Comic artist Mimi Pond’s continuation of the memoir she began in Over Easy delves right back into the world of late ‘70s / early ‘80s Oakland, California. The Customer Is Always Wrong follows her time as a waitress at The Imperial Cafe filled with a cast of characters as colorful as the aqua watercolor filling the pages of her book; junkies, dealers, wannabe artists, and criminals fill Pond’s story as she struggles to make a career as a cartoonist while also continually being drawn into a world frequently at odds with that goal.
While Over Easy documented Pond’s time as a recent art school graduate, floundering in her future and recently hired as dishwasher, and then waitress at The Imperial Cafe, The Customer Is Always Wrong finds her fully immersed in the restaurant and its dysfunctional staff and weirdo regulars. Surrounded by coworkers who seem to be perpetually in some state of a drug-induced high, attempting to score drugs, and temperamenta
l, they’re a motley crew headed by restaurant manager, Lazlo, who looms large as a presence both comforting and cautionary.
Lazlo is a poet, though he’s certainly not actively working as one, but regardless, he’s a charming raconteur who manages to understand Pond in ways that surprise and delight her. Their relationship is filled with inside jokes, wry observations on the many characters they encounter on a regular basis, and a sharp understanding of what it means to truly be creative and ambitious. Though it may seem throughout much of the story that Pond is aimless or not really serious about her goal to be a successful cartoonist, she submits her work to the National Lampoon, which is accepted, and then strives to save enough money to move to New York. That goal is always present in the story, even amidst the ongoing theater that is the Imperial. There are many setbacks along the way, not the least of which is Pond’s own indecisiveness at times, but her sincere wish to achieve her goal is never in question.
The constant drama that fuels her time at the Imperial also fuels Pond’s storytelling. Break ups and hook ups are commonplace, as are the high emotions that accompany the many romantic betrayals that take place at the restaurant. Pond’s own relationship with her boyfriend, Bryan, is a roller coaster of highs and lows until she’s finally so fed up that she ends things.
Part of what makes Pond’s comics so engaging and relatable is her willingness to offer up her own faults and mistakes to the reader. She’s not a removed narrator, above it all, looking down on the riff raff around her. Rather, she’s in the fray, sometimes observing, sometimes complicating, and sometimes misunderstanding, but always honest.
Much, if not most, of the dramatics in the story are directly related to drugs. The ease with which everyone is able to procure drugs and the implicit acceptance of drug use, even while working, is central to The Customer Is Always Wrong and cements it in its time period perfectly. When Camille and Neville get caught up in dealing, then stealing drugs, and eventually become addicted to heroin, Pond deftly straddles the line between painting a matter-of-fact picture of the events and normalizing, if not approving, of their choices. Even Lazlo, who manages to convince them to attend a 21-day methadone rehab program sees nothing wrong with doing coke on the way to the clinic.
Later in the book, Lazlo confides to Pond, “Drugs are supposed to make you feel good, help you live better… not ruin your life, right?” It’s a statement that encapsulates a great deal about the culture at the time, and the characters’ choices, while also foreshadowing the future anti-drug stance that would take hold of the country.
When Lazlo is diagnosed with cancer, there’s a shift that takes place for Pond that propels the story forward toward a more active approach to getting out of the Imperial and moving to New York. She’s getting pressure from National Lampoon to move and, increasingly, she’s losing her romantic suffering artist attachment to the restaurant. Lazlo’s illness brings out a maudlin honesty in him that affects Pond greatly, and ultimately, it’s the final push she needs to make her decision. Dodging a suspicious request to add a phone line in her house for her art “patrons”, Phyllis and Mitchell (another pair of junkies and dealers), she declines by saying she’s moving, and it’s confirmation that she’s on the right path.
Throughout all of The Customer is Always Wrong Pond’s confessional, funny, biting, and overall authentic voice is brought to life with her always expressive ink and watercolor panels. The aqua hue that permeates the work speaks to her singular artistic approach that transcends a biographical work. She imbues her story with insights that speak to many precisely because there’s so much specificity and detail to her individual perspective. Seeing the ways in which she interacts with, reacts to, and observes and learns from those around her provides a peek into a mind brimming with curiosity and true affection for other people.
It’s easy to get caught up in the lives of Pond and the Imperial crew, awash with constant drama and memorable weirdos, but more than that she has a voice that relates their stories with understanding and kindness. It’s a beautiful gift and a wonderful tribute to the time.
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