Reading The Customer Is Always Wrong, you’ll experience almost unbearable pangs if you’ve had friends who you knew, with all your heart, were too smart, too talented, to destroy themselves. And then they do.
The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond. Drawn & Quarterly, 445 pages, $29.95.
By Milo Miles
Back in the 1980s heyday of National Lampoon magazine, cartoonist Mimi Pond was a regular, as sassy and racy as any of the others, and a groundbreaker as a woman who did ace mixtures of funny pictures and words. She also contributed to the Village Voice and the New York Times, and, though she’s had a lower profile since the ‘90s (unless you were a regular reader of the Los Angeles Times), she’s stayed in there slinging.
Now she has completed her most substantial and complex work, the two-part autobio graphic novel, Over Easy (2014) and the new The Customer Is Always Wrong. This pair of well-made books are exactly the right size to read easily. The story covers the years 1978-1982 when Pond worked first as a dishwasher and then a waitress at a popular café in Oakland CA that featured quite the cast of characters on staff. But neither of the books can be considered nostalgia pieces or even straight nonfiction narratives. Pond notes upfront that there’s a lot of creative re-imagining at work – even the café’s name is changed, from Mama’s Royal to The Imperial. Pond is called “Madge.” The approach works because the theme of truth versus storytelling versus outright lying runs throughout Pond’s narrative. Pond suggests that even the most malicious regular customer, Neville, sometimes redeems his self-serving bullshit because he recounts it so creatively. The star performer and ringmaster of the Imperial show is the manager, Lazlo, who knows exactly how to pick the right weirdos for workers so he can present a set of Misfits Together for the customers.
One of Pond’s tricks I most enjoyed is her ability to give her characters different degrees of poetic skill. Everybody at the Imperial is some sort of artist, even if only how they dress. But Pond shows that some of the would-be versifiers are utter duds while others are guys who have their moments or, in the case of Lazlo, he’s just enough of a fluent lyricist to make his never-started career a sad story rather than mere delusion. And Lazlo’s wife offers a final revelation about him that at once disturbs and explains all his eccentricities. Reading The Customer Is Always Wrong, you’ll experience almost unbearable pangs if you’ve had friends who you knew, with all your heart, were too smart, too talented, to destroy themselves. And then they do.
Pond is clever enough that, when she describes someone’s painting as “breathtaking,” she does not attempt a reproduction of it. Yet her cozy, perfectly expressive lines never throw you off the story. Madge eventually learns that nonconformity is not enough by itself and finally becomes a professional artist. But the most important point of Over Easy and the Customer Is Always Wrong weaves just behind the scenes. As Patti Smith did in Just Kids, Pond subtlety but insistently dramatizes something that has been lost in American society, culture, and even psychology: a period of several years of freedom at the start of adulthood, where you can scrape by working in a bookstore in New York or waitressing at a café in Oakland, and expand your perspective, enrich your understanding of self and others and grasp what you want to do with the rest of your life. Nowadays, all too many non-rich youths are squished by debt and forced to jump into the highest-paying workforce they can find, knowing who you are be damned. Pond shows why that is the biggest wrong of all.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.