BERRY: A dentist is a partner with your mouth

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from my dentist. I groaned a little when I first extracted it from the mailbox because receiving a letter from the dentist could only mean two things: he wants to inflict pain upon my mouth, or he wants to hurt my wallet.
Feb 7, 2013

Come to find out, there was a third option.

It seems that — after nearly 30 years of having my teeth scraped, buffed, poked, drilled and filled at the same place — my dentist is retiring. I knew this day would come eventually, but it still came as a bit of a surprise. I had always envisioned myself at 100 years old, lying back with my 120-year-old dentist slumped over me, clicking on the overhead lamp and saying, "OK, let's have a look."

The letter started out by my dentist expressing gratitude for being able to supply my dental needs for all those years. Next, he spent a few paragraphs introducing his new young, ambitious, highly qualified replacement. 

I have to admit, the new guy sounds quite competent with his college degrees, experience, military service and humanitarian volunteer missions, but he's not my dentist. The new guy didn't yank out my wisdom teeth, file my first root canal or give me my first gold crown. In fact, the new guy probably wasn't even born when my dentist started filling my cavities. 

I trust my dentist. He has my confidence and my loyalty. He's the reason I can still confidently bite into an apple and open a candy wrapper with my front teeth.  

The dentist-patient relationship is a lot like a wife. Over the years, he has caused me a lot of pain, but he's also prevented a lot of pain. In return, I give him a lot of money.

I decided that I would no longer go to the dentist.

This experience reminds me of the trouble I had trying to find a decent barber. I had a good barber for about 10 years in the late 1980s and early '90s. He told good jokes and had some really great stories that I still tell today. I could sit down in that barber's chair and he'd go right to work; he didn't even have to ask what I wanted. Over time, that actually became a problem.

Eventually, I wanted to get away from my '80s haircut. I'd tell him when I sat down that I wanted something different and up-to-date — but every time I left his shop, I looked like one of the Brat Pack. I spent nearly a decade trying to replace him. 

I didn't want to go to a stylist or salon, I just wanted a plain ol' barber.

A woman I worked with recommended her daughter, so I drove all the way to Nunica one late evening to give it a try. She led me down to her basement and sat me in the middle of a cinder-block room surrounded by a washer and dryer, laundry soap, assorted paint cans, cleaning supplies, a vacuum cleaner and a litter box.

She sat me on a wobbly, paint-splattered wooden chair that teetered back and forth because one leg was shorter than the others. Over my clothes, she put on what appeared to be a drop-cloth, and she secured it around my neck with a safety pin. 

About halfway through my haircut, an old dog would slowly thump it's way downstairs and fall asleep at my feet. At regular intervals, laundry would drop through a shaft in the ceiling. A variety of shirts, pants, towels and linens lay in a heap on the floor like twisted bodies from a photograph of a distant war.

I loved getting my haircut there. I loved the atmosphere, the smells and the results. I was in style and it made me feel young.

Getting my haircut there was like getting a haircut at my sister's. One evening, she even tried to give me a puppy. I declined.

I stopped going to her for my haircuts because her hours were erratic. Sometimes I'd call and she'd be out of town or remodeling a bathroom, and I'd have to wait a week or two, so I began looking elsewhere.

I actually went to a salon for awhile because they were open in the evening — but every time I went there, a different girl cut my hair and my haircuts became inconsistent.

I also went to a men's salon where incredibly attractive young women cut your hair dressed up as referees. The decor in the place was hockey posters, football magazines and a TV tuned into a 24-hour sports station.

I waited for 45 minutes with three young men who didn't look very athletic. When it was finally my turn, a buxom blond asked if I'd like my hair washed.

I slapped my forehead. "No," I said. "I just want a haircut." 

"First time's free," she said with a broad smile. 

I indulged her, but I never went back again. You can fool some people with a sports theme, but I know a salon when I see one.

Now I get my hair cut by a young girl who graduated from high school with my oldest daughter. She always asks about Natalie, so we always have something to talk about. She has regular hours and reasonable rates. And after I plunk down in her chair, she goes right to work without any questions asked. She's a true barber and I'm glad I found her.

There are people in our lives who we don't see very often, yet they are part of the fabric of our lives.

I work in a grocery store and I see the same people every week. Some of them I only share a "good morning" or "hello," while others I engage in conversations about the weather or the high price of beef.

The people who are on the outskirts of my life are the girls at the bank, the people behind the counter at the convenience store, the young man at the drive-through window, my doctor, barber and dentist. These are the people who I hardly know, but yet I trust them and my life would be slightly different without them.

I decided to give the new dentist a try. When I walked into the office, I was happy to see that the receptionist was the same, and also my hygienist. Maybe my dental experience wouldn't be so different after all.

The new guy checked out my teeth and concluded that I needed a filling — so, of course, I didn't like him. However, I gave the him a chance to repair my tooth, and he did it with very little pain, so I liked him.

I'll give the new guy another chance. And who knows? Maybe he'll be my dentist for the rest of my life. I just hope I don't see him too often.  

— By Grant Berry, Tribune community columnist

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