Feed Him and Weep

He may not know a Coquille St. Jacques from a Jumbo Jack, but self-styled "Mill Avenue Food Critic" Dennnis (that's how he spells it) Skolnick knows what he likes: a free lunch.

But four years after he first began dispensing dining tips to tourists walking along Tempe's main drag, the transient street entertainer's once-comped cupboard is getting pretty bare.

"Everybody on Mill Avenue has to make a living," says the 45-year-old Skolnick, a New York native whose bombastic demeanor might have inspired the phrase "in your face."

"Even me."

During his heyday as a "street concierge," the then-homeless Skolnick steered passers-by to a handful of participating restaurants; in return, the dining establishments gave him a free meal a week, enabling him a steady supply of hot meals. Today, however, he's lucky to score a bowl of chicken soup at a sports bar called Ziggy's, one of the few Mill Avenue restaurants that still honors his arrangement. "When someone tells us Dennnis sent him, we tell them to get out," jokes manager Ali Zarisfi.

Skolnick, who recently returned to Mill following a months-long jail sentence for a drug-related parole violation, can't understand why the local restaurant community has turned its back on him. "It was a good deal for everyone," explains Skolnick. "The restaurants saw their business go up, I got to eat, and I like to think I added to the Mill Avenue experience.

"I'm like street theater; I tell 'em a few jokes, maybe pose for a picture and send 'em off for a good dinner. Like I always tell everyone, 'It's more annoying to eat in the wrong place than it is to talk to me.'"

But many Mill Avenue restaurant owners and managers -- some of whom had even provided Skolnick with free meals in the past -- would now strongly disagree. Skolnick admits he had a falling out with one restaurant after a disgruntled customer complained to management, thinking she should get a discount because she'd been steered there. Another restaurant, now defunct, quit serving him, reportedly because the manager complained Skolnick belched too loudly and tied up the men's room. And Skolnick's still fuming about spending months telling everyone how wonderful the then-under-construction Gordon Biersch Brewery was going to be, only to be given the bum's rush when he tried to hustle a complimentary meal.

"You've got to understand that Dennnis seems to have some kind of a personality disorder, and if things don't go his way, well, he's his own man," explains one longtime Skolnick watcher. "Even restaurant people who cooperated with him got burned because eventually one thing or another didn't suit him. Still, no matter what you think of him, you can't argue that he's one of those people that makes Mill interesting."

In 1997, the colorful Skolnick's controversial quest for free eats made local headlines. That's when the Downtown Tempe Community, a local merchants' association, hired a team of security guards to discourage pedestrians from talking to Skolnick. A major public-relations misfire, the move blew up in the group's face when a police officer called to the scene sided with Skolnick, as did witnesses who resented the merchants' Gestapo-like tactics toward the enterprising underdog.

Except for a startled receptionist who gasped, "He's back?" the Downtown Tempe Community would not comment for the record on Skolnick's return to Mill Avenue.

Nor would most of the existing restaurants Skolnick had once touted (or, although he denies it, badmouthed); most of those contacted assumed he was still in jail.

"As soon as you print anything, he'll attack us," explains a representative of one Mill Avenue eatery who requested anonymity. "He can be very nasty. To me, it's just not worth my time."

Although he may be persona au gratin, Mill Avenue's grass-roots gourmand refuses to admit he's licked.

"I'm a viable part of Mill Avenue," contends Skolnick, who continues to work Mill Avenue, even though he moonlights as a taxi driver. "And I'd like to be a comedian one day, so this is a good place to try out my material. I ask people where they're from and I got a joke for every state in the union. Arizona? Hey, I was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in south Phoenix -- they found a knife in my back!"

But even the ever-glib Skolnick was at a loss for words when approached by a young Arizona State University student last year.

"The kid looked at me kinda funny and finally asked me what my name was," recalls Skolnick. "Turns out it was my own kid, who I haven't seen since he was 6 years old. He recognized me from some pictures; I was hysterical with tears."

Father and son then adjourned to a nearby restaurant where Skolnick could still eat on the dole.

"We had a nice talk," says Skolnick. "But it's difficult for him to relate to me because he doesn't get it yet. He's just doesn't get the magic of what I'm doing."

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: [email protected]

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Dewey Webb