By Larry Teren
In the 1950’s as well as for a good part of the 60’s, the heart of the business district of West Garfield Park in Chicago is the corner of Pulaski Road and Madison Street. Madison Street is one long commercial strip inside the city limits running from Michigan Avenue at the lakefront all the way west to Austin Boulevard. From there, it becomes part of Oak Park and other suburbs further west. Pulaski Road is 4000 west or at the five mile mark from State Street in the heart of the loop. Madison Street today is still seven miles of mostly small storefronts, warehouses and office buildings.
Pulaski Road itself has an interesting story behind it. Until the early 1930’s, this very long street which traverses both the north and south suburban areas as well is called Crawford Avenue. It is named after a very influential Chicago citizen. The Chicago area is home to probably the largest Polish voting bloc outside of Warsaw. They petition the city to change the name of Crawford to Pulaski Road to give honor to a great American Revolutionary War hero. An American war of legal battles ensues between the people with businesses on Pulaski Road and the Polish citizens that goes on for many years.
It is not until November of 1952 after all appeals are exhausted, that the pro-Pulaski name wins out. Outside the city limits both to the north and south, it remains Crawford. My Uncle Henry refuses to ever call it Pulaski Road. For most of his working life, he is a cab driver with the Checker Cab Company. If a customer wants to be taken to 4000 west, he tells them that he’ll drop them off on Crawford.
In those days, the Pulaski Road intersection is anchored by Goldblatt’s, a huge department chain store at the Southeast corner, Walgreen’s Drug Store- another big chain- at another, and an imposing bank building along the northwest corner. It is in this bank building that I go to see the dentist, the aptly named Harry Berns. Harry is an old school dentist, an observer of the dental code of not asking personal questions until he has placed every small tool imaginable in your mouth. It is from Harry that I learn to tolerate pain. This is because he does not seem to care if I, his patient, suffers. His standard line is, “relax, it will only take a minute.”
I am probably about eight or nine years old and I have a major toothache. My mother cannot escort me for whatever reason, so she sends my slightly older sister (by fifteen months) Helen- the one who bashes me in the head with a heavy metal spinning top when I am two or three years old- to go with me by cta bus up Madison Street.
It is a straight and easy trip. We are living in the Austin neighborhood, on Quincy Street several apartment buildings east of the corner at Central Avenue. All we need to do is walk Central two short blocks north to Madison Street, get on the cta bus and go exactly two miles east until we get off at Pulaski Road. We are told not to get inquisitive- to go directly to the dentist’s office and then when we are done, go to the cta bus stop directly in front of the bank building and reverse the trip home.
On the cta bus ride, I have mentally prepared myself for Dr. Berns to take out a needle, stick it in my palate as a means to freeze my gums from feeling associated pain and commence to drill out a cavity and replace the hole with filling. At the dentist’s office, however, Harry offers a diagnosis that does not make me feel so good. Instead, Harry tells me that the painful tooth is a baby one and that it needs to go bye bye. Being a kid, I cannot ask for a second opinion. Harry grabs a needle that is about 3 inches long, soaks it in Novocaine and commences to stick it so deep into my mouth that I feel it coming out another part of me. The yelling and screaming that ensues is not from me but from Harry as I proceed to kick him in the shins.
After he waits a moment or two for me to calm down as well as let the pain neutralizer set, he grabs a pair of pliers. I’m immediately wondering if he watches the same Three Stooges episodes I do where the nitwits seem to spend precious minutes yanking away but always end up pulling the wrong tooth from the patient.
He pulls out the tooth, roots and all. It’s hard to demonstratively express the feeling of pain when I have frozen gums as well as another person’s hand and his pliers in my mouth. I want to give it all I have but will have to wait until the numbness wears off.
Being the good dentist that he is, Harry offers me a sucker as a consolation along with a box of tissues.
I ride the cta bus home moaning with a wad of bloody tissues stuck in my mouth. Helen, regrettably sitting next to me, shrugs her shoulders at the horrified on-looking passengers, as if to say, “What are you looking at me for? I didn’t smack him.” It takes three years for the hole in my mouth to finally get filled in with a new permanent tooth.
In 2007, I have a root canal done. I insist on not having Novocaine. The dentist almost refuses to start the procedure but I assure him that I can handle the pain. After all, I am a cum laude graduate of the Berns school of dental masochism. The dentist is yanking out the dead tooth, roots and all. I am thinking of that scene in the movie Singing In the Rain, where Gene Kelly helps the stage manager pull on the rope to the curtain to reveal Debbie Reynolds lip-synching a song behind the on-stage performer.
I’m imagining Gene help Harry energetically pull out the entire top row of my teeth. Even the dentist tells me he rarely sees such long, deep roots. I suggest he tell that to Alex Haley if only he was alive.