The dentist


I read an unassuming obituary the other day, as unassuming as the man whose death notice it conveyed. Dr. Folgorite Giorgio had been our dentist in another time that might as well have been in another galaxy. His office was tucked away in a row home on 16th Street between Jackson and Snyder. The office, like the dentist, was also unassuming, so much so that even after I had been going there for a time, I found myself walking by it.

Dr. Giorgio’s office was located in his father’s home. It was not unusual to see his father walk in carrying a bag of groceries while you were sitting in the small waiting room just outside the dental office. Dr. Giorgio was his own receptionist. If the phone rang while he was busy working on a patient, he didn’t answer it. He had no dental hygienist to assist him. It was just you and Dr. Giorgio and an old AM radio that was always tuned to WCAU because it carried the Phillies and talk shows.

Dr. Giorgio was a man of civility. In 1964, when I first began going to him, he already belonged to an era that vanished so quickly, many of us might not remember that it ever existed. A man of unprepossessing appearance, he was partially bald and of small stature. In his white dental coat, he could have easily blended into a crowd, a man who could go unnoticed. Even his voice was soft and reassuring as you lay there in the dental chair. By the time I met him, he had already become an anomaly, like a Norman Rockwell version of the local dentist, and he knew it.

He was a meticulous man. His appointments were carefully scheduled. Minutes after you arrived, the patient in his office was getting ready to leave. Just as he was finished working on you, the doorbell would ring and his next patient would be entering the outer waiting room. You barely had time to pick up a news magazine from the rack.

The most unusual thing about Dr. Giorgio was that you often left his office without being charged. If you had a perfect checkup, he didn’t charge you. Why should he charge you, he believed, if he didn’t fix anything? Even if you did need work, his fee was well below what other dentists were charging. One time when my wife brought one of our kids for a visit, she mentioned to him that she knew she owed a balance from work he had done on a previous visit. Dr. Giorgio kept his payment record in two card files – one paid and one unpaid. After my wife questioned him, he went over to the card files and declared, “Merry Christmas, you’re in the paid file.”

We are suspicious people in South Philadelphia. We don’t accept even good deeds without questioning them. One of Dr. Giorgio’s patients, after being told once again that he didn’t owe anything, finally couldn’t resist questioning him.

“What gives, Doc,” he asked, “you know what other dentists are charging?”

Dr. Giorgio looked the man in the eye. “Bruno, I’ve got my kids in good schools,” he replied. “I drive a Cadillac, what else do I need?”

It seemed an argument based on irrefutable logic if you were a saint.

He had his quirks. He didn’t believe in routinely X-raying your teeth. He believed the practice was more harmful than any small cavity he might find. In time the cavity would show itself to his naked eye, and if it did, there would be time enough to fill it. Dr. Giorgio was also a dentist who made house calls if it were necessary. Each time I paid him a visit, I almost expected to be invited for dinner by his father once he put the pot on.

He was an ardent Phillies fan who attended fantasy camp at least one season. A former Phillies player and later broadcaster disappointed him, he told me, because “the guy was more interested in flirting with the young women there than he was in talking to the attendees about baseball.” If you were a baseball fan, he loved to discuss the finer points of the game with you, even if you had trouble responding because you had a wad of cotton inside your mouth. I would often see him, wearing his Phillies cap, on the way to old Veterans Stadium.

Dentistry has come a long way since the days of Dr. Giorgio. The average person can flash a smile that was once owned only by Hollywood stars. The offices are high tech and fully staffed. The dental health of Americans has never been better. In no way is this column meant to reflect negatively on the improvements that have come with modernization. But that doesn’t mean in recognizing the gains, we shouldn’t remember what’s been lost.

My fillings from Dr. Giorgio have slowly disintegrated with time and had to be replaced, but not his memory. One thing I have learned with the passing of time, there are some rare people who are so much more than the sum of their parts. Dr. Giorgio was a dentist, but there is a reason his memory is indelible in our hearts.

He was so much more. 

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