The Best Dentist in Brooklyn!

Well, maybe not the best dentist, but he certainly had the best dental chair!

Brooklyn 'L' Car 901When I was a youngster in Brooklyn in the 1940's and '50's, our family dentist was Benjamin Dunaif, DDS. His dental office was on the second floor of the building directly above a Rexall drugstore on the northwest corner of Liberty and Grant Avenues in the City Line section. His dental chair was in the front room of what was originally built to be a six-room apartment. There was a window directly in front of the chair that faced the station house of the Grant Avenue el station on Liberty Avenue. Immediately to the left of the chair was a window facing Grant Avenue that gave a perfect view of the first car of any el train that stopped at the Grant Avenue station on its trip west. A person sitting in the dentist's chair could feel that he could reach out and almost touch these trains! Being an avid railfan, I never minded going to the dentist because of this great view! My view seemed to be just slightly below track level when I looked out the window, and the trains must have been less than twenty feet away.

My dentist quickly learned of my interest in the el line and would always adjust his venetian blinds accordingly to give me a two-window view of the el station. I guess he could have filled every tooth in my mouth as long as I could look at those trains!

I recall one very memorable afternoon after school, probably about 1948. As I was having some dental work done, a train of the 1300 series gate cars pulled into the station. The left-hand window gave a perfect view of the first car, and there was very obviously a fire burning brightly on the lead truck of the first car! This was the first time I had ever seen a subway or el car on fire! I raised my hand and pointed out the window, and the dentist stopped working on me and stood behind me to look also. The fire seemed to be centered on the truck underneath the floor of the car -- the car itself did not seem to be burning. There was very little smoke. Apparently the crew knew about it because as soon as the train stopped, the motorman and one of the gatemen climbed down to track level of the car. A third man came out of the station house carrying one of those fire extinguishers with a long black cone -- I guess it was a CO-2 extinguisher. He handed the extinguisher down to the motorman who quickly sprayed the contents of the extinguisher on the flames, and we thought at first that he was successful in putting out the fire. The big difference now was -- there was smoke everywhere!

From our vantage point in the building after the smoke had cleared, we could still see a very small flame. The two crewmen returned the extinguisher to the station agent, climbed back on the train, and the train departed, apparently without any passengers. Dr. Dunaif told me he had never seen a train on fire in all his years there. Even though I was only twelve years old, I checked several newspapers the next day, and there was no mention of the incident.

Several weeks later I had another dental appointment, and Dr. Dunaif told me that he had learned from one of his friends that the crewmen had made the decision to take the train out of service and make a run for the East New York yards. They must have made it successfully, and the remains of the fire were put out. I guess they arrived at this decision because rush hour was about to begin, and the crew did not want to tie up the el waiting for the fire department. When I think of the fact that the car itself was constructed of wood, I hate to think of what could have happened if that fire had gotten out of control.

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As I said earlier, I never minded having dental work done, and several years later when I went to the dentist, I had another memorable afternoon -- there were no trains running! The dentist's receptionist told us that a truck had crashed into the el several blocks east of the station, resulting in train service being stopped. After my appointment I walked east on Liberty Avenue until I came to the scene. By the time I had gotten there, the truck was gone, but there were emergency workers all over, and spectators were being held back from the scene. It appeared to me that the truck had knocked one of the steel el pillars off its pedestal. The pillar was still supporting the el structure but more than a foot lower than it had before. The horizontal line of the lattice-work el girders really drooped at that point, and it was an awesome sight to see! Another spectator told me that one train had actually passed over the weakened structure before they stopped the trains. I found that very hard to believe, considering the droop I could see with my naked eye. Ironically, this incident was very well covered in the next day's newspapers, I guess because train service had to be suspended.

I always loved my view from Dr. Dunaif's dental chair, and when I returned from Pennsylvania to visit my parents in the late 1950's and needed some emergency dental work, I looked forward to my special appointment with the dentist on a Saturday morning. As I walked down Grant Avenue and approached his office, I was disappointed to see that the trains and the el itself were completely gone, and the sun was shining brightly on Liberty Avenue. I had ridden those trains on many occasions, but I will always remember how watching the el got me through many an uncomfortable dental appointment

Comments or questions, share your own recollections?

©2002 and Karl Burkhardt
Monday, September 16, 2002