I was walking down Connecticut Avenue 19 years ago when a nerve in my mouth went nuts or shorted out or whatever it is that nerves in your mouth do -- the neurological equivalent of God's own chalk squeaking on the cosmic blackboard, a kind of pain that makes you feel like you're a test pilot going up for a spin in the Florida electric chair.
Minutes later I was in a taxi on the way to a dentist I'd never heard of before. I wondered what I often wonder on the way to dentists' offices: how much worse will he make this pain before he makes it better?
Then I opened the office door and heard the music: not the usual Muzak, or Montavani snuffling through "Theme from a Summer Place," but Beatles pounding away so loud that they seemed to move big chunks of air around the room like speed-of-sound furniture -- music that promised that I was in the hands of a man who understood the sensoria, a man who was not going to lecture me on flossing before he got to work.
I got into the chair.
"My name is Dr. Paul Jones," he seemed to be saying over the noise. "You may call me Paul Jones, or simply Paul or even, as many of my patients say, 'Painless' Paul, an honorific which has been bestowed because of my sincere and unremitting dedication to the comfort of my patients: to wit, if you should feel the slightest discomfort, you need only raise your hand and I will . . ."
"WHAT?" I think I said. "I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THE MUSIC!"
In any case, he explained it all to me, a fabulous spiel -- he was one of the great showmen of medicine -- but it was the music that had done the trick of proving he was on my side, that help was on the way.
People make fun of music in dentists' offices. Indeed, with brilliant exceptions such as the music of Painless Paul (who lived up to his nickname, by the way) it is part of that pastel fog of pleasantness that drifts through airports, elevators, building lobbies, and telephone calls when we're on hold.
It is a sort of anesthesia, the sonic equivalent of Glade Air Freshener.
It is like the smiling of flight attendants. You know it doesn't mean anything but you notice it because you're afraid. Then you come to resent it, to see a horrible irony in it, to scorn its hypocrisy -- such is the moral calculus of music in dentists' offices.
Its intent is negative:
* To offend as few people as possible.
* To mask patient/doctor conversations.
* To hide the sound of high-speed drills -- that tiny malignant scream that makes you think of the noise in Norman Bates's mind during the shower scene in "Psycho."
The music is meant to make you feel you're somewhere else. Big band nostalgia puts you in the serene past, New Age music transports you to a Marin County twilight, light rock has you cuddled up in a car parked on Overlook Drive, and classical music restores you to a place where pain and anxiety have not stripped you of all civilized dignity by reducing you to a moaning, sweating moron dressed in a bib.
Sometimes the music is Muzak, which I don't like because it always makes me picture old, depressed union violinists showing up at the Muzak studio for work every day, guys who live in rented rooms and complain that their kids never call them, and have lunchtime conversations about dental problems: "He said I could get away with a partial, and I said that for $4,500 he should ..."
Nowadays, some dentists supply cassette players and headphones.
"I know one dentist who wears headphones himself," says Dr. Peter Menconi of Denver, in a tone that suggests he doesn't entirely approve. After all, imagine having your teeth drilled by a man listening to Merle Haggard singing "You're Walkin' on the Fightin' Side of Me," or Led Zeppelin screaming "Way down inside! Woman, you need me!"
In fact, if you doubt the therapeutic efficacy of having the right music in dentists' offices, consider the damage that could be done by having the wrong music: the theme from "Jaws," for instance. I know a bright young woman whose dental experience -- five root canals and two bridges -- was further soured one day by hearing the theme from "Rawhide."
You wonder what dentists did before Muzak and radio. Was there once live music in dentists' offices, the way there were once piano players in brothels? Would a really fancy dentist have had whole groups playing, like the Budapest String Quartet or even a chamber symphony he could conduct from the chair? Maybe poorer dentists hired receptionists who doubled on the accordion, "Beer Barrel Polka" and "Lady of Spain," all the squeezebox classics.
As it happens, music of any kind in dentists' offices may be a thing of the past.
To check on the current state of the art, I called Painless Paul to find out what kind of music he's playing these days.
Not Madonna. Not Heavy D or Ice T.
"A TV by every chair," he said, "and we've got VCRs. People watch tapes, and they watch the soaps. They can change the stations and control it themselves. But that's not the latest thing. The latest is putting a tiny TV camera inside the patient's mouth, so they can watch what's happening on the television set."
No! Wasn't the whole point to get away? Isn't this like those horrible plane trips where they put the cockpit doings up on the movie screen during takeoff?
Actually, my biggest problem with dentists' offices has never been the sound but the smell -- not just the dead, sweet smell of Eugenol and oil of clove, but that smell when they're drilling, getting way down there and it smells like burning hair ...
Couldn't they pipe in a little Glade Air Freshener?
Henry Allen is a Washington Post Staff Writer.