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ON THE TOWN

FRANK APPRAISALS : A Puddle of Beer, the Aftertaste of Garlic and Plenty of Macho Rants and Raves: Mal Appetit!

October 30, 1994|Jonathan Gold

The oddest diner in the Southland might be a place--let's call it Frank's--in one of L.A.'s older suburbs. It's a small lunch counter with 10 stools, a wall full of yellowing reviews and a proprietor, Frank, famous for his abusive wit. The hamburgers there can be slightly bizarre, garnished with almost punitive amounts of zucchini and buried underneath dusty drifts of garlic powder large enough to remind you of that scene in "Scarface" where Al Pacino buries his face in powder of another kind.

Lunch at Frank's has been a ritual for generations of abuse-hungry Angelenos. Though I am actually fond of the food, I hadn't been to Frank's in about 10 years. The last time I was in, Frank stuck his schnoz in the face of the woman I had brought and asked her if she was some kind of lesbian. In fact, she was, but she didn't particularly feel like discussing her romantic life with hostile strangers just then. We got up and left without eating more than a bite or two, and Frank's curses followed us all the way to the car. The aftertaste of garlic powder was as bitter as gall.

But last Friday, I wandered into Frank's again, and the place was really quite amazing; it was a fiesta of code violations, a vision from a hamburger Hogarth. Swaths of paint hung from the peeling ceiling, and a wizened chop on the grill looked as though it had been cooking since last Tuesday. Half a dozen guys puffing big cigars filled the room with smoke thick enough to obscure the sign that read "This Is a No-Smoking Establishment." Most of the cigar smokers were playing blackjack for money with the restaurant's owner, and a fight almost broke out when one of them did a quick count and discovered that he had lost $80 playing with a 49-card deck. A customer drank from a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor that he'd probably imported from the local 7-Eleven; another fondly thanked the owner for slipping his underage son a glass of beer half a dozen years ago.

Frank did not look happy to see me. "We're out of meat," he scowled, turning back to the cards. I figured he was kidding (he wasn't, but I settled for the shrimp), so I sat down, picked up a filthy bar rag and proceeded on my own to blot up a pool of stale beer on the counter. For the next 40 minutes, until the game broke up, I might as well have gone to Jack in the Box down the street.

The card players razzed Frank about his ancestry, and he in turn speculated about the habits of their grandmothers. He waved a knife, and he cheated so blatantly that the other players laughed. Every couple of minutes he picked up the telephone, dialed a number and shouted: "Goddamn you!" at the top of his lungs into the receiver. When he was momentarily without a target, he snarled insults at his dishwasher, and there didn't seem to be a tic, a spasm of nastiness that his customers didn't lap up with their fries.

But worst of all was the running political monologue that Frank had going--sub-Limbaughian macho ranting that, unfortunately, seemed contagious. When a customer cheered the three-strikes rule for felons, Frank proposed that a one-strike rule would be better. When someone else brought up the death penalty, Frank upped the ante to executions in a public square. He complained about the "immigrant problem"--I think his beef had mostly to do with what he perceived as illegals taking up all the good parking spaces.

Finally he went too far. "Say what you will about the guy," Frank said. "Hitler would have California cleaned up in about three days."

The diner grew quiet. Suddenly, most of the men remembered work they had to go back to, long commutes home that had to be made before rush hour. Frank was bored. "I'll flip you for the check," he said, tossing me a quarter. "Heads, your meal is free; tails, you pay me double." I shook my head no, slapped down a 10 and hurried out into the smog.

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