Most doctors' waiting rooms contain rows of nondescript chairs, end tables littered with piles of thumbed-through magazines, tasteful prints and plants, and a cheery receptionist ready to stick you with a bill.
Dr. Stanley Kaplan, the Woody Allen of the optometry set, has rather different notions about waiting room decor, not to mention eye examinations, doctor/patient rapport and the meaning of life itself.
Open the door of his upper Connecticut Avenue office and you don't even notice the furniture. What you notice is the giant papier-ma che' eyeball sporting a top hat, a socko collection of worn stuffed animals and Smurfs, a foam rubber torso dressed in a pair of checked bermuda shorts, and a miniature basketball game.
Also the large tree branch festooned with handmade Stars of David, furry little koala bears, a pair of worn-out jogging shoes, a box of kasha (buckwheat groats) and a placard that reads MY ROOTS. And not to be overlooked are a sprawling map of Maui and the scads of calligraphic signs bearing messages such as: "See the light." "Heed short bespectacled eye doctors who jog." "Are eye doctors voyeurs?" "To heal the sick and tend the cute." "Eyeball joke: What did one eyeball say to the other eyeball? There's something between us that smells!"
In the midst of this lunatic jungle sits a receptionist, an affable young woman knitting a lengthy afghan. She first came to this office as a patient and found Kaplan so amusing that she eventually became his employe. Her desk bears no sign of administrative clutter, only balls of yarn, creepy crawlers, little fuzzballs with jiggly eyes and a framed drawing of her boss "contemplating the eye of the beholder" -- literally speaking.
Dr. Kaplan steps into the waiting room. Short, dark-haired and heavily bespectacled, dressed in clothes that he's had "since my bar mitzvah," he gazes mournfully at the trio of patients seated before him.
"I'd like to tell you why I've called you all here," he intones in a deadpan Brooklyn delivery more than a little reminiscent of Woody Allen.
"I need the money."
Without missing a beat, Kaplan retreats into his inner sanctum, followed by Straight Man No. 1.
"All right now, Mr. Peterson, could you take the glasses off and remove your earlobes?"
The patient, a young bearded fellow, chuckles as he complies with the first request. He has never met Kaplan before, only heard about his considerable optical and comedic skills from a reliable friend.
"Let me ask you a few questions," the good doctor continues. "Are all the parts of your body in communication with each other? Are you taking any medicine? Freebasing cocaine? Taking birth control pills? Have you had any head injuries? Eye injuries? Eye surgery? Eye infections? Contact lenses? Double vision? Have you ever been in love?" Peterson, chuckling madly, manages to shake his head "no" to the questions that matter.
"Do diabetes, glaucoma, retinal detachments or nausea before sex run in your family?"
By now the patient has caught on to Kaplan's seriocomic patter. "My mother's parents were both diabetic later in life," he explains, "but I'm not sure about the nausea -- I never asked my parents."
This rejoinder is music to Kaplan's ears. Rolling an imposing instrument in front of his patient, he points to the chin rest.
"Mr. Peterson, would you please rest your beard on this dirty Kleenex. You'll be looking at a reflection of your eye . . ." Then begins the beloved Lens Comparison Game: "This is lens number one" -- Kaplan adjusts the machine -- "and this is lens number one. Which one is clearer?"
"The first, lens number one," Peterson answers.
"This is Meany . . . and this is Miney. Which one is clearer?"
"Meany's a little better."
"This is George . . . and this is Meany. Which one is clearer?" It takes a few seconds for this last one to sink in, and then Peterson is chortling again. During the remainder of this thorough and rollicking exam, he will be tested for depth perception ("How many of these bagels look as if they're coming toward you off the screen?"), glaucoma ("You don't have glaucoma, Mr. Peterson, but you could have picked up any of 16 different skin diseases from the wet tissue.") and many assorted afflictions of the baby-blues. When the patient asks a serious question, Kaplan provides him with clear and thoughtful responses. Yet the jokes are never far behind.
"That will be 30 dollars," says the doctor at the close of the appointment. "But for only 10 dollars more you can examine my eyes, plus you get your choice of any two vegetables."
"I am really and truly different from any other doctor that anyone has ever heard of," declares Kaplan over dinner at a nearby cafe'. The fact that he has agreed to leave his eccentric domain is no small thing. Because his office adjoins his living quarters, he sees nothing peculiar about working days, nights, even weekends. Since he began his practice nine years ago, he has tended to patients while dressed in his running shorts, and once -- after he'd pulled a tendon -- with his foot immersed in a pail of very hot water.
"What I talk about with my patients has very little to do with eyes," he explains. "If someone were to listen in on the conversations that I have with them, they wouldn't believe it. For example, the woman I just saw is about to move to North Carolina -- she wants a different life. I know so much about her just from her coming into my office. I know about her ex-boyfriend, her family, her cat. I know about her feelings. I know what her needs are, basically. I find people jobs, boyfriends and girlfriends, housing. That's what I do more than anything, and the eyes are only a sidebar to it."
Had he ever considered a career in therapy? Or psychology?
"I'm a clinical psychologist, believe it or not," Kaplan says, and goes on to present a most detailed personal history. ("I was thinking of telling you that I got my degree from a thermometer and my experience from an older woman," he starts out.)
Born in Brooklyn, he received his BA from Brooklyn College and was well on his way to a PhD in clinical psychology, when he left school to travel and study in Israel. Upon his return, Kaplan's father -- who had always dreamed of being an eye doctor but was stymied by the Depression -- suggested he apply to a new optometry program at the State University of New York.
"Here I was in a class with people who had PhDs in physics and biology," Kaplan remembers. "The first day, the teacher drew a picture of a sine curve on the board, and asked if we all knew what this was, expecting that we all did. So I raised my hand and said that I didn't know, that it looked like a hill. It was like a Rorschach test." After a rocky beginning, Kaplan learned to rely on his prodigious memory and his writing skills. He spent two summers working for Ralph Nader, investigating contact lenses and interviewing eye doctors galore, and followed that up with a stint at the Food and Drug Administration.
Does he consider himself a good doctor?
"I think I'm an excellent doctor," he says matter-of-factly, referring to both his medical acumen and his chairside manner. "Most doctors are people interested in material things, people who talk about money a lot and can't read and write. There's a weeding-out process in school -- the fellow who I thought was the most sensitive, the most empathetic, flunked out. The people who got through were the jocks, the people who cheated in the back of the classroom."
The conversation moves to more pressing matters, such as the issue of: How strong is Woody Allen's influence on Kaplan's comic delivery?
"You know, Woody's is a very stylized humor," Kaplan explains. "I can do it very easily, because it's merely juxtaposing two incongruous thoughts in a visual manner. You start out very normally, and then deviate with a visual image like, say, a herring.
"I remember I once went to a trilogy of Allen films at the Key Theatre," he says, "and I wanted to write down all his jokes. So I brought in a little notebook and a pencil, and I did just that, I wrote down every single joke. When I left the movie theater, I looked at my notebook, and realized I'd forgotten to turn the page."