Dr. Jacob Sharp DDS
Growing up, dental hygiene was not high on the list of priorities in my family, at least for me it wasn’t. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I can’t even remember brushing my teeth on Henry Street. We had no sink in the bathroom and try as I may, I still can’t dig up a memory of brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink.
The first memory I have of seeing a dentist is walking to the office of Dr. Pitts. Yes, that was his real name. I still remember the black and white sign stuck in front of the closed Venetian blinds in the first floor of his office/home on Dixwell Avenue. The office was about 6 blocks from where we lived.
I was probably about 6 and my mother had instructed my brother to walk me to his office. The magazines on the coffee table in the waiting room held unforgettable images of rotted gums, tooth decay and photos of oral surgeries that are still visible in my mind.
Dr. Pitts was a big black gentle man. The first visit didn’t seem to take that long and I was back home with a note in my hand explaining to my mother that I had to have 6 baby teeth removed. I was never given any explanation. I don’t even know if my mother was given an explanation, and if she had been, she wasn’t sharing.
I was told it wouldn’t hurt as they were baby teeth and probably already loose.
The next week I was back on my way to Dr. Pitts office with my brother.
When I left I was bleeding heavily from the extraction of 6 teeth with a wad of gauze protruding from my mouth. No needles were given to dull the pain. Pulling my teeth was painful but quick. I spent the next 2 days in bed.
From that moment on I did everything I could to escape any dental visits. Preventive measures weren’t exactly on my mother’s list of things to do. I quickly learned to live with the dull ache of a tooth now and then. It was far better than the alternative.
When I got to about 10, my teeth were in really bad shape. My brother at this point was getting braces. Everyone marveled at the fact that Frankie was so courageous for the pain he endured at the dentist. My mother had managed to find him an orthodontist and the money along with it to pay for the braces.
Unable to cope with the dental pain, I was sent to another dentist referred by my aunt and cousins, Dr. Jacob Sharp DDS. Stories about Dr. Sharp abounded. He had written a book, he had an affiliation with Yale, he was a distinguished Dentist. On and on the accolades went.
Dr. Sharp’s office was located on the 2nd floor of a Chapel Street bulding in the center of downtown New Haven.
He was an older gentleman, white hair, white mustache, and wore rimless glasses. He was mild mannered, talked very softly and was very distinguished looking. His waiting room contained antique leather couches, chairs, and was elegantly furnished. Upon meeting me for the first time, he remarked that my aunt had called and told him that I was especially afraid of dentists, but not to worry, he would take good care of me.
No nurse was necessary for his practice he explained because he only worked part time and could take care of things himself. His dental office was simple and clean. A desk was in back of the dental chair with the old black rotary phone placed on it alongside his calendar book. An inner room contained things like sets of teeth, molds, books etc.
The big black dental chair faced a wall of windows and occupied one entire wall of his office and overlooked the rooftops of the shops located on Chapel Street. His “tool” chest was a beautiful dental cabinet ~4 feet high with 3 inch drawers and 2 glass doors that housed his pristine dental tools. Dr. Sharp always dressed in a white medical nylon shirt that had 2 buttons on the top right side, folded down and unbuttoned, somewhat like the Nehru jacket collars.
The first few visits went fairly well, except for the news of needing 2 root canals in my front teeth. I was petrified, but Dr. Sharp assured me he would be gentle and not to be afraid. I started to trust and believe this grandfatherly type man.
The day the first installment of the root canal procedure begin I was terrifed.
I took my place in the big black chair. Dr. Sharp once again assured me that he would take it slowly and gently. The first order of business was to adjust the dental chair. As he began to tip the chair back for just the right angle for himself , I noticed that the adjustment had me just about lying flat as if on a cot. Okay, all the more help to relax. He then asked me to open my mouth so the cotton could be packed down around the roof of my mouth.
He passed the time by chatting and explaining what the procedure called for. He then gave the novocain shot that would dull the sensation of the root canal.
He then stepped back, folded his hands and waited for the needle to do its magic,all the while looking down at me and smiling.
He then placed the dental bib on my chest, clipped it, and carefully took the dental instruments that he would use and placed them on the bib resting on my chest.
But something was wrong.
Everytime he placed an instrument on my chest he pushed it hard onto my breast and held it there, as if kneading a loaf of bread. Each placing of an instrument became a ritual that lasted longer than the previous “touch”. Then at some point, he would “drop” one of his instruments between my legs, reach down, and feel around for where it fell, only to probe and poke an area where I knew he shouldn’t have been. I remember trying to cross my legs so nothing “fell” between them. That only added creative ways for him to insert his fingers between my legs and poke around when he "dropped" another instrument into my lap.
The physical contact ended there, but the verbal abuse kicked in. While I sat there lying flat on my back and cotton stuffed in my mouth, unable to talk or respond, he would begin his barrage of questions, grinning with a disgusting grin. “Your mother works at the White Tower all night right?” I would mumble a yes. His next question would be, “ I bet she sees a lot of nigg--s, right’? Having nothing to say I would just sit there. And then the punch, “I bet they have great big black co-ks, right?” “They say all nigg—s have big juicy ones.” "Ever seen one"? I tried not to look at him and just keep my focus on the hideous drawing on his wall of the 16th century "tooth puller" working on a patient with 5 men surrounding him. I have never forgotten this drawing. Imagine my suprise when I found it for this post. These monologues and variations on the same topics continued for the next 3 years until I could manage to get out of going to the dentist altogether.
I did try and tell my mother, my aunts and my cousins once what happened at the dentist. We were all sitting at a table at my aunt’s house. I told them that Dr. Sharp said really bad words and that he acted strange when I sat in the chair. No sooner had I gotten the words out than I heard this reply. “Stop saying things like that. He’s a famous Dentist and you’re lucky to get an appointment with him.” Yeh, that was me, lucky. I wasn’t surprised. It was just like everything else in my childhood. I was labeled as “difficult” and a “baby” for being afraid of the dentist. After all, my bother Frankie went through so much more pain than I did and he never complained.
I still am afraid of the dentist, though I do realize the reality of it will never happen again. But it doesn’t stop the visual from playing in my head each and every time I sit in that dentist chair.
It hits me like the pain of a dull tooth ache that will be with me forever.