Morris emigrated from Russia as a boy around 1910. After a few years in America, he began reading all the books in the children’s library. One day, he went to the librarian, anxious that a book was missing from the shelf. “How can I go on reading?” he asked. Like many children’s librarians, she was the salt of the earth, so she asked him to show her what he meant. Looking at the empty space between two books on the shelf, she realized that he thought a child had to read each book owned by the library, in order from A to Z. In his mind, each book was an obligation, and the pleasure of reading entailed responsibilities.
As a grown man, he liked children better than adults. It was Morris and a colleague who introduced to the American Dental Association the concept of children’s dentistry as a field. In his dental office on Twenty-Third Street was an elaborate model train—The Chew-Chew Express—hand-crafted by a patient. It had painted wooden boxcars full of smiling Carrots and Celery, followed by a boxcar jail with scowling Lollipops and Gum. There were also other toys, like a giant Incisor which tore a piece of wooden lettuce. Morris showed the children reel-to-reel movies as they sat in his dental chair in the dark; he worked with just a spotlight on the patient’s mouth and allowed a crowd of other children to sit on the floor so they could watch the movie, too. He just stepped carefully around them.
The adults he liked were usually artists or writers; he knew many, as he accepted paintings—even by unknown artists—as payment for dental work and then hung them around the office. In later years, this collection became valuable. Shirley Jackson pleased him by placing him in “The Tooth,” her story about a mild suburban housewife who has a tooth pulled. In the story she plans to go home by train (the Chew-Chew Express?), a detail that may have been inspired by Morris’ noisy, phantasmagorical office, where adults could wait to the point of exhaustion, reading the left wing and right wing political journals that Morris mischievously stapled back-to-back. In the end, Jackson’s character leaves the dental office, forgets who she is and runs away with Jim Harris, the Daemon Lover.
The stories about Morris as a dentist all sound exaggerated, even mythic. He drilled children’s teeth without Novocain, but it never hurt. He could persuade even the most disturbed child to sit calmly, which brought patients from all over New York. However, he worked twelve-hour days and was reported to have once fallen asleep briefly in the middle of a treatment, his head resting on the patient’s shoulder
When Morris died suddenly of a heart attack, the supplier said he thought he’d been sending materials to a practice of at least four or five dentists. The family explained that Morris felt he had to give back to dentistry everything it had given to him.
Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015
First published in the Southern Humanities Review
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