Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Neighborhood Character: Dr. Ruggerio

Remember that scary scene from the movie "Marathon Man when bad guy Sir Laurence Oliver was torturing poor Dustin Hoffman with a dentist's drill to get him to talk? Check the credits and you'll see my old dentist, Dr. Ruggerio, was the technical advisor for that scene. The good doctor could have made Osama Bin Laden convert to Judaism if he ever got him strapped in to that damned chair. Dr. Ruggerio had an office on Fulton Street, just off Rockaway Avenue in the old neighborhood. I think he leased that space because the sounds of the elevated train that passed just outside his window drowned out the screams coming from his office.

The office was in one of those typical Brooklyn apartment buildings that were mostly residential units with some commercial space for offices and stores on the ground floor. As I recall, the doctor's office was on the second floor, reached by stairs from the lobby. I use the term "lobby" with some reservation because I don't want you envisioning a pleasant, common area equipped with cozy sofas and potted plants. The lobby was no more than a landing where the building super kept his kids' bikes chained to the garbage pails under the stairs. When the building was constructed, they somehow permanently infused the lobby with the pungent smell of cooking cabbage that I'm sure lingers there to this day.

As you entered the office, the first thing you saw against the wall was a glass-doored cabinet filled with an assortment of dental instruments developed during the Spanish Inquisition. Sharp picks, tiny hammers, pliers, clamps and other scary paraphernalia that immediately struck terror into the heart of a small child. Why Dr. Ruggerio chose this cabinet of horrors to be the first thing patients were confronted with, I'll never know. Perhaps it was to send a message: "This ain't gonna be a day at the beach, little man."

Usually the person who greeted you was Millie, the doctor's receptionist/nurse/office assistant. If they ever made a movie of Dr. Ruggerio's life, Millie would be played by Shelly Winters. She was a classically tough Brooklyn blonde. Under that gruff exterior was an even gruffer interior. Millie took no lip, either from the patients or her boss. She and the doctor communicated by screaming at each other. He would holler: "Millie, one amalgam, now!" (I think an amalgam was the medicinal-tasting paste they mixed up to fill a cavity.) She would holler back: "Keep your pants on doc, I only got two hands!" They were an odd couple to be sure, with mutual animosity being the only thing they had in common.

Dr. Ruggerio was a strikingly handsome man, tall and slim, with a Cary Grant chiseled chin and a full head of black hair streaked with silver. Unfortunately, his benevolent appearance belied his satanic nature. First of all, he used Novocaine only in cases of imminent death. "This won't hurt much, so why have a numb jaw" was the big lie he told. The drill he used wasn't like the modern, high-speed ones used today that spray water, oh no grasshopper. Dr. Ruggerio's drill was a massive piece of porcelain and metal machinery complete with whirring motors and belts that drove the drill. For all this firepower, the freakin' drill made about six rotations a minute...you could actually count them! And to add to the fun, smoke came out of your mouth because the low drill speed created friction on the tooth's unyielding surface!

Once the hole had been drilled in the tooth, Dr. Death (without benefit of Novocaine remember) would bring out the ultimate pain-producing instrument, the air hose that blew pressurized cold air into the sensitive cavity. That would have got Dustin Hoffman to talk! Oh, I forgot to mention, the whole time he was working on you, it was not uncommon for Dr. Ruggerio to have a cigarette in his mouth with the ash dangling precariously over your gaping maw. In the days before fluoridated water, cavities were far more common than today. Most folks my age have a mouth full of silver, and the psychological scars to prove they paid the price for their cavities.

I get a kick out of modern-day dentists' offices with all the kid-friendly equipment, the latest Disney movie on the DVD player, and the legions of pastel-clad assistants on hand to get little Jason through the ordeal of his first cavity. I like the poster my dentist has hanging in his waiting room of a bunch of happy, smiling kids who qualified for the "No Cavities"" club. I'll bet Dr. Ruggerio could wipe those dopey smiles off their faces faster than you could say: "Millie, one amalgam, now!"


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