At the beginning of 1987, I was three years out of dental school and interested in finding a place to start my own practice. I had never even heard of a place called Shelter Island when I read an ad for the sale of a practice there. I decided to go have a look.
Having grown up in far-away Massapequa, we thought that “going out east” meant visiting Robert Moses State Park. I can still recall how wonderfully odd it felt to be driving my car onto a ferry to go and meet with Dr. Andy Signorelli.
When I arrived at his office, which was in the building that now houses Vine Street Cafe, I noticed that the truck in the parking lot had a shotgun in the rear window. I walked into the office to find the walls of Dr. Signorelli’s small waiting room festooned with mounted deer heads. The operatory had coral pink equipment from the 1950’s.
Dr. Signorelli was happy to see me, and I got the very clear sense, even with my diamond earring and mullet haircut, that this was the place. What I could not have known was just how right I was.
I also had little sense how intimidating it must have been for the people who lived on Shelter Island to decide to come to see the new dentist in town. But come they did, and I immediately felt welcomed. For the record, my very first patient was Gladys Brigham, and I wonder if “Big Gene” Shepherd recalls being the second.
What I knew was that all the study and hard work I’d done for so many years was now beginning to bear just the smallest amount of lovely fruit.
One day an elderly gentleman named Al Brand came in and sat in front of my desk. I asked him if he would like to make an appointment. He said no, he just wanted to have a look at me. Happily, he did make an appointment and in my nearly 23-years practicing on Shelter Island, I estimate that I treated more than 3,000 people. Many of them became friends, many were people who fascinated me, and many of them were critical in my becoming a fully-formed poet.
I’ve often made the case that you don’t decide to become a poet; it’s not a career choice. One day in my teens, I decided I had something I needed to say, and said it in a poem. For years, it was something I didn’t share with anyone. But in the first years after I was done with the eight years of grueling attention demanded by college and dental school, I began to write. I soon was filling notebooks with poems and began to realize my life would be going in two directions at once.
I learned of a little bookshop in Sag Harbor called Canio’s where writers and poets read their work on weekend evenings, and went over to present myself. Canio was nice, offering me a date to read my poems in October that year. My only experience was reading several times at what they call “open readings,” where I could get up and read maybe three of my poems along with many other hopeful poets. It’s hard to forget my first time — I was nauseous, and when I started to read, my tongue literally stuck to the roof of my mouth.
As October 1987 arrived, I wondered if I should put an announcement of my upcoming reading in the Reporter. The paper was owned at the time by Walter Schumann, a new patient of mine, and I was sure he’d be willing to put in the announcement. I first called Dr. Signorelli to ask his advice. He had some, saying I shouldn’t announce I was a poet because people would think I was weird.
But that day, a lovely old lady named Juliana Behringer came in for an appointment. She was the daughter of Louie Behringer, who had owned the inn on Stearns Point Road, and for whom Louie’s Beach was named. I asked Juliana what she thought about Dr. Signorelli’s warning to me. She said that was ridiculous, put it in the paper. So I did.
When the Reporter came out, in a little corner of the back pages was a tiny headline, which announced “Dental Poetry,” written by perhaps the only reporter at the paper, Suzanne Rossenwasser. Her husband actually printed the paper at his business, The Island Press, which was in the space now occupied by the North Fork Animal Hospital on North Ferry Road. Two years later, The Island Press would print my first collection of poems.
Back in those days, I’d hear a frequent remark from patients of mine, saying that they heard I wrote poetry, and ask if it was true. What else was true was that, somehow, I had managed to find, perhaps, the one place on Earth where I could be both a dentist and an active poet.
Admittedly, there were those on the Island who could not comprehend such a thing. I recall two women who came in to see me. Only one of them came back for more appointments. When I inquired why her friend didn’t come back, she told me the woman didn’t want a dentist whose head was in the clouds. I had to accept that might be a price I’d pay to be who I was.
One of the people I was drawn to was another budding writer, Joanne Sherman. We grew to be good friends while navigating the world of writing. Years later I asked her why her husband, Hoot, had been coming to me for years while she never did. She answered that she just couldn’t imagine me as a dentist. I was all right with that — really all right.
The first writing credit I ever had was for a satirical OpEd piece in The New York Times where I pointed out all the reasons that Shelter Island should secede from the United States and become a country.
Next week: Part two, where the poet gains a career.