Raoul was my dentist, but also instantly become my friend at my first appointment when he said, “I love your writing.” As a local columnist known to be a feminist activist, it was not something I heard a lot from men in Charleston, South Carolina in the late 90s. What a surprise to find a dentist who took the role of arts patron to the next level and had fun doing it. Raoul supported the arts by attending art events, but also by constantly promoting the arts as part of his daily routine. He never spent money on advertising for his dental practice. Instead he invested in a killer sound system and an incredible collection of independent music and jazz. His office’s walls were a revolving art gallery for local artists. While playing fabulous music he relayed the details of the artists’ bios and ticket info for upcoming shows of musicians and actors while pulling teeth and filling cavities.
I always think of him on New Year’s Eve and rowdy nights he would have loved – the whole city partying and fun people joining and leaving our party. It’s been years since he died in a car wreck. And, even though I knew him in another city, I miss him in the odd way that, in other years, would lead me to forget for a buzzed moment he’s gone, and I would expect him to burst in to join the party.
“Raoul is cool,” was the recommendation from my intern at the film production company where I worked. But cool had no value to me when talking about dentists. I was looking for gentle and generous with N2O to get me through some dental challenges. Raoul was that, too. He’d crank up the gas, take my music request and close the door, leaving me alone to chill. The patient rooms were cozy and private in a gorgeous 1800s house in downtown Charleston. He’d come back a few minutes later and say in a goofy, announcer-like voice, “You know that Dean. The only kind of pain she likes is champagne.” If I laughed, I was “under” enough for him to work. He always gave me champagne for my birthday.
In spite of how cool Raoul was, I still wasn’t the best patient. Between my having no tolerance for pain, being really claustrophobic, and going through an angst-ridden-writer phase, I was amazed our friendship survived our patient/dentist experiences. At one particularly grumpy appointment he told me his plans for a fun afternoon. I rolled my eyes at his schedule – he didn’t work on Wednesday afternoons and took off Fridays. I said with obvious jealousy, “Nice life.” He said quietly and kindly, “Yep, I made it that way. That’s the cool thing about your life. You get to do whatever you want to with it.”
His statement was a gentle nudge, just when I needed it. And I appreciated that he knew me well enough to tell me in a way I could truly hear it. Another kind act he did was to always leave me a voice mail rambling about what he loved about my new column every month. I admired his marvelous attention to the joyful details of life: beautiful art, great music, wonderful conversation, and always looking for a way to make a party just a little better.
On New Year’s Eve 1999 in Charleston, a group of friends gathered at his office for champagne before walking with flasks in our pockets and purses to the harbor to see the fireworks. The pineapple drop (the S.C. symbol of friendship) was beside a parking lot, almost a block from the water with police tape keeping the crowd a safe distance from the water’s edge. Our group stood against the tape, wanting to be closer to the water, the harbor – the beautiful, magical point where the locals like to say the East Cooper and West Ashley Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean. I remember this moment so clearly years later: Raoul looking around at the cops who were distracted by the descending pineapple, then simply lifting the yellow tape and smiling. And with no need for words, just a simple gesture from our fearless leader, our party ran across the dark lot towards the water’s edge. The fireworks exploded in the sky and fell towards the water where the gorgeous bursts of color doubled in the reflection, and the crowd followed us.
Every New Year’s Eve I’m farther away from that magical night, and I raised my glass with my usual champagne toast, “May all your pain be champagne!” And I thankfully toasted this memory – the firework’s pink, white and yellow glow lighting Raoul’s smiling face after he’s just led another crowd to more fun. Not just a toast, but a loud crowd’s cheers rolling over the harbor as we welcomed a new year, a new century, a new millennium bound to be marvelous – because we would make it that way.