Oakland Memories

Downtown Oakland

Mimi Pond’s second graphic memoir, The Customer is Always Wrong (Drawn & Quarterly), tells of her early twenties when she was a struggling waitress and beginning cartoonist in the Oakland of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like her first memoir, Over Easy, it centres on Pond’s workplace, the Imperial Café (a pseudonym for the real-life Royal Café), which provided her with many of the stories she tells.

Yi-Fu Tuan, that gentle and much-admired geographer, wrote about the intersection of place and memory.  Tuan was the geographer of homelessness and exile, one who argued that “home itself is not as enduring as it seems.  Not that it falls apart, rather that its human dwellers do.”  Memory becomes the space where we encounter home more than its physical place. These observations seem particularly germane to Pond’s Oakland, which she says has remained her “spiritual home,” the source of her inspiration.

It is not a shared fascination.  Oakland never entranced me.  By the 1990s, when I came to know the city, its downtown was downtrodden, its too-expensive night-life centred on a square named after a flaming racist, and an unbearable stench of alternating Stalinism and Trotskyism wafted off too much of its left politics.  Fruitvale and Jingletown were interesting areas for a weekend walk, but the ever-present roar of the freeway added an unwanted aural background. 

I tried to imagine Oakland before the Nimitz Freeway violated the city and pictured a much more inviting place. As superhighways tore through its neighbourhoods, the city’s rich working-class history crumbled away into generations-long urban depression, poverty, and street violence.  Oakland lost over 7,000 housing units in the 1960s to highway and BART construction, most of them in heavily black West Oakland (“It’s like a western ghost town hemmed in under the Nimitz Freeway,” Pond writes).  The hollowing-out was so profound that there was not even one reasonable supermarket in the city.  Piedmont and North Oakland coffeehouses were as far as I usually got, except for a semester spent commuting to a teaching job in gentrified, but still-risky Millsmont.    

For Mimi Pond, by contrast, the city bears nostalgic features.  Two maps on the endpapers show a cityscape of coffee shops, lounges, restaurants, the methadone clinic, the art school she attended, and friends’ houses.  The world where people make a living to pay for services, such as the Port of Oakland, almost does not appear on these maps. That provides a harbinger of absences to come.     

Pond’s self-portrait is of a young woman, Madge, drawn to troubled characters, people who either disturb needlessly or enrich life.  Her central friendship is not with a problematic, self-absorbed boyfriend, but with the café manager Laszlo.  A disappointed intellectual, Laszlo is the organising spirit of the café.  He worries about staff alongside customers, about drugs in the restroom, about filling in for missing shift workers, about getting coffee and food on tables.  Laszlo, her much-loved boss, is a co-equal protagonist of the story.  His early death closes out the memoir, the first half of which appeared in 2014 as Over Easy.  The story plays out with a cast of secondary characters in a nearly 450-page volume with expertly-drawn panels, the sort of work that has contributed to Pond’s hard-earned success as a graphic artist. 

Pond has ambiguous attitudes towards Oakland’s flourishing drug culture, one that contributed heavily to the city’s social devastation.  Madge and all her friends are snorting lines of coke while many of their lives are fragmenting rapidly due to the local drug carnival.  Reality begins to strike when three drug gang members assault Madge in her home, demanding information on a neighbour and her ex-boyfriend due to a drug deal gone wrong.  She drives friends to a methadone clinic in East Oakland, but they cannot escape their addictions.  The rich, friendly couple who begin buying her work turn out to be coke millionaires who want her to do drop-offs.  Even life without drugs remains haunted by memories of drugs, as when Laszlo, having become a cancer patient, tells Madge “Now all my energy goes into being depressed because I can’t hide behind bourbon and speed anymore.” 

Despite the traumas, there is a wistful tone to the close of this warm memoir.  Madge leaves town, headed for New York and a burgeoning career.  Oakland fades into memories that mix pain and pleasure, a scene for Pond’s bildungsroman.  Yet there are remaining questions since the real-life Oakland is a home, not only a memory.  How did Oakland encounter such social difficulties, with firearms violence so intense that the US military trained its battlefield surgeons in Oakland hospital emergency wards?  How did class, race, and capital mix with such toxic results in this city?  In The Customer is Always Wrong these forces seem part of the natural scenery.  They shape a constantly deteriorating urban landscape and its memories, but the narrative addresses them as facts-of-life or individual psychologies rather than as having social causes.  Pond leaves these questions unaddressed and readers will have to explore such issues separately. 

Photograph courtesy of Ethan Oringel. Published under a Creative Commons license. The Customer is Always Wrong panel courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly. All rights reserved.