Walking home not long ago, I passed a building where a dentist’s office occupied the ground floor forever, and saw that it was gone. The window sills were bare of the tchotchkes that I’d always noticed, including a little plastic pope who stood looking out at the trees across the street. Through the old-fashioned blinds I saw the empty walls and the floor covered in debris, and I wondered what the final count was for all the teeth drilled there during the life of the dentist’s office.  I thought of other dentists’ windows that I’ve looked in all across the city, and the stab of angst I always feel upon getting a glimpse of some poor person in the chair. I thought of the one time I felt truly envious of a photographer, Vivian Cherry, for her photo of a man lying in the dentist's chair taken from the train on the 3rdAvenue El, in 1955. I wondered if it was pure chance, or if she had noticed the dentist’s office and then rode the train until she got a photo she liked. It’s such a fleeting opportunity, seeing something from a train that way. Once in the subway, my train paused beside another one for a few seconds and I waved to a man who smiled and waved back. And then the trains got moving again, downtown and uptown.

3rd Avenue El (Man at Dentist), 1955
Not long ago, my friend Maureen mentioned a man she knew and liked who died suddenly. His name was George Hodgman. He wrote a book called Bettyville, about taking care of his old mother, Betty, in the little town he’d come from in Missouri. I looked him up and I ordered one.  A lot resonated for me in his book, having looked after my own Ma up until recently when she died. No amount of love makes it an easy thing, but it’s good to do if one can, and it seemed to me that George did a very good job taking care of Betty. In a little feature made about him when his book came out, he made a remark about being the Mick Jagger of eldercare, and I laughed. What a sweetheart.

I read in the Times that George died in my neighborhood, and that it was suicide. He died right around the corner, on West 23rdStreet, during the last heat wave while I sat inside next to the air conditioner. It made me feel very sad. His face was familiar. We must have passed on the street. Reading his book while knowing that he died made it especially sad. In the book, he wrote that he didn’t believe in suicide. He also mentioned not being able to imagine a world without Betty. 

A lot of what he wrote about New York was very familiar, too. He mentioned looking into a certain window on a certain block, and marveling at a beautiful wall of books. I thought, I know that window, George! I pass that window all the time.When he described the exquisite fish tanks that used to stand near the windows of Barney’s on Seventh Avenue, I remembered going in more than a few times to look at those very fish. Barney’s had a way of displaying priceless-looking jewelry inside those fish tanks that was truly magical. And just buying a lipstick there always put a whiff of glamour on the rest of the day. 

One day not long after George died I had a dentist appointment. My dentist is a lady with a ground floor office, but there aren’t windows to look into. She and her assistants have gentle hands, so going there is not a terrible thing. The dentist also told me that I can bring my kitty with me any time I feel like it, which is a very comforting thought. On the way, I walked along the iron railings that protect Gramercy Park from people without a key, and I had the thought that I like looking into the park and seeing no people. The sky was gray and stormy over the Chrysler Building gleaming in the distance uptown, and Gramercy Park looked like a big, living, Joseph Cornell box. Near the dentist’s, I passed the windows of a therapist’s office I always look into and saw him, the therapist, seated across from a man. The therapist always keeps the room so dim that it’s almost dark, and I’ve never seen an expression on his face. He’s an archetype. He probably charges a fortune.

In his book I learned that George and Betty both hated cats and that he wasn’t always outwardly the warmest of people by nature. Had he seen me approaching on the block with the wall of books carrying Honey on my shoulder he would probably have crossed the street. Even so, I still think I would have liked him very much. Honey saw that wall of books too, and she saw the man who pushes the ladder along the shelves. She watched people getting haircuts and gaped at the big Greek cat who lives in the florist on 8thAvenue. Honey loved looking in windows in New York. Sometimes when I lifted her a bit to get a better look into someone’s living room, they spotted her. But nobody ever seems to mind a peeper if the peeper is a kitty. 

I hope that the news was wrong about how George died. The Times is not infallible. I remember an old queen telling me once that no one is really in the know if they aren’t reading the Post. And more and more, I think the old queen was right. It was his business, if it’s true, but I hope George didn’t commit suicide. I hope he didn’t suffer that depth of sadness. I saw that there was a service for him in a pretty little church, and that he was laid to rest next to Betty. And I imagine that he would probably like that.

August 9, 2019

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