“Fine,” I said to Dorothy, the dentist’s Polish assistant, in answer to her inquiry yesterday afternoon about my weekend and how it went. “And yours?”
“Nice,” said Dorothy, standing at the counter close to the window, her back to me, readying a large dose of Novocain.
“All that just for me?” I asked as I lay down in the dentist’s chair.
“You might have a pinch, but you don’t want to have any pain,” Dorothy said.
“No,” I replied in agreement, although I knew there was more to what Dorothy cheerily described as just a pinch.
A fortnight ago, I lay on the very same dentist’s chair on the 11th floor of a building on 60th St. and Lex for the first session of this root-canal operation. The gum on my lower-left jaw was already under the influence of Novocain when the dentist, who had gouged out the tooth’s dentin to reach the infected pulp, became matter-of-fact. “This will pinch,” he said. With his left hand, he pulled my head firmly against his white-coated stomach—hand and body acting as a brace—and with his right hand plunged a syringe into my mouth, the needle going deep into the root of problem. The sensation of the needle entering the infected, Novocain-free mass of nerves and blood vessels was no pinch. It was an agonizing if brief explosion—my legs flew upward—until the anesthetic began to suppress the pain the needle had provoked.
“Hello, Mr. Thomas. How’s the tooth?” asked Dr. L., the dentist, striding into the room. “Any pain?”
“Fine,” I replied. “No problems at all. No pain.”
And there had been no pain since my previous appointment with Dr. L, though now and then I’d thought nervously about that pinch, and whether at the next session there would be another. He sat down to my right, reached for the large syringe Dorothy had placed on dentistry’s equivalent of the dumbwaiter—that familiar swinging arm and tray, where the electric drills are held in their cradles—and injected the Novocain into my Lower East Side gum. “I’ll soon be back,” said Dr. L, getting up and leaving the room. As my jaw grew numb, I picked up the copy of Martin Amis’Money that I had placed on my lap and which I began reading on the subway to this appointment—a great New York novel, a great London novel, a great novel about the Reagan and Thatcher years. The book, about the adventures of John Self, a man with congenital gum and tooth trouble, seemed right for the occasion—though Self’s incisor problems seem minor when compared to Amis’ own, well-known odontia experience.
Soon after I came to live New York in 1993, an American remarked to me that if you were British and living in New York, you hadn’t truly passed through immigration until you met a certain British socialite and writer living in Manhattan who never paid for his drinks. You would find the sponging habits of this man so frightful, the American said, that you would avoid Britons living in New York thereafter; and this was important if you wanted to ever know the city well. The man in question was apparently the model for that Brit called Fallow in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. I eventually met him, in 1997 or 1998: He wasn’t so bad, although it was true he never paid for drinks. By that time, four or five years after I arrived in New York, I avoided most of the British in the city, anyway, and especially those who went about town in packs, who talked endlessly of London, where I grew up; who ate at the British cafe on Greenwich Street, Tea & Sympathy; the professionally British, who now go to Soho House, a British club in the Meatpacking District that occupies a building all too reminiscent of those converted warehouses near Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper printing plant in London’s East End. In a pack of Londoners living in New York, you can find yourself hearing enthusiastic talk about familiar bus routes, the departure times of British Airways or Virgin Atlantic flights to Heathrow, the people you know from town—the social geography of your place on the map. Not that I didn’t think about London in those early years in New York: I did, and I’m aware of a contradiction. I married a British woman then living in New York, though living with someone from London was a way of not talking about London, if you see what I mean.
That American who had given me the advice in 1993 was wrong, however. You don’t truly arrive in New York until you have met with one crisis or another, whether it is a tooth problem, or a housing disaster, or another calamity: a crisis that can’t be resolved by turning to numbers in an address book because none of the names you have written down seem to match the nature of the crisis. You require professional help you don’t have. A real-estate lawyer, or a dentist, or maybe a shrink, and always a barber for the mind-settling rug rethink. There is nothing like a haircut to help one begin to see through a crisis.
And in this sense, I more fully recognized that I am once again living in New York, after two years in London, when a tooth that rumbled briefly on the Monday before the Memorial Day weekend began to roar on Thursday evening, the same night I moved into this apartment in Morningside Heights, a night when several anxieties and regrets of mine (some of them pointless and unreal) seemed to coalesce and express themselves in this poisoned throbbing tooth. Among them: just how badly planned my return to New York had been.
I had left London in early February without goodbyes, just as I’d left New York in 2001 without saying I was leaving, just as I’d departed London in 1993 telling friends I was unsure how long I’d be away. I’ve never been good at farewells. You could say this was a vice or a form of cowardice, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong: I’m prone to living in two minds, and this conflict often appears not as a duality but as a singular condition. I’m attached to New York and to London. How can one make a dramatic farewell?
I’m also in possession of two passports, British and American. In the language of Samuel Huntington’s new book on American identity and its enemies, Who Are We?, my dual nationality makes me an “ampersand,” a person without national loyalties—and therefore an enemy of the people. Though which people does Huntington mean, I wonder? If the hundreds of thousands of foreign scientists at American universities and companies were forced to become citizens, forced also to become the sort of Americans Huntington champions, if they wanted to practice and educate in the United States, would these scientists want to come to the United States? And if they didn’t, what would become of the headquarters of life, thought, and profit in America? And what can Huntington make of the work and life of a man one might describe as a great ampersand, a novelist, not a scientist, Henry James, an American who lived for much of his life in Britain?
After two-and-a-half hours with Dr. L. yesterday afternoon, operation complete, my lips numb enough to make smoking cigarettes awkward, I took a subway downtown to drop off a package to a theater-director friend, another man whom Huntington might describe as an ampersand. He’s at work on eight plays. He makes his contribution to the life and art of New York. And then I came home to this apartment, which belongs to a German-Italian man, an economist who teaches at Columbia University. My jaw remained numb for several more hours.