Once regarded as San Francisco's troubled stepchild, Oakland over the past few years has become the belle of the ball. Though much of the recent lauding of its “artistic renaissance” can be traced to gentrification, some have always preferred the more rugged side of the bridge.
The last time Oakland enjoyed a spotlight so bright may well have been the 1970s. Back then the Black Panthers helped pave the way for the city's first black mayor, Lionel Wilson; the A's won three consecutive World Series titles; Sun Ra recorded his Afrofuturist masterpiece Space is the Place; and punk was cropping up in dingy nooks all over town. The detritus of '60s idealism manifested in widespread “moral ambiguity” — a.k.a., it was sleazy. Copious amounts of free love garnished with mountains of cocaine were representative of two of the four basic food groups that fueled art and culture.
Around this time, art school dropout Mimi Pond found herself waiting tables at the beloved Oakland breakfast spot Mama's Royal Cafe. Still an aspiring cartoonist, she earned a living between freelance National Lampoon illustration gigs by slinging hash alongside a veritable rogue’s gallery of punks, junkies, and bar-stool philosophers who expanded her world view and left an indelible impression. So strong of an impression, in fact, that it provided the foundation for not one, but two thick graphic novels some 40 years later.
The Customer Is Always Wrong picks up where Pond's first graphic novel, Over Easy, left off. Though she includes a disclaimer that this is a "fictionalized memoir," some of the stories and characters are taken directly from real experiences. The snappy one-liners that set a tone of sassy camaraderie in the first book persist, but the characters begin to suffer consequences for their folly. “Folly," in this instance, consists of shooting up in public restrooms, ripping off drug dealers, and embarking upon ill-advised late night missions into unwelcoming parts of town. Drugs in cars, sex in dressing rooms, cheap thrills in a kitchen pantry — all of these degenerate scenes are artfully rendered in single-color green watercolor. Pond’s fluid style resembles New Yorker illustrations, and — if only given a cursory glance — would suggest a less seedy narrative.
I caught up with Pond to talk about The Customer Is Always Wrong before her Oakland book launch at the Starline Social Club in Oakland on Thursday night.
You must have had other colorful jobs since the late '70s. What was it about waitressing at Mama's that compelled you to write about it?
Honestly, I was very fortunate after I left the restaurant and moved to New York. I was able to start my cartooning and illustration career there and I never looked back. Never again did I have to work any truly crap jobs. Except for the brief stint I had on staff of the show Designing Women, I have always been lucky enough to work at home and shield myself from the vagaries of working for others.
The scene at that restaurant was so completely compelling that I knew from the first day I worked there that it was a story I would have to tell one day. It was chock-full of colorful characters. And in fact, since you mentioned the snappy patter, I will tell you: this was a hallmark of the place. It was part and parcel of what it was to work there, and it's why I wanted to work there. Everyone had a talent for repartee, everyone seemed to have either a conscious or unconscious desire to not just talk, but to employ witty banter. It made everything more fun. So this wasn't just me imagining people talking that way. They really did.
Let’s talk more about the television writing you did in the late '80s/early '90s for programs like Pee Wee's Playhouse and Designing Women. There was a recent Jezebel interview that recounts your experience writing for The Simpsons and how a producer didn’t want women in the writers’ room. Was this the first time you've addressed that experience in a public interview? Do you have a sense of vindication being able to tell that story after so much time?
This is NOT the first time I've addressed that issue. It was brought up when Over Easy came out, but I think it made headlines this time because of that big Google diversity kerfuffle had just happened and everyone had a way to spin it better this time. There is vindication because I feel like I am finally being heard. I'm proud of young women today for calling out sexism where they see it in public forums. Every woman I knew when I was younger would say the same things and were completely ignored because men had all the power. We were "imagining things." We were "hysterical." We were "emotional." Who were we to express ourselves that way, how dare we rock the boat? We were lucky they even let us hang around. It was an uphill battle all the way.
Maude's abortion is a memorable, though cursory, chapter in the book. The lack of accountability of her boyfriend and the casual attitude of her coworkers wouldn't be socially acceptable today, but were par for the course during that era. In a similar vein, some of the language used in reference to people of color is objectionable. Were you afraid of pushback for your use of language? What led you to make those choices?
Yes, it was par for the course, because it was safe and legal and the religious right had not yet begun their campaign to convince people that men had more to say about women's autonomy than women did. It wasn't yet the ridiculous moral issue it is now. What's immoral is legislating morality and legislating the rights of human beings without penises.
Regarding language, in Over Easy, there were some issues raised by some of the younger people at Drawn & Quarterly — I believe they objected to the word "cholo." I had to convince them that "cholo" was not a pejorative term. They're Canadian, so... and this time around they allowed me to have my way because they understand that this is all about context. There's no whitewashing the past. You can't go back in time and chide them about political correctness. I was trying to express all kinds of things about that era, how casual both the sexism and the racism were. Then again, a lot of things were more casual, like sex, and there wasn't as much judgement about that either. All the kids were doing it!
How do you remember so many details from so long ago? Do you have enough material left for a third book? If not, do you have an '80s movie-style epilogue for any of the characters (a la Animal House)?
The real Lazlo and I corresponded for years after I left the restaurant, and he would tell me all the latest gossip, but also it was such a galvanizing, vivid experience for me that I could never forget the way things were. I kept a lot of notes over the years as well. As far as what is real and what isn't, I don't like to say. I don't want the story to fall apart for people over what really happened and what didn't happen. I'm not sure if there will be a third book. A fictionalized epilogue could be funny, but I don't want to romanticize. What's not funny is the fallout from all the drugs. There were people who lost years and child custody to drug abuse. Some lost their lives as well. Bummer way to end an interview! Even so, all the people I knew from back then who have finally climbed out of that deep hole will still say, "Yeah...but wasn't it fun?"
See Mimi Pond in conversation with Brontez Purnell (musician, dancer, and author of Since I Laid My Burden Down) at the Starline Social Club in Oakland on Thursday, Aug. 17, at 7pm. For more information, visit the club's website.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.