Dentistry with a Difference: While He Drills, She Trills
"It's embarrassing to be sitting in the dentist's chair with your mouth open. You feel dehumanized," says the 40ish Suzanne. "We get a lot of patients with clammy palms, dizzy spells, men who cry, people who gag and throw up." Adds Steve, 37, "People are afraid of the dentist either because they've had some previous bad experiences or they've heard horror stories about others. Being a dentist is sometimes like assembling a ship in a moving bottle in a wet closet with the lights turned off. It's high-stress work."
Suzanne discovered her new showcase in 1980 when her husband was faced with a patient whose lips seemed to be sealed with Krazy Glue. Why not sing to the lady in distress, Steve suggested to Suzanne, who was his dental assistant at the time. Suzanne chose a Dolly Parton ballad, and the woman gradually surrendered her impacted wisdom tooth. "She told her friends and the phone started ringing," says Suzanne. "Now people say, 'I'm coming in for a filling and Willie Nelson.' "
On a recent Friday the dizzy and the clammy came in one by one. "We've got a real scaredy-waredy in No. 3," noted Suzanne, guitar in arm, en route to the side of a pale-knuckled woman in need of an extraction. After graciously soliciting permission, Suzanne began softly, You fill up my senses, like a night in the forest...As she strummed, the aura of anxiety seemed to evaporate. Soon the room was filled with colliding sounds: the doctor's drill, a hose sucking saliva, and Suzanne's melodic Come let me love you...With the extraction over, Suzanne clasped the teary patient's hand and said warmly, "You did real well."
Things were considerably looser in room No. 2, where a regular denture patient tapped the toes of his cowboy boots to Suzanne's rendition of Rooty Toot Toot for the Moon. "We were thinking of forming a group called Dr. P. and the Extractions," says assistant Gerri Coles. Humor helps, but only up to a point. When Suzanne playfully suggested her husband wear a T-shirt announcing Have It Out With Dr. P., he quickly vetoed the proposal. "We're very serious about dentistry," says Steve, "but there's no reason it has to be a bad experience."
Like most performers Suzanne knows timing is everything. A three-minute tune is just right for taking a dental impression. For longer procedures, like root canal, she favors story songs from her country repertoire. She developed that repertoire in the late '60s and early '70s, when she sang professionally as Suzanne Harris in England, opening for American performers like Tex Ritter and eventually appearing on her own BBC television show.
Between songs at the dentist's office, Suzanne serves homemade soup or tea and cookies to patients. She also has an urge to matchmake and will juggle appointments to bring singles together. "They make you feel like you are part of their family," says scaredy-waredy Caren Sharp, a patient for three years. "There is something magical about them. They remind me of Arthur and Guinevere. He's so noble and she's very ethereal."
Suzanne met her knight in shining armor 10 years ago in Chicago, when he was a first-year dental student at Northwestern and she was performing in hotel lounges. "I heard her being interviewed on a late-night radio show as I was driving home from a boring date," says Steve. She was complaining about the loneliness of life on the road. "I'm not the type to bound into a singles bar and say, 'Hey, I've got three hours before my plane leaves, and I want to meet an interesting man for the rest of my life,' " Suzanne explains. "I never indulged in one-night stands. In England my band called me 'Miss Iron Knickers.' It wasn't just moral: I was afraid of getting a disease." Steve remembers that the interviewer was obnoxious, but Suzanne charmed him nonetheless. "It was crazy," says Steve, "but I called the station." So did 100 others.
Overwhelmed by the response, Suzanne, who had been wed once before, devised a written questionnaire for prospective dates. She was looking for an unmarried man who was happy in his job, who would not curtail her career and who wanted children. Steve got the highest score. Within weeks Suzanne and he were living together, and within a year they were married in Chicago. After the birth of their son, she continued to sing at night to help support the family while her husband pressed on with his studies. He graduated in 1978 and they moved to Florida two years later.
"All we really had in common was that we hated Chicago," says Steve, a sales executive's son from Orange, Conn. The daughter of a telephone engineer, Suzanne grew up in Seattle, attended the University of Washington and tried for an acting career in New York before landing a job singing at American servicemen's clubs in England. "I'm very methodical," says Steve, "neat, plodding, almost a dullard, I guess. She's a little messy, sometimes scatterbrained, and does things differently every time. She'd probably be out in left field without me, and I'd be totally bored without her." Suzanne's whimsy is tempered by her husband's practicality. When she suggested that he get softer lights to complement her performance, he smiled but kept the fluorescent bulbs aglow.
Suzanne works an average of 25 hours a week for a dental assistant's salary of $250. She exits promptly at 3 p.m. in her "Moldsmobile"—so called because of its rather mossy interior—to fetch their son, Bobby, 9, from school. At home, a turn-of-the-century Spanish bungalow, Suzanne is a fountain of energy—cooking up to 50 loaves of bread, which she freezes, and devoting weekends to preparing the family's meals for the week. She rises at 4 a.m. to work on a book of time-saving tips for working mothers. "Quality time," says Suzanne, "is not Mother getting home from work and saying, 'Okay kid, you have 15 minutes to tell me everything that's on your mind. I'm tired and cranky, but tell me.' "
Over the years the woman who aspires to be the Heloise of child-rearing has developed some unconventional rituals. For example, from age 2 to age 7, Bobby was fed dinner in the bathtub. "I put his hamburger on a raft," explains Suzanne, "and his green beans on a steamboat, and read to him while he ate everything. Sure, the bathwater was gross, but I just hosed him off." When Bobby started pre-school Suzanne was seized with another idea. Why put him in pajamas when he could be dressed for school the night before? Rather than battle over what Bobby wanted to wear, Suzanne had him select his favorite outfit and promptly bought 25 identical ensembles. He has worn a red T-shirt, white socks and blue shorts every day for the past four years.
Suzanne protects her son from the rigors of clothes shopping by leaving him home and taking along one of his stuffed animals and outfitting it. "I get waited on right away," she says. She keeps Bobby's school shoes in the glove compartment of the Moldsmobile so that each morning there is no scurry to find them. "I want to enjoy time with my child. I'd rather save the confrontations for the biggies, like, 'Don't get that girl pregnant.' "
In the beginning Steve maintained an open attitude toward his wife's experiments. "It seemed to work," he says. "There was more harmony among us. But we sometimes wonder if we are raising a neurotic whose wife won't understand when he gets hungry each time the bathwater runs and sleepy every time he puts on his clothes." At that point young Bobby bounces into the room, all blond and blue-eyed, engaging and well adjusted.
At her husband's prompting, Suzanne has pursued her dream of performing in Nashville and has spent several weeks singing at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in the country music capital for each of the past four years. She turns down most other out-of-town offers. "Steve gave me such a long rope that I flowered into Mrs. Domesticity," she observes. "I like singing 9 to 3. Bobby will grow up soon and won't be as fascinated with Mommy as he is now."
Steve works late two nights a week and takes Wednesdays off to attend to his many hobbies: five-minute chess, bridge, house restoration and fishing with Bobby. "We could have three times the business," Steve observes, "but we mutually agreed that time is more precious to us."
After a full day of crown and bridge work, Steve takes a half hour before dinner to decompress on the deck he built. On a recent weekend night he sat down to a meal of sautéed chicken, steamed asparagus, artichoke and white wine, followed by a bowl of blueberries buried beneath whipped yogurt. While her husband methodically stacked his discarded artichoke leaves in matching columns, Suzanne attended to a clatter of pots spilling over in her frenzied kitchen. "We still don't have anything in common except that we love each other," says Steve. "I've never met anyone remotely like my wife. She has the spirit of making life more fun. I enjoyed my life before her, but she is just like dessert."