Her Life, Aqua-Washed

Cartoonist Mimi Pond recounts her fondness for Oakland and Mama’s Royal after all these years.


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With her new fictionalized graphic memoir, The Customer Is Always Wrong, cartoonist Mimi Pond shows that you can go home again, at least for breakfast.

The moment she started working as a waitress in 1978 at Mama’s Royal Cafe in Oakland, Pond knew there was a story there she wanted to tell.

The funky cafe at 4012 Broadway—apparently sold at press time, though not announced—catered to a clientele of local eccentrics, blue-collar workers, and various ne’er-do-wells. Its equally idiosyncratic waitstaff served up omelets and pancakes while bickering, reciting poetry, and, at least in Pond’s recollection, snorting coke.

Reached by phone in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, artist Wayne White, Pond said, “It took me years to figure it out, but Mama’s was the kind of thing that wouldn’t let me go. It was such a compelling group of people and such a strange time.”

Published in 2014, Over Easy recounted the coming-of-age of a 20ish California College of Arts and Crafts drop-out who yearns to be a wise-cracking server at The Imperial Cafe.

If Over Easy is about learning to fit in, its sequel, The Customer Is Always Wrong, focuses on learning to let go. The book opens with “Madge,” Pond’s alter ego, enjoying her job but confused at how to handle other aspects of her life, including troubled boyfriends, recreational drugs, punk versus disco, and saving her wages for an escape to New York City. The narrative is a trip back to the time when the hedonism of the Carter years morphed into the excesses of the Reagan era.

Although she acknowledged some of the autobiographical elements of these books—“I did sleep with a lot of guys.”—Pond said she’s not as brave as Madge is. “I wouldn’t have done all the things she has done.”

The Customer Is Always Wrong is in some ways a darker book than the previous volume. Madge and her friends do a lot of recreational drugs, drink a lot of alcohol, and eventually have to confront their own mortality.

“There was a real moral swamp between the sex and the drugs,” Pond says. “It was the kind of situation that was really fun until all of a sudden it wasn’t.”

Pond left California in 1982 to work in New York at the National Lampoon. Since then she has published five books of humor, contributed cartoons to the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, and other publications, and she wrote the first full-length episode of The Simpsons.

Pond left Mama’s with enough fodder for a novel. Unfortunately, no one wanted to publish it. One editor suggested it should be a graphic memoir, but Pond continued to resist the notion.

“Who could possibly do that much drawing?”

It turns out she could. The two finished volumes of Pond’s saga span more than 700 aqua-washed pages.

Pond remains a booster of Oakland. “It surprised me from the first time I visited CCAC. It had a very bad reputation for being this bombed-out ghetto city with riots and crazy crime.” Nevertheless, she said, “It always felt really livable and fun and beautiful.”

Now, she said, the city is finally getting the respect it deserves. The downside? “It’s crazy with the building boom. It’s still a great scene, but I don’t know how long it will be livable for artists.”

Her Imperial Cafe saga completed, Pond said she’s glad she possessed the determination to tell it. “I find Oakland compelling; I wanted people to see what I’ve seen in my mind all these years.”

 

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