Brooklyn Boro

Remembering 1950s Brooklyn: An ode to my Pop

November 6, 2020 William A. Gralnick

As you read this, my father is turning 115. He’s not here for me to celebrate with. He died at 87. I miss him every day. Since he spent 85 of his 87 years in Brooklyn, I thought an “Ode to Pop” would be in order.

I don’t know why I called him Pop. Everyone else I knew called their dads Dad except for a few who called them Father, and one who called his dad by his first name. One of my boys calls me Pop and the other Dad. The grandchildren from the one who calls me Pop call me Pop-Pop. As my grandma used to say, “Go know.”

Pop was born in Williamsburg to William Gralnick and Jenny Meirer, both immigrants. He grew up when the biggest problem walking the streets of Williamsburg was if a goat would with great determination try to steal your lunch and often succeed. At some point, I guess pre- or early adolescence things must have picked up economically and the family moved to Crown Heights. It was there that his wishes and dreams were nurtured and soon after displaced by the reality of the Great Depression.

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Abraham (NMN) Gralnick harbored dreams of being a concert violinist. The economic situation of the country and the family made that a dashed dream. Physician was next. Economic times reared their ugly head. Medical school was two years longer than dental school in those days, so dentist it was to be.

He took his artistry with him to school and work. Several of his nieces and nephews used his lab drawings in medical school. Their professors said they should be framed. His attention to detail in his work led him to make everything that he put in his patients’ mouths. He only acquiesced to using a contract laboratory when his patient load grew and along with them the hours he was spending at work.

His nephew was on an aircraft carrier and needed to see the ship’s dentist. The dentist looked in his mouth and said, “I’ve only seen that kind of work once before in my life. It was done by my professor Abraham Gralnick.” Pop’s nephew proudly responded, “That’s my uncle Abe!”

For him to get into dental school itself was a remarkable feat. In the ’20s very few schools took Jewish patients. NYU, called in those days “NYJew,” took him in, and as a thank you he taught at their dental school.

He made a bit more history when he decided not to become “the neighborhood dentist,” which is what most all dentists did in those days. Their offices were often in their homes. My father was the only student in his class to open a regional practice, have an office in a building and draw patients from, in this case, all over Brooklyn.

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He chose the Fox Building in Downtown Brooklyn. Near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he offered his services during the Second World War to the young men about to ship out. He wasn’t drafted and had two young children. This was paying it forward for him.

His next battle was against those claiming fluoridation was a Communist plot to poison America. Those who favored it were berated and even faced physical danger. Believing even then that good health care was a right and not a privilege, he saw fluoridation as a cheap way to help the poorest among the population receive some basic protection against dental disease. New York asked him to help. He did. He recorded radio “tutorials” about the benefits of fluoridation and the heat that came with it.

Soon his practice began to grow beyond Brooklyn. His patients were moving to Long Island and Westchester. Some complained about the schlep into Downtown Brooklyn; some complained about Murray the K and his rock and roll shows at the Fox. Lines would begin to form in the early afternoon and by showtime could wrap twice about the block the building was on, which was Nevins Street.

Some of his older patients were afraid. He decided to share the schlepping and took a lease for three days a week at 501 Madison Ave., one block down from his younger brother, also a dentist. My mother was thrilled. She was married to a Madison Avenue dentist! Over the years, his patient load shifted radically, and Madison Avenue became permanent and the Fox Building a memory.

During this time, his family’s genetics caught up with him. He had two major cholesterol-related surgeries, one that put him out of work for six months. It was scary for him and for my mom, and they were scared for me.

He loved being a health care professional. He cared for his patients. He would not go down for the count. He healed and headed back to work. He used to be able to stand forever, but now walking was a problem. Unless he could find a parking space near his building, he needed canes to manage the walk.

Enter the friendly, local cop on the beat. He befriended my father and arranged for him to get a handicap sticker, and on occasion would manage to actually save him a parking space near the building. My father was so grateful that in his will he left $500 to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a gesture so rare it made the newspapers. Come Christmas each year he made sure his benefactor on the beat was well taken care of.

Another dream that reality crushed was seeing “Gralnick and sons” on his office door. Neither my brother, who became an important figure in television news, nor I had the aptitude for the sciences. In addition, I couldn’t get my head around doing things upside down and backwards. To this day, if I have to use a mirror to pluck a wayward hair from my face — well, it mostly is a failed effort. I also just didn’t have the touch. What I could have been was a dentist for elephants. Tusks and elephants’ teeth seemed to be targets large enough for me to work on.

The end was sad to me. He wouldn’t retire. My mom was dead. Both his sons were in other states. In some cases, he was treating the fourth and fifth generations of families, but there weren’t many of them and new patients for eighty-something-year-old dentists are tough to come by.

He spent hours alone in his office calling patients to see how they were or reading the New York Times. The waiting room was empty. His Pop died in a bed in a hallway of a charity ward. The thought haunted him.

Ultimately, he did it his way. Basically, he went to work, came home, and died. He had done what he loved for 67 years. When I tell dentist friends how long he kept at it, they find it inconceivable. My brother and I even thought we had Guinness Book of World Records material on our hands. Turned out some older codger who was 90 outlasted my father.

It was a good run, Pop. Happy birthday.

Oh yes, those two non-Brooklyn years? Belle Harbor.

Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.


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