I was raised in an apartment on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, over the Fine Arts Wallpaper store, whose neon sign interfered terribly with the radio signal (and thus my listening to “The Lone Ranger”) and had to be corrected occasionally by hanging out my bedroom window and tapping on the neon with a baseball bat.
The apartment’s virtue was that it was a short trolley ride to Coney Island and Steeplechase Park, where, as preteens, unaccompanied by an adult, my younger brother Lenny and I would go on summer weekends. We collected loose change that spilled out of the pockets of riders of the “Rotor”, essentially a spinning circular room that pinned the riders against the wall by centrifugal force as the floor dropped out. We used the proceeds to buy hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous. Later we offered ourselves as escorts to excited children whose parents were too terrified to take them on the “Parachute Jump.” If we had any change left, we took the trolley home, or we walked.
In junior high, my good friend Jesse Aronstein and I built model airplanes and learned a lot about physics, balsa wood, motors, woodcarving, patience and failure. Jesse’s mom owned the local Hobby Shop and we called her Mrs. H for Hobby rather than Mrs. A for Aronstein. On weekends or in the summer, we’d take our model planes, often with six-foot wingspans, on the subway to Manhattan and the Bronx, then by bus to Bethpage Long Island to an abandoned Grumman airfield to fly them. We carried an egg salad sandwich for lunch, glue for repairs and a dime in case we needed to call home, 33 miles away. Obviously my mother was not a “helicopter” parent. I consider all this crafting, freedom and independence to be excellent preparation for adulthood and my chosen profession.
My father, a pharmacist, bought a drugstore in Harlem and moved our family to a house in Forest Hills, Queens, where I went to high school, rode my bike back to Brooklyn on weekends, and ran track. I was awarded the Arthur T Wingate Award for the most improved athlete (a dubious honor). While in high school, my friend Myron and I built a wooden enlarger from plans published in Popular Photography Magazine. We took photos of the neighborhood kids and tried rather unsuccessfully to peddle enlargements to their parents. We learned a lot about photography, and a little about business.
I enjoyed working with my hands and entered in the Fisher Body Auto Design Contest. Fisher Body was the design division of General Motors and they sponsored a contest for teenagers to design the car of the future. I placed second in NY State and won a $100 prize. With it I bought a stamp machine which I installed and operated in my dad’s drugstore. For a quarter, the stamp machine dispensed a cardboard envelope with 23 cents worth of postage. The slim profit from that machine paid for my annual (as I recall, $75) automobile insurance for many years.
Double promotion was popular in the New York City school system at the time, so I found myself a freshman at Cornell at 16. It was socially incapacitating to say the least. At that time, the men outnumbered the coeds by ten to one.
After three dateless years at Cornell, not having learned anything about the hazards of skipping grades, I applied for early admission to the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, which gave me a dental degree at age 23. Since no one in their right mind would want a 23-year old drilling in their mouth, I decided to join the Air Force and practice dentistry on people I outranked.
I asked for an assignment in Europe and was sent to Reykjavik, Iceland for a year, where I enjoyed the geysers, the northern lights and such culinary treats as fermented shark’s fin (buried in sand for a year) and sheep’s face. For my next assignment, I requested the West Coast and the Air Force promptly sent me to New Jersey.
When I was discharged from the Air Force in 1962, I decided to specialize. I applied to the graduate orthodontic program at Boston University where I thought I could use my talents and have more fun working with children, whom I also outranked.
After I graduated from BU, I practiced with an excellent but difficult orthodontist in Harvard Square for a year, then I went to Spain for the summer to recuperate. Continuing with him seemed unwise, so I thought I’d open my own office in New York City. After looking around in New York, I realized that I much preferred Boston. It was friendlier, less hectic, more accessible and home to all my friends. I decided to settle down and scouted around for a good location.
In the fall of 1965 I chose Burlington, three years before the Burlington Mall location team picked it. I found an office at the intersection of Cambridge and Winn Streets and set up shop. I shared the location with Dr. David Mintz, Dr. Gerald Guttell, Dr. Sam Rosenfield and Wm. Gedick and Sons, Plumbers. Of course, the plumbers owned the building. My practice grew, and I found my love, Cynthia Starrett, and proposed. As it turned out, I married my trophy wife first, which saved much trouble and expense down the line. We celebrated our 48th year together in May.
We have two sons, Eric and Will, neither of whom I had been able to interest in becoming an orthodontist. Eric is a sculptor in New York, and Will is a writer and entrepreneur in Berkeley, California. Cynthia is a marriage and family counselor in Cambridge. We have five grandchildren, all boys.
When my first son was born, I stopped teaching at BU on Mondays, and said to my wife that I could help more with the baby. “Help more?” she said. “Mondays are yours,” as she handed me the squirming infant.
My practice was informally known as The Fertman Correctional Institution for Teeth. We sponsored many T ball and softball teams with monikers like “Fertman Correctional Institution for Teeth Orioles” stenciled on their shirts. Because the name was so long, for advertising purposes, no one was allowed to tuck in their shirt. In the 1980s we began the practice of buying back Halloween candy from the trick-or-treaters for 50 cents a pound. It was not uncommon to collect 150 pounds or more. We gave it away to senior centers and servicemen where I’m sure we contributed to their tooth decay, weight problems and diabetes.
There was a break-in one afternoon when the office was closed. The alarm went off and I rushed to the office. To my astonishment the police were there when I arrived. They already had the intruder in hand-cuffs. I asked the officer how they had managed to catch the culprit so fast. He replied, “Your office is just across the street from Dunkin Donuts.”
When Cabbage Patch dolls came on the market, I was asked if braces could be fitted to their tiny teeth. After some experimentation, I devised a method. By the time the Cabbage Patch fad was over, I had placed more than two hundred sets of braces for the benefit of various school fund-raisers. I suspect my Cabbage Patch practice was larger than my orthodontic practice. Eventually I expanded to American Girl dolls as well.
I must have earned a reputation of sorts. A patient’s father once asked me if I were a golfer. When I said no, he was perplexed. “My neighbor said he played golf with an eccentric Burlington dentist. I was sure it was you.”
I made a point of hiring a high school student who came in after school to develop x-rays, file charts and do other miscellaneous chores. One year I asked “Michael,” a calm, composed and mature teenager if he wanted the job. The school year was ending and he could work full-time during the summer and continue afternoons in the fall. He took the job and started a few days later. Michael seemed to have lots of energy and soon was bouncing off the walls, and drumming on all surfaces as though he were the doppelgänger of Gene Krupa. In a short while, he was on everyone’s nerves. I asked him what happened to the calm kid I had hired. “Oh,” he said, “in the summer, I don’t take my meds.”
Once, while I was examining a new patient, I noticed that the patient’s grandmother was squinting and having difficulty looking at me as though I were hurting her eyes. I asked if there was anything wrong. She said, “I can’t stand giraffes.” After a moment, I realized that I had tiny giraffes on my tie. Once I covered my tie with a cut-out paper tie, she was perfectly comfortable and I went on with the exam. I later inquired if she had been frightened or been bitten by a giraffe? She said, “No, I just can’t stand giraffes.”
During another examination, the patient’s mother was visibly startled when she looked at me. I asked if something were wrong. She said, “You don’t have straight teeth!” I wish I had responded, “And my barber is bald.”
In 2010 I returned to Boston University to teach once more, and it was there that I met Dr. Daniela Toro, a brilliant and personable orthodontic resident from Venezuela. After her orthodontic training, and an additional two years of Advanced Standing in Dentistry, Dr. Toro joined my practice. She subsequently purchased the practice as I transitioned into retirement. I am so pleased that Dr. Toro carries on in the “Fertman” tradition and has become a respected and dedicated Burlington orthodontist.
Burlington has been a wonderful place to practice. I have enjoyed watching the town as well as my patients grow. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to serve the people and especially the children of Burlington over these last fifty years. It has been a privilege and an honor to be associated with this community.
I return to my old office from time to time, to admire the new and updated equipment and techniques. I continue to teach at BU as an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Orthodontics where I have an unlimited supply of intelligent young people to help me with computer and iPhone problems, and who have taught me the difference between swiping right and swiping left.