In 2007, I was asked to meet with ex-drug kingpin Frank Lucas as he interviewed writers to work with him on his memoir. His life story, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington, had been released the previous year. While normally the book leads to the movie, Frank actually decided to do a book after the film. He felt like the film didn’t delve deep enough into how and why he became a criminal.
When a subject decides to collaborate on a book with a co-writer, they usually interview a few people to see who they can connect with.
I actually wasn't particularly interested in working with Frank when the call came to my agent that his people wanted me to meet with him. My agent asked me to just go and talk to him as a favor.
When I got to Frank’s attorney’s office, I could hear a loud, obnoxious, marble-mouthed man with a thick southern accent screaming on someone.
I assumed that was Frank. And I knew I’d made the right choice to just show up as a favor and then get the hell out of there.
I saw a writer leave the conference room practically in tears. And then I was called in. Frank Lucas was sitting at the head of the table. He was imposing and intimidating even though he was in a wheelchair and seemed to have some kind of palsy that made him unable to move one of his hands. He looked down at his paperwork.
Frank: Your name Alisha?
Me: It’s Aliya.
Frank: Okay Alisha. Why you wanna work with me?
Me: I didn’t say I did.
Frank: What you say?
Me: I said, I don't know if I want work with you.
Frank: What kind of stuff you write? Let me see your resume and your stories.
Me: I didn’t bring any of that.
Frank: What you mean you didn’t bring it! Why you here if you not prepared!
Me: Mr. Lucas, with all due respect, I did not come down here thinking that I would end up working with you. I came here as a favor to my agent. And if you want to know more about my work, you or your representatives can Google me.
Frank: You just tell me to Google you?!
I stood up.
Me: It was nice meeting you Mr. Lucas.
Frank: I’ll see you Tuesday.
Me: Excuse me?
Frank: Come to the house on Tuesday so we can get started Alisha! I ain’t got no time to be playing with you.
Me: Mr. Lucas, that’s not how this works. I honestly don’t think I’d be the best person for you to –
Frank: TUESDAY MORNING ALISHA.
We went back and forth for several minutes. And then I left and went home.
Husband: So how did the Frank Lucas meeting go?
Me: It was okay, I guess.
Husband: What was he like?
Me: He was…aggressive.
Husband: Yeah, I can imagine. Well at least that’s over.
Me: Until Tuesday when I go to his house to start working on this book.
Y’all, I still don’t understand what happened. But somehow, I ended up with a contract and a standing weekly appointment at Frank Lucas’ kitchen table.
It was a nightmare from day one. Frank Lucas is a cantankerous, know-it-all, all around pain in the ass.
Each week, before I could come to his house, I had to bring a small coffee with cream and two Equals. He would sometimes take a sip and then throw it out in the kitchen sink, convinced I'd put in three instead or none at all. Never true. But, whatever.
I also had to bring a toasted bagel, cream cheese on one side only. Now when you put a bagel together, even if you only put cream cheese on one side, THE OTHER SIDE WILL HAVE CREAM CHEESE ON IT TOO BY DEFAULT.
I attempted to explain this to him each week as he scraped the cream cheese off the other side in disgust, while cursing me out.
"Alisha, If I can't trust you to get this right, how can I trust you with my life story?!"
I offered to bring him two halves of a bagel, one with cream cheese, one without. His response: "Who the FUCK eats a bagel like that?"
Oh. And Frank was convinced that when we were done writing the book, we were going to run away and get married. Never mind that he has a wife, a woman from Puerto Rico he's been married to since before I was born. A woman who was exceptionally pleasant and made breakfast for me every time I arrived.
(He referred to his wife Julie simply as "The Puerto Rican." As in "The Puerto Rican is sick so no breakfast today” or "The Puerto Rican is working my nerves today.")
And never mind that 78 year-old Frank also had a girlfriend who was younger than me. She would come over during our interviews sometimes and sit on the sofa giving me the evil eye.
OH! And never mind I was married and still nursing a newborn. Nope, Frank would tell me that as soon as the book was done, we were eloping.
"I'm married, Frank. Happily married."
"You let me worry about him."
Anyway. I got into the habit of calling my friend Jermaine every Wednesday as I drove To Frank’s house. I needed a pep talk to get me through. Jermaine, who was then the editor-in-chief of KING Magazine, would always say: Just think about what an awesome story this will be someday! Just like that book Tuesdays With Morrie, you could write Wednesdays With Frank!
After each meeting or phone call with Frank, I would email Jermaine and break down what happened and how Frank worked my nerves that day.
Here's the email I sent to Jermaine on December 12, 2007. This is a verbatim exchange between the illustrious Frank Lucas and me. I had taken a few days off from working with Frank and took a solo trip to St. Kitts to relax and unwind.
Me: Frank, what's going on? I just checked my messages at home and I see that you called me.
Frank: Whachu mean what's going on. Alisha, where the hell are you?
Me: I'm in St. Kitts.
Frank: I know where you WERE. I want to know where you ARE.
Me: I'm still here.
Frank: Nigga you said you was coming home Tuesday.
Me: I said no such thing.
Frank: I need you back here now! The Puerto Rican put sugar in my coffee! She trying to kill me.
Me: Frank, I won't be back until tomorrow night.
Frank: That's some bullshit right there.
Me: I told you that.
Frank: You told me no such a thing. I been sitting here waiting for you all morning.
Me: I'll call you Thursday morning.
Frank: No. You'll be here Thursday morning. 10 AM. Don't bullshit me Alisha.
Me: When I get back I'll be pretty tired. I might need to…
Frank: You MIGHT need to be here at 10!
Me: FINE. I'll see you at 10 on Thursday. My god.
Frank: You met some nigga down there didn't you?
Me: Frank, I’m married.
Frank: DID YOU MEET SOME NIGGA DOWN THERE?
Me: No. I did not.
Frank: So why you trying to rush me off the phone?
Me: Because this costs me $4.50 a minute.
Frank: I don't care if it cost you 50 dollars and 20 cents a minute, don't rush me off the phone!
[silence for about 10 seconds.]
Frank: And you better not hang up either.
Me: I'm not.
Frank: how much it cost you now.
Me: About twenty bucks.
Frank: Okay. Now you can go. Thursday at 10 AM! Be here. And call me first. So I can tell you what I need you to bring with you.
Me: Goodbye Frank.
It would be a (very long) year before I was done interviewing Frank Lucas. I wrote the book. And then I had to go back to his house to read all 350 pages to him so that he could make corrections.
And then, finally, blessedly, it was over.
I walked out of Frank’s house for the last time and literally kicked my heels in the air and then ran to my car. I never saw him again.
And for reasons I can’t quite understand… I miss him.