And in some ways, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Dr. Charles Weiss—dubbed the "wizard of Emerald City" in the Times article—appeared at the top of a Google search for 4900 Lexington Avenue, the Chrysler's street name. I called the number listed, expecting to be put on a waiting list longer than the yellow brick road, and was offered an appointment for the very next day (by a receptionist more pleasant than Glinda herself). I wasn't entirely forthcoming about why I chose this particular office for a long overdue check-up: When the nice lady asked me how I'd found Dr. Weiss, I told her he'd come recommended on Yelp. (The practice is indeed listed on Yelp, but it has a grand total of one review, which was clearly written by someone on the inside). I suppose I was afraid that betraying my true intentions might land me on a security watch list.
Considering how often I've had conversations with other curious parties about getting access to the building's highest floors, I mistakenly believed a visitor pass to the sky was the hottest ticket in town; perhaps not giving enough weight to the possibility that time spent in a dental chair is not most people's idea of a cakewalk.
As far as I could—and still can—tell, the only way for outsiders to get further than the lobby is to book an appointment with Formoso Dental PC, where Dr. Weiss, well into his eighties, still shows up to work every morning. But any work involving sharp, potentially dangerous tools is now done by Dr. David Lee, a young Tennessee native and NYU Dental School grad who bought the practice from Dr. Weiss (pronounced "vice") a month ago. And by the looks of things, he'd better hope the building's owners don't raise the rent once Dr. Weiss (who enjoys a significant, "veteran tenant" discount) retires: In my three visits there, employees outnumbered the patients by about four to one. Which is a shame, since the bedside manner of both the doctors and technicians could cure even the worst case of odontophobia. (Bataphobes, on the other hand, should stick closer to the ground).
A Root Canal With A View
Most of us only know the illustrious landmark from a distance: It doesn't begin to resemble the Chrysler Building we can recognize until the 57th floor on up. From the pedestrian point of view, it looks like any other cement block among Midtown's concrete jungle. Only after I'd boarded the uptown local 6 train did it occur to me that I wasn't exactly sure where it was—only that it was vaguely somewhere in Midtown East-ish. Turns out, it is directly across the street from the Lexington Avenue entrance of Grand Central Station, which would have been terribly convenient, had I not gotten off the subway at 33rd Street. On the morning of my appointment, I was deep in covert-op mode (having second-guessed, only at the last minute, a silk head scarf and dark sunglasses a la Kim Novak); prepared to submit to fingerprinting and a background check. In the end, all it took was checking my name against a—handwritten!—list folded in a friendly security guard's back pocket to penetrate the fortress. Still, this does not mean that just anyone can waltz on in (I'm talking to you, terrorists): The elevator bank is protected by magnetized turnstiles, and only an employee ID or a security card will open them. After I was swiped through, the first thing I noticed next to the elevator doors was a metal panel with a single keyhole—which I assumed was the second level of defense. At this, I whispered (to myself) "Wow, they mean business" loudly enough that another guard whistled for my attention and pointed to the perfectly traditional elevator call button on the opposite wall.
It is easy to understand why the Times reporter likened "the small city of tenants" at the top of the Chrysler Building "the people of Oz." At 400 meters high—just about a quarter mile—the spire is far enough away from Manhattan's center to qualify as an outer borough. My visits left me with a distinctly Being John Malkovitch impression of this isolated office community. No, you are not required to walk on all fours (although the ceilings in the hallways are rather low), but there is something uncomfortably disorienting about being that high up, in such a narrowed space, surrounded by people who are totally at ease with the off-kilter circumstances—most notably, the frustration of being surrounded on all sides by sprawling sky, but denied much of a view until you can press your nose against one of the triangular windows (with some exceptions: The office on the 70th floor has a large picture window in its waiting room). It is, as it has been written, like looking out at the city through the porthole of a ship; or an airplane window. At around the 50th floor of a frighteningly rattletrap elevator ride, your ears pop no less dramatically than they would on an aircraft's sharp ascent; newcomers might choose this time to glance toward where an inspection certificate would be (tucked safely into an office on the 25th floor, the sign reads). Here, I half-expected to be spit out somewhere in New Jersey. Instead, I was let off on the 57th floor and followed a single, inconspicuously placed sign to the dedicated Tower Elevators, which open up directly to the offices on their corresponding floors; there's not a stairwell in sight. (On a subsequent trip up, I tried a different route to the second elevator bank, and like a mouse in a maze, hit a solid wall—it seems there are no two ways to get to any one place).
Dr. Weiss doesn't look as though he's aged a day since 2005, but he is rather obviously stone deaf, and maybe just a little bit on his way to senile (he is somewhere near 83 years old, give or take). Yet, if any of his officemates are aware of this, they're not giving it away. It doesn't hurt that the elder DMD is a profoundly skilled lip reader, which could easily be one occupational benefit of having spent fifty-something years with his eyes and hands inside human mouths. (If you ever plan on having a conversation with this fascinating man—and I highly recommend it—make sure he can see what you are saying.) And if the passage of time has scraped away some at his immediate recall, it hasn't eroded his long-term memory a bit. His office—which used to be Walter Chrysler's personal gym, before it was a commercial photography studio—is an art (or kitsch) collector's dream, depending on your definitions. The dentist is more than happy to share the stories behind the pieces... except when he's not. (By my third visit, he seemed downright irritated). My personal favorite is a miniature replica of a turn-of-the-century dentist's chair, sold to him not long after the Second World War by a destitute traveling salesman with no possessions other than his wares and the clothes on his back; under a German military-issued winter coat. (Dr. Weiss is Jewish, the son of Austrian immigrant parents).
But before I was invited to the wizard's lair, I had to (or at least thought I had to) submit to nearly an hour in the dentists' chair. Although not the most pleasant way to spend a morning, my technician and Dr. Lee made it much more bearable than it should have been: When it was all over, Leigh—the dental assistant sent from heaven—actually thanked me. I promised them that I would never miss another six-month cleaning; but next time, I'll request a chair with a view of 42nd street—it's Dr. Weiss's favorite.
All told, I managed to glimpse into five of the offices on the floors just above and below the dentists'. They all look like they could be covers for CIA operatives or organized crime—a generically named pharmaceutical outfit and a travel agency come to mind—and none were nearly as welcoming as our dentist friends.
The Formosa Dental PC accepts a variety of insurance providers (although not mine); a teeth cleaning—before X rays—will run you $175-250. If that's too steep or too scary, starting this week they are providing the H1N1 vaccine—free of charge—to anyone who requests it.
All photos by Ned P. Rauch
A Root Canal With A View