to watch him compete:

“On October 18, Beamon set a world record for the long jump with a first jump of 8.90 m (29 ft. 2 1/2 in.), bettering the existing record by 55 cm (21 3/4 in.). When the announcer called out the distance for the jump, Beamon – unfamiliar with metric measurements – still did not realize what he had done. When his teammate and coach Ralph Boston told him that he had broken the world record by nearly 2 feet, his legs gave way and an astonished and overwhelmed Beamon suffered a brief cataplexy attack brought on by the emotional shock.” 

Enge often threatened to leave his property to the Young People’s Socialist League, because, as he also often told me, “You could never keep this place up, boy.” My wife, Katherine, was instrumental, somehow–I’m not sure how–in changing his mind. I think it was because he knew she would take on this reponsibility in many ways more effectively than I would,

“Oh, yeah?,” I say to him now, silently, up there in his Marxist Heaven, where each angel gives according to his ability and receives according to his need. “Take a look around, Engie.” Because, with the help of a home-equity loan, still not paid off more than thirty years later, we have done a good job: had the whole house up on blocks and the foundation repaired, had the house scraped and painted, new roof, new chimney, floors sanded and stained, you name it we did it, feeling grateful and, at least on my part, defiant at the same time. The guy who put the new roof on did it in the heat of summer and would come down from his ladder from time to time and fill a bucket with water and empty it over his head.

I said four outbuildings. Three of them remain. The horsebarn, very near the house, was subsiding pretty vigorously and we had to have it taken down, by whom we don’t remember. Maybe Scott MacKenzie, who has an excavation business and lives down the road. And who employed our son, Will, to pick corn one summer–Will’s own lesson in thermodynamics. Katherine and I also can’t remember how someone over in Columbia County got to hear about the dismantling and came over and looked at the floorboards on the upper level of the barn and declared them valuable–some kind of pine that you just couldn’t get anymore, and BOUGHT them.

Months or maybe even years later, Katherine was looking in some fancy Country Living or Rustic Times magazine, and there was the guy who had bought the floorboards and there was his fancy house and there, on his floor, was our floor. It was like the architectural equivalent of reincarnation, or maybe an organ transplant.

That left: the corn crib, the carriage shed, and the Big Barn. The Big Barn and the corn crib just now cost us our home insurance policy with Vermont Mutual. Which turned out to be not so Mutual–in fact, not at all Mutual–as they took away our insurance. Thank you, Vermont Antimutual. They took away our insurance because the Big Barn’s foundation is cracked and three of its twenty windows are broken, and the back corners of the corn crib rest on concrete blocks. These are very solid concrete blocks, and the corn crib is the Gibraltar of outbuildings, in my opinion. WTF. In not the long but the short run we had to get more expensive insurance, but at least it’s spiffy–Lloyd’s of London, don’t you know. And the outbuildings are insured only for liability. The carriage shed is fine, thanks to a shoring up detailed in “My Mistake,” a memoir I wrote a couple of years ago and that I will NOT urge you to buy, I swear.

The shoring-up was done by Bruce, whom I like to refer to as our “property manager”–two lovely dactyls that I try to deploy accompanied by some embarrassment. Bruce has basically saved our property’s ass.
This all leaves the Big Barn. What to do? It has to come down. Though my kids are dead set against this, for reasons of pride and sentimentality. “So you figure out how to keep it,” I say to them, feeling a little Engesque. They look away. So Katherine went public and put notice and pictures of the barn up here: http://www.thebarnpages.com/oldbarnsforsale.cfm.

She has gotten a lot of responses. Roger from Connecticut, with a thick Russian accent, is interested in the barn. He always calls from his car, and somehow this makes me wonder what he wants with a huge old barn. (Have I mentioned that this barn is the largest in Southern Berkshire County? Like six stories high, forty feet wide, fifty long.) A couple from Kentucky wants to take it down and put it up on their property. A guy in Connecticut who has a business in old barns is interested. The emails and phone calls come in, and we get our hopes up, and the kids begin their pre-mourning.

The couple in Kentucky has to wait until they sell their house and move and do this and do that, so it may be a while, if they can do it at all. Roger the Russ keeps calling on the fly but never makes a definite appointment. Connecticut Man disqualifies the barn because it is nailed, not pegged, and the lumber used is, well, not second but maybe first-and-a-half rate. The earnests of interest dissipate, like steam from a pond, like radio waves sent into the ether for contact with extraterrestrials from whom we continue not to and never will hear.

The barn stands there–it is really a wonderful barn. Won’t someone help? You can have almost everything inside it–two commodes (no joke), a big old wooden-sided motorboat, rivaling, in vintage, me, six hundred of the mortifyingly seven hundred copies of my novel, “The Treatment,” which you also don’t have to buy. Plumbing fixtures. I’ll post some photographs soon.

There are also many family letters in boxes in the Big Barn.

From my brother, who was at U. Va. Law School, in 1962 (he died of a hospital blood infection seven years later): ” …I have been scapping slightly–met a good girl at Sweetbriar–2 good girls, actually–and a lush at Hollins. When I visit Swarthmore, I want you to get me a good date, OK, Dward?”

From my mother, “…Bobby [my father] is taking eight pills a day, which makes him sleepy most of the time, but he thinks the pain in his leg has begun to ease. Worst of all, he has had to stop smoking his pipe. It’s hateful the way life gets more and more circumscribed–but maybe this works to reconcile one with the necessity of losing it.”

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No Leftovers

There were was this letter in the Times yesterday::

To the Editor:

Re: “The Value of a Mindless Summer Job,” by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Op-Ed, June 6): I, too, worked jobs in high school and college (washing dishes, mopping floors, cooking short order) that bore little resemblance to my later work as a lawyer. But one thing I learned is that all work is noble and worthy of respect.

The men and women I now see running a vacuum in the hallway outside my office late at night while I am preparing legal documents are not engaged in a lesser form of endeavor.

Such work has intrinsic worth beyond instilling personal qualities in those fortunate enough to later pursue supposedly more exalted forms of “intellectual” labor.

Irvine, Calif.

So from about 1930 until the mid-60s, my uncle Frederick Engels (“Enge”) Menaker ran this camp for adults right next to my Uncle Peter Lvrov Menaker’s Boys Camp, To-Ho-Ne, near Great Barrington, MA, where he (Enge) also had a farmhouse, in which I am sitting right now. Sitting right now partly as a result Uncle Enge’s gaiety–he never had kids, and I was his closest nephew. I came up here every summer until I was sixteen and wanted to stay in Nyack and make out with Pam as much as possible. For the last four of those summers I worked as a waiter, dishwasher, groundskeeper, first for the kids’ table, then for the grownups out on the porch overlooking Lake Buel.

Sometimes I had to wash the dishes, in this sort of Jurassic dishwashing machine made of some strange alloy–maybe of zinc and something else. (Zinc alloys have great names: Calamine brass , Chinese silver, Dutch metal, Gilding metal, Muntz metal, Pinchbeck, Prince’s metal, Tombac.) This would happen when one of the black college kids from the South whom my uncle somehow recruited to work for him in the summer, and about whom more later– got sick or left. Most of us waiters were white, sons and daughters and nephews and nieces and cousins of immediate family or old friends.

You put the dishes on big trays, slid the trays into the megalith, put soap in somewhere, closed the vertical metal doors by pulling down on a handle, and then held a lever down to run the machine. I mean, you couldn’t set it and leave it. You had to hold the activating handle down. Then you raised the metal doors up, like garage doors that open in front and in back, and slid the dishes out the other side.

Sometimes I had to scrub pots and pans. These cooking things were really hard to clean. My uncle was like the Ralph Nader* of pots and pans. Every baked-on ring of cooking residuum had to be scoured away. No molecule of burnt potato could be left behind. He would check out my work and point to a tiny patch of food so scorched on to the surface of whatever pan I was washing that it made a new zinc alloy, Greasium.

“Are you leaving this for the starving Armenians?” he would say. Or, simply, “No leftovers!”

Everything he did in running that camp and the Farmhouse–with his gay partner, Glen Memmen, from the Midwest, who even though he professed Communism sang for the Methodist Church in town every Sunday–was meticulous, granular. You not only had to rake leaves but rake them in a certain pattern. You not only had to pick peonies for vases at just the right time but mash the bottoms of their stems a little and put a ground-up aspirin in the water they were going into, for vascular support. You not only had to clean the inside of the barrel of the 22 rifle you were allowed to use to shoot squirrels with, you had to oil the outside and the stock. When I saw “The Karate Kid,” decades later, and heard the old martial-arts master played by Pat Morita tell Ralph Macchio, with the authority of a shogun, about waxing the car, “Wax on, right hand, wax off, left hand, wax on, wax off,” I thought of Enge–similarly short, similarly weathered, similarly exigent.

Enge was entirely even-handed with the black guys who worked for him in the summer and were no doubt paid pretty well. (The waiters earned like next to nothing.) Their work–heavy maintenance, hauling, repairing cabins, moving furniture–was more than a summer’s pastime between college years. The cook during those years was an older black man named Isaac, who had been and I think still was, occasionally, a professional boxer. We were all on friendly, race-blind terms. I thought. Until Jimmy borrowed some 45 records of mine–Everly Brothers, the Charts, Clyde McPhatter, the Cadillacs. He kept them for a few weeks, until I got kind of tired of not having them and asked for them back. He looked at me with disappointment. He said, “You thought I was going to steal them, didn’t you?”

Not long after that, I was in the kitchen putting away some gleaming no-leftovers pots and pans when Isaac, standing at the stove, asked me, as he often did, to tell him what was on the dinner menu that Enge had written out in pencil and tacked on the wall. Enge was also in the kitchen. I said, cheerfully, because I was about to be released for the afternoon, “Read it yourself–I gotta go.”

Enge followed me out of the kitchen, through the swinging doors between the workspace and the lodge’s big main room.

“Boy,” he said, kindly. “Let me talk to you.”

I turned around. He came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Isaac can’t read,” was all he said.

*Speaking of ultra-careful people:

I’m lucky enough to be invited to teach at the Key West Literary Seminar every January. This last time, I had to change planes in Charlotte, NC, and when I found the gate for the second flight, I sat down across from an attractive woman, about 45, who was sort of staring at me. She looked away. After a while I got up to get some coffee and I noticed that she was looking at me again, and smiling. I smiled back. Got the coffee and wandered back along the boarding area for my flight, and the woman was looking at me and smiling, shyly, again. When I got back to where I was sitting, there she was, all eyes for me. I went over to her and said, “Do we know each other?” She said, “Are you?” And I said, “Probably.” She said, “No, really, are you?” And I said, “Am I what?” And she said, “Are you Ralph Nader?”

Now, I ask you, even though it’s not as bad as a friend of mine who was taken for Janet Reno: Really?

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Mirabile Dictu

“Yeah, they were on for three days,” the doorman at 600 West End Avenue said to me about the headlights as I waited in my wife’s car–which, obviously, wouldn’t start. John, one of the men who works in our building, on Riverside Drive, was going to swing around with his monster SUV and jumper cables. The doorman on West End said what he said about the lights being on with this sort of mirabile dictu expression, the kind that you see all around you and that you are probably wearing yourself at the planetarium when the stars come out on the ceiling.

My wife had been going to play tennis up in the Bronx somewhere with her friends, but that had to be called off because of the dead battery. I was put in charge (so to speak) of getting a jump start while she gathered all her stuff and the food and the dog to drive straight up to MA without tennis.

First, John so kindly gave me the keys to the behemoth. I backed up a little in the parking space and the dashboard lit up with the rear camera showing me how close I was to the car behind me. Very. All kinds of lights and flashers lit up this modern Leviathan but I soldiered through and got the car around to where my wife’s car was parked. I’m not even telling you about her not being able to get into the car to open the hood–really, it’s too complicated. As was the preliminary call to a jump-start place which I then cancelled because of John’s kindness. As was the fact that it had been years since I had clamped red to red, black to black, always expecting to be executed.

I drove back around and reparked John’s car where it had been. Talk about mirabile dictu, to find that same place open. I went to John to give him back the keys. I got a text from Katherine saying that she had figured out from a YouTube video on her phone where the keyhole was (sort of behind a chastity shield that was part of the door handle) and finally had the hood open.

“John, look,” I said, no doubt enigmatically, as far as John was concerned. “She got it open.”

“What, Chief?” he said.

“She got the hood open. You know, I’m not sure I can do the jump start. It has been so long. I remember once in Maine… ” but this wasn’t the time for reminiscence. I almost began to quote Shakespeare or someone about the garrulousness of age, but that would have been like confessing on the witness stand, and anyway, now was not the time. Never is the time. “…Sorry. Do you think you could get Santos to let you drive around and help us out?” Santos is the Resident Manager for our building and manages the staff.

“Give me five minutes,” John said.

I went back to where my wife was waiting with the car and told her that John would be coming around soon..

“You stay here,” she said. “I’ll go get the dog and the food for the weekend”–this was her way of saying that there were compensations in store for me for this snafu.

Off she went. And here came John, heading south on West End, risking a ticket by U-turning his black monster and lining it up hood-to-hood with Katherine’s car. He got out of the car. The doorman at 600 West End Avenue informed John that the lights had been on for three days, with the same sort of mystical amazement he had shown earlier. (Now, listen, I wanted to say–all you had to do was call the NYPD and tell them the license plate of the car and they would have traced the owner and called him–her, in this case–and let her know about the lights situation. But I didn’t say that, either)

John did the honors of the jump start, and as we waited for the battery to recharge, the 600 WEA doorman went on a bit. “I think it was Tuesday evening that I first noticed … No, it was Wednesday morning. I had a double shift, That’s when I noticed the lights.” And so on.

The car finally started. John pointed to a sad, yellow partially-flat-tire light on the dashboard. “That means one of your tires needs air. It could be more than one.”

“It never rains,” I said.

I gave John a good tip.

“Thanks, Chief,” he said. “It’s lunch”

“That’ll be a pretty good lunch,” I said.

He was standing on the sidewalk, and leaned over in the passenger-side window and said, “You know, I have a philosophy that I use all the time. If I get something I share it, and then it will come back to me somehow later. So this will be lunch for all the guys in the building. We’ll all have a sandwich.” Then he added, “Instead of rice and beans.”

My wife came back, got in the car, thanked me, gave me a kiss and drove away, the 600 WEA doorman looking on with satisfaction, as if he had just finished watching a sitcom that he, in my opinion, had helped to produce.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Yesterday, I mentioned a three-hour dentist’s appointment I had chosen to endure the day before. Dr. Clifford Williams, an excellent dentist, has his office among that dentist’s-nest building in Rockefeller Center. In one of her stories, Julie Hecht, a wonderful writer I worked with at The New Yorker and then at Random House, referred to this building as “The House of Pain.”

Dr. Williams had told me three hours, but I figured that meant it might be two and a half hours, because he sometimes seems to like to spring-release you a few bricks short of the load he has warned you about. Not this time. The full three.

He was putting temporary caps on five (count ’em!) teeth on the front bottom–five teeth worn down in concert with the wearing down of the rest of me, at 73. Actually, ignore that parenthetical command to count ’em!, as I would be embarrassed to have you do so, as I am Appallachianly missing the four molars that should be to the left of these caps. Well, to your right, they would be, if I did allow you to count ’em. But why on earth would I ever think you might want to count ’em!? you might understandably ask.

To the left (or your right) I am, then, partially edentulate at this point–an elegant term for a gummer-in-training. I learned it when I became it. But never fear. Or fear a lot, because after Dr. Williams puts down the permanent veneers on these five front lower teeth, Dr. Andrew Hauser, who is the one who first delicately referred to my situation as “paritally edentulate,” will be sinking four golden poles into my lower jawbone in readiness for Dr. Williams’ redentulating me with implants. Dr Andrew Hauser, who has told me of his hunting trip on a private estate in Scotland during which he crawled on his stomach for half a mile or was it a mile in order to bring down a multi-point buck, and who told me once, “My best work goes too soon into the grave”– owing, I assumed, to the age of many of the patients he implants for. Patients like me.*

“These are connected–a set,” Dr. Williams said as he mashed down on the temporaries, to fix them in place, temporarily. “The veneers will be separate. Five little guys.” This was at the two-hour-and-fifteen-minute point, the point at which I thought I might be sprung. I should have known better, even though I had enjoyed this early-release phenomenon a few times in the past, because some years earlier, during a similar extravaganza, Dr. Williams turned away from the chair after what I thought might have been a terminal grind, and said, with a pitying chuckle, to his so-nice assistant, who pats your shoulder as the Novocaine is going in, “He thinks he’s done!”(This is the only instance I can recall from over the decades that Dr. Williams has been sarcastic. More recently, I replied in unkind kind by letting it slip that for a little geezer’s book of sayings I’m working on, I had just come up with “To dentists, you are a wallet.”)

(This whole business? $25-30K. It is clear to me how incredibly fortunate I am to be suffering this way. That is a joke that is not a joke.)

The reason I was not let go on my own recognizance a little early is that Dr. Williams wanted to adjust the bite for these temporaries just so. I mean, he adjusted it and adjusted it. He uses carbon paper, or some marking paper like that. “Tap-tap-tap,” he says. “Back and forth. Side to side.”

Then he peers in to see what further smoothing, rounding, roughing up is needed, and then he wields one of the many attachments to his drill. There are high-pitched and low-pitched whiners, buzzers, and the more guttural grinders–things that look like miniature versions of the huge rotational monsters that dig out subway tunnels. While he was doing this, his assistant said to me, “I’m always glad to see your name in the book. You’re so funny.”

By the way, I was wrong about that one-time-only-sarcasm moment of Dr. Williams’s. Because after he had numbed me up this time–he does this amazing thing where he waggles your lip as he’s jamming in the juice, so that you’re distracted, physiologically, from the needle business, and he also keeps the bloody horse-needle out of sight until the very last moment, when you see it for a half a second swooping down toward you like a mini-drone–he said, “Now we’re going to have us some fun!”

Anyway, these temporaries are, like, four-week temporaries, but even so Dr.Williams would not be satisfied with what builders call a less-than-perfect job–“cobbing it.” (Someone told me that this expression was in its origins obscene.) He adjusted and polished and tap-tapped grind-grinded and sanded for another half hour. “You notice that I sometimes walk away and come back,” he said at one point. “That’s because I have to reset my focus. I get so intense that I need to take a breather so that I can come back and refocus.”

“Sort of like writing, for a lot of people,” I said, blunderingly, with my entirely dead lower lip feeling like one of those sandbags they put up against flood waters..

“Yes,” he said. “Now it’s still catching a little bit here. Let me …”

I think I telepathied to him at some point, nearing the three-hour mark, that *I* thought we should be drawing to a a close–that is, a closed mouth– here, because reluctantly he sighed and said, “Well, that should be OK.”

“You’re a great patient,” he said. “Some people are so anxious their metabolism goes up and they burn through the Novocaine in no time flat.”

Another assistant, named Sofia, I gathered, took off the bib thing. She is so pretty, even with her face mask on. Dr. Williams sat back in his desk chair–he works on the temporaries at his desk before installing them–looking very pleased with himself. It’s always a good sign when doctors and dentists look pleased with their own work. Too bad writers can’t feel the same way for more than about thirty seconds, until they’re published, at which point they’ve been known, I hear, to pour over their own work as if their words were crown jewels that needed evaluation.

*Dr. Hauser, who is extremely cultured, in spite of the fact that he spends his days slitting peoples’ gums open and drilling into their jaws, or because he does that, always says that ART is what lasts. I have gently argued with him about that, to his consternation. I have in mind this passage from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli:”

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,’
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day.

But I haven’t yet recited it to Dr. Hauser. He already feels bad enough about his work going into the grave.

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Check Engine

In Dover Plains, New York, there’s an automobile-repair place called Lynn’s, on Route 22, near the corner of Mill Street and about a ten-minute walk from the Metro North train station. Lynn’s was closed for a couple of years, but now it has reopened. Luckily, because when I missed my train to New York a few days ago, coming down from my family’s house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and had a couple of hours on my hands, I had recourse to the reopened Lynn’s.

How did I miss the train? I thought it was at 2:34 but it was at 2:26. I had been all jolly-casual filling the car up at a gas station a little north of the station, buying a newspaper, passing the time of day with the clerk–the time of day that turned out not to be on my side.

I pulled into the station parking lot only to see the train arriving. I parked in a space that I knew would yield three or four tickets by the time I got back up there (this coming Friday), jumped out of the car, spilled coffee, snagged my tote bag on the seat-belt buckle, started yelling like the victim of a violent crime who can still yell, ran toward the train. “Wait, wait!” Got up to the platform only to see the train begin to move slowly away. It’s powered by a locomotive and so the the beginning of its movement is like something out of Newton. It seems to be saying “I am a body at rest. I prefer to remain at rest. But I guess I’ll have to begin to be in motion so slowly that this desperate, cardiovascular accident waiting to happen won’t actually be sure at first that I AM moving, especially since he’s running in the same direction.”

The conductor up in the front of this three-car train who had closed the doors, like, one second before I could have gotten on, leaned out of the window of the first car and waved at me. He waved at me. Jauntily, it seemed to me.

Now what to do for two hours? Well, I had stuff to read–the manuscript of a wonderful book by Thomas Vinciguerra called “Cast of Characters,” about Woolcott Gibbs, E. B. White, James Thurber, and the “Golden Age” of The New Yorker. But first maybe I could look into something that was bothering me. The used 2005 Subaru Legacy I was driving–110,000 miles, only about 5,000 of which were mine–had been flashing its check-engine light at me for many weeks now. The cruise light flashes at the same time, inexplicably, but I’d been told that this was standard. Why? Is anyone really going to miss a flashing, blood-orange check-engine light? The guy who told me it was standard worked at Bachetti’s, up in MA, on Route 7, where I had bought the car, with four tires with treads no deeper than my chronically furrowed brow, a couple of years earlier. He said, “I can’t find anything wrong, so it’s probably the cat.”

“The cat,” I echoed sagely. Nodded my head. “The cat.” I pressed him to go on talking, so that I could by stealth find out what the cat might be. It’s like talking to someone whose name you should remember but don’t and desperately hoping that a third person will show up and say, “Hi, Dan, hey, Matilda.” But there was no third party here. But indeed, a minute or so later, he said, “If it is the catalytic converter, you’re looking at serious money.” I suspect he knew I didn’t know what “cat” meant and was being charitable.

“How serious?”

“More than a thousand.” He went on: “Don’t worry–it’s not going to break down. But if the check-engine light is flashing when you bring it in for inspection next time, it automatically fails.”

Well, Lynn’s, walkable from the train station in Dover Plains, had resuscitated my various junkers five or six times when it had been open, some years earlier. So I’ll drive over and ask about the check-engine light.

“Hi, Dan,” Lynn said. He’s a wiry guy in his fifties with glasses and a country-music singer’s accent, and, apparently, the memory of an elephant. Either that or he remembered me as some kind of eccentric, which I supposed was not impossible. He was smoking.

“Where did you go?”

“Oh, I was in Afghanistan for a couple of years.”

“Afghanistan! Why?”

“I was doing some repair work on them big MR-36 vehicles for the Army.” (I am making up “MR-36.” He said some letters and numbers, but I was still kind of amazed by his routine way of saying he’d been in Afghanistan.)

“Was it dangerous?”

“Not really. No more dangerous than 22 is on weekends.”

“So you were working for the government.”

“You might say that.”

“What–kind of outsourced repair work or something?”

“Something like that.”

“Were you ever, like, scared?”

“Not really.”

“Well, that’s pretty amazing–from Dover Plains to Afghanistan.”

“Yeah, my brother works over there for the Army. So what’s your problem?”

I told him about the check-engine light,

“We’ll scan it for you.”

A young man wearing of all things a Bachetti’s T-shirt appeared out of the depths of the repair bay with a little device in his hand. Well, a T-shirt for Andy Bachetti’s racing team, Andy being the racer son of the owner of Bachetti’s used-car and potentially thousand-dollar-cat-repair place.
(Let me tell you right now that this story is going, mostly nowhere, as you may have guessed at this point.)

The young man, who was also smoking, attached the wire from the device to some secret Isaac Asimov-style portal under the dashboard. “It only says the fuel situation isn’t secure,” he said. Or something like that. But he definitely said, next, “Is your gas cap loose?”

“Um, there is no gas cap. It got lost or stolen or something.” I had probably left it on top of the car when filling it up and then had driven away with it up there and it fell off, but I wasn’t about tell anyone about this possibility, although I could see in the young guy’s eyes that he already suspected some kind of slapstick situation like that.

“Hey, Dan, that might be it,” Lynn said, his head emerging from a hood. “You can just drive down 22 to CarQuest and get that cap. Then come back here and we’ll turn the check-engine light off, because it doesn’t usually go off by itself for quite a while.”

At CarQuest, the guy asked me the make, year, and model of the car.

“2005 Subaru,” I said. “Model?” Now I basically knew what he meant by “model” but I was too excited about this whole small episode to register it.

“Forester, Legacy, what?” he said.


“The tank!” the guy said, affirming what others had told me–that Subarus of this vintage are very heavy cars, and that’s why like certain species of birds, you see more and more of them as you head north, toward Vermont and Canada. He went and got the gas cap. Guess how much (see ending–which, I promise you if you have gotten this far, is coming fairly soon–for answer: the only suspense in this post). He then said, “You know, the check-engine light won’t go off right away, even if this is the problem. It takes about a hundred and fifty miles.”

“Well, I missed my train, so I’ll just drive up and down 22 really fast and put the miles on.”

The CarQuest guy looked at me blankly. I forced from myself the laugh I didn’t get from him.

I took the gas cap, went out the door, put the gas cap on, and started the engine. No check-engine or cruise light. Nadissima. I wanted to think that I had put the gas cap on in some unconsciously deft and effective way, but I resisted the temptation to go back into CarQuest and tell the guy.

But I did drive back to Lynn’s. I pulled up to the repair bay. He looked surprised to see me.

“I just wanted to tell you that I went to CarQuest and got a gas cap, and the check-engine light went off right away. Turned off.” I added “turned off” because it occurred to me that “went off” could mean “exploded” or “went on.” Never mind.

“Great, Dan,” Lynn said. “I guess they’ll do that sometimes.” He looked a little bewildered about my having returned.

“Well, thanks for your help.” I wanted, as a lung-cancer survivor (knock wood, please) to add, “Please stop smoking.” But I didn’t.

I caught the next train, went home to New York, got up the next day and with resignation kept my three-hour dental appointment, still marveling at the mobility and the to-me-peculiar two-year stint of Lynn in Afghanistan.


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