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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Dr. Frank from the Mr. T Experience

Wednesday, Sep 8 1999
Help me out. I'm trying to decide: When I win the lottery, should I continue to write this column, or not? I mean, you always hear about those ... what do you call 'em? Oh yeah -- idiots -- who take in $27 million but continue showing up at their factory jobs day after day without missing a beat.

Of course, this column isn't really work. It's dinner. Usually with very interesting people, in odd situations. Or very odd people in interesting situations. Or something like that. For example ...

Last week the eagle ears in the Weekly's music department ably reported on the shift in musical flavor coming out of the East Bay's now-venerable punk rockers the Mr. T Experience. So in the name of obsessively thorough journalism I was quickly dispatched to determine if diet might not be a contributing factor.

My dinner was a one-on-one office visit with Dr. Frank, the band's singer/songwriter/guitarist and only remaining original MTX member. You know, kind of like an annual punk rock checkup -- a quick look under the hood to make sure the attitude is still in order.

I was lucky to catch the Doctor on a very brief tour hiatus. The band had just returned from London to play a couple of dates in the Lookout Records Labor Day Freakout, and soon the trio'll be back on the road to promote their latest album, Alcatraz.

Frank lives in a small, well-cluttered one-bedroom in North Oakland. He met me at the door with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand. Amid tall stacks of books rising from the floor and the hundreds of records (yes, the vinyl kind) piled against the walls, Frank found a comfortable spot on the futon for us to sit and drink our beers. The overflowing living room contained all manner of tchotchkes, most notably a large black velvet painting, an old portrait of George Washington, and a banjo. "I'm trying to learn how to play it," explained Frank.

Frank himself looked far too young to have been rocking for over a dozen years. He was still sufficiently punked out in a vintage pajama-looking shirt printed with antique cars. "You're probably used to a little better than I can provide," said Frank, unaware that I generally prefer a little worse than I'm used to.

He introduced me to his girlfriend by way of several photographs scattered around the room. They met while the band was on one of its first European tours and are now in the process of filing for papers to bring her over. Yup, that means marriage.

Just then the phone rang in the other room. "If you're lucky," joked Frank, "this will be one of my crazy psycho stalkers calling." We both listened for the message to begin broadcasting over the answering machine. "Nope, just my booking agent," Frank said. "I never pick up my phone. One of my most prominent stalkers calls up every couple of days and leaves an elaborate tarot reading on my machine. She got my number back from when it was listed.

"Sometimes the readings are really nice, but most of the time it's evil. Just the prognostication of it. The good things I always think, 'Oh, that means I'm going to win the lottery.' But that hasn't happened yet. Of course none of the really bad things happen either. They always say I'm going to be swallowed up by a hole ....

"Well, anyway," he concluded, standing up, "let's go eat some hot dogs at the doughnut store. That's usually what I have for dinner. At the Riviera Plaza just down the street." Excellent, I thought, making a mental note, just like a real reporter, for the music department: Punk rock diet intact.

Frank and I hit the road and strolled the block or two down to the corner. The Riviera Plaza is home to a run-down laundromat, a delicatessen, and Frank's personal chef, Khan's Donuts and Croissants. Stepping through Khan's door, Frank made a beeline for the lottery stand, filling out two entry tickets. Eight million dollars, before taxes. "So I'm gonna get you one," he said, "and if you win, then ... well, you can just thank me in your will."

"That would definitely make for the best column yet," I told Frank. "It would start with: 'Goodbye.'"

Passing the forms across the counter, Frank explained, "I usually go for two hot dogs."

"Sounds good to me."

"Four hot dogs," he ordered.

As Mrs. Khan worked the electric dog dispenser, Frank caught me eyeing the apple fritters in the long glass case. "It's called Khan's Donuts and Croissants," he said, leaning over to whisper in my ear, "but I wouldn't recommend the croissants."

The dogs were foot-longs (all beef I believe), served in well-steamed buns and loosely wrapped in square sheets of waxed paper. Both Frank and I made generous use of the complimentary condiment station, squirting the dogs with ketchup and a yellow mustard. My guess: French's.

As we carried our meals back up the street to Frank's place, he explained his current philosophy of success. "I always figure my two options in life are either winning the lottery or having some unexpected hit record or something. And winning the lottery seems far more likely."

"Well, it's sort of the mark of our generation," I suggested. "None of us are as ambitious as we might be because we grew up with the lottery. Our work ethic is affected because we really believe that one day, we're going to win. Even those of us who never play."

Back at the house we each cracked open another beer and dug in. The dogs were quite good. Much better than your standard doughnut-shop dogs -- juicy, with just a hint of spice.

"For me, the biggest success I've ever had, in terms of dollars, from a song that I made up, has been through completely no effort of my own," Frank explained. "Just sort of randomly, a song that I wrote ended up in a Disney TV special. It was called My Date With the President's Daughter. I never saw it."

Frank recalled what it was like to open his quarterly royalty check from BMI, which compensates musicians for the commercial use of their songs. "It's usually, like, $2.32, and this one day I opened it and it was thousands of dollars. I thought, 'Oh no, I better cash this check as soon as I can before somebody wants it back.' Now I'm in the very odd position of looking through TV Guide every week, hoping that they'll rerun the show. Then I'd have another few months of not having to worry about getting by."

Frank hit the kitchen to put the finishing touches on our evening's dessert, two perfectly chilled bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. My favorite.

"I had a job for about eight years before I quit it to pretend to be a rock star," said Frank. "I hated it. I would go there every day. It was a very secure job. But I much prefer living on a shoestring with the idea that one day some form of lottery will happen to me."

In the meantime he intends to continue doing what he loves: making records. "The one thing that I've learned," said Frank, "is that if you stick with it, at least there's a possibility that something can happen. I've been doing all right pretty much just for being stubborn."

But really, when you consider that the odds of winning the California state lottery are 18,009,460 to 1, it's staggering to realize that it is merely a matter of time before both Dr. Frank and I will, undoubtedly, win.

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


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