Mimi Pond’s previous book, Over Easy, shows her fictionalized autobiographical self, Margaret, coming into her womanhood in the crude but charming Imperial diner. Her new book, The Customer is Always Wrong, picks up midstream in the Imperial’s day-to-day life where a now competent Margaret easily slides through the diner’s usual routine: sex, drugs, and coffee-slinging. Early in Customer, Margaret sets up the conventional expectations of adulthood – going to college, getting a house, marrying your high school sweetheart, and popping out a lot of kids – then thwarts these expectations at every turn in a quest not just to come of age but to find her identity. The diner’s colorful backdrop – an operatic theater set for high drama, as she refers to it – sets Margaret on track to exploring every last inch of her alter ego, Madge, and defy such conventional life choices: “I went out and slept with the first wacked out hippie I could find.” Pond’s Customer asks: What is right or wrong for our lives, and who decides? What’s the difference between what you think you want and you really need? Right or Wrong, those decisions make up our story.
Even before the second installment of episodes from the Imperial unfolds, Pond’s book opens with a beautiful double page spread of “Madge’s Oakland” on the inside fly leaf. The map shows a sprawling landscape, Madge’s localized and extremely personal view of her home-away-from-home: The California College of Arts and Crafts, her apartment, the Imperial, and Lazlo’s house. Margaret/Madge hangs onto the edge of the horizon overlooking the map – even presiding over it like the sun – perhaps trying to find her place in it, her place in the world. The image speaks to a kind of retrospection that the remainder of the book is filled with – a distance Pond uses to look over her past, the characters in it, and the way they shaped her. This distance is sometimes marked in an sparse silhouetted style that disfigures character identity completely and becomes hauntingly universal. Customer also speaks to an in-betweenness: a time that marks being an impoverished adult fresh out of college but not yet an established professional; a place that doesn’t mark the past or the future but the struggling present. Pond peers at that limited but impactful gray area from an intimate distance, contemplating the impact of the decisions you make, the decisions you never wanted to make, and the decisions that are made for you.
Like her view from the crest of the hill, Margaret/Madge somehow sees everything both centrally and from the periphery. Pond’s story, is really about stories, their delights, and the people who tell them. All of the Imperial’s well-loved usual suspects are back: Lazlo, Bernardo, Daisy, Sammy, Martha, The Beav, Hellen, Babette, and Otto Man. Their stories become part of Madge’s story, and somehow yours too. As Madge relates them, she squeezes herself further and further towards the left panel frame until she falls out of frame completely and you get sucked into the vortex of the story-within-a-story world. In the sudden thrill of heroine and high speed chases, thrift store sexual escapades, and would-be mafia princesses, the pages start flying out of control, flipping themselves in a frenzied need to know more. You somehow forget all about Madge, she’s blended herself into the background so well, so chameleon-like, that you forget she’s telling her own version of the story. Somehow Pond becomes both puppet-master and self-effaced artist. The series of interconnected stories are themselves addictive, like a drug, and Pond, the pusher.
Ultimately, Customer, explores the nature of how others’ stories shape our own and forge our relationships. Customer reminds us that what happens to us, how we remember a certain place, a certain time, who we were or are, is all a matter of perspective. As a companion to the introductory map on the inside flyleaf, Pond offers a second map to close the book: Lazlo’s Oakland. Lazlo, like Margaret, looks over his version of Oakland’s streets and personal landmarks. If Margaret opens the book as the rising sun, then perhaps Lazlo closes the book as it sets. Taken together, both Margaret and Lazlo stare across the text at each other through the co-written stories of their lives, reminding us that our stories are relative, and that they are not just reflections of ourselves, but each other.