Legendary Oakland Diner Immortalized in New Graphic Novel
By Jennifer Maerz
When I think of iconic Oakland spots, Mama's Royal Cafe is high on the list. When my friends were in school at CCA, they'd always insist on grabbing breakfast at this popular greasy spoon. It's fitting that the institution that promotes a napkin art contest was the inspiration for an excellent new graphic novel, Over Easy, by Mimi Pond, a great cartoonist who penned the cult classic The Valley Girls' Guide to Life, wrote the pilot episode of The Simpsons, and has added her comic style to various publications for over two decades. Over Easy is the story of Pond's coming of age working at Mama's, told through a girl named Margaret who loses her art school financial aid in 1978 and lands a gig at her favorite local stomping grounds, The Imperial Cafe.
I bought the book on the description alone – it's a graphic novel exploring the seedy world of sex, drugs, and cafe characters in '70s Oakland – and read Over Easy in a day. It's a tough book to put town. Pond immediately makes you a fan of Margaret, a kid full of self doubt and sardonic humor, whose mentor is the Imperial's manager, a man who somehow has time for doing coke, raising kids, and spreading mass gossip about his employees' incestuous relationships.
Over Easy is also a refreshingly different take on Oakland, a personal look at the city that celebrates a community of cooks, waitresses, punks, barflies, coke heads, artists, and regulars making their way through a working class living while sharpening their wit.
I asked Pond, who now lives in Los Angeles, for the backstory on Over Easy and the diner that inspired it.
What foundations of your life as an artist now were first engrained in you when you were working at Mama's?
I had already picked up some very useful discipline in school about making art and being consistent and keeping the drawing muscle limber. The cautionary tale was already obvious: you could either be one of the people who went to the bar after work everyday, or you could go home instead and make art.
What inspired you to write about your time working at Mama's?
The whole place was one giant inspiration. Visually, it was gorgeous. Beyond that, there's a native wit ingrained in the place. It may have started with Nestor Marzipan – the real-life inspiration for Lazlo Merengue – but to this day, the people working there really seem to specialize in clever repartee. I think at the time it was thrilling for me to find a place where people could think on their feet and come back with brilliant repostes, all while pouring coffee and bussing tables and frying eggs.
How much of Over Easy is fiction?
I like to say that the book is INSPIRED by true-life events. Some of the things actually happened. Not all of them actually happened to me. But my real-life trial-by-fire that I chronicle in Over Easy, taking orders from drunk prostitutes on my first day as a waitress, is absolutely true and just about verbatim. In a casual poll I did during a reading of Over Easy at Mama's Royal Cafe recently, I learned there was even more sex going on in the restaurant back then than I even imagined! It's hard to keep up with that much depravity, but I like to think I gave it a shot.
How often are you back in Oakland? And what do you think of the big cultural changes happening there?
My son is about to graduate from CCA(C), so I'm there a few times a year, but I never stopped going back. I'm still very close to the people with whom I once worked, and to the owner of Mama's, George Marino, and to Sherry Cooper, who began working at Mama's a short time after I did and who STILL works there. I suppose if Brooklyn could get trendy it only follows that Oakland would too. It really stayed the same for a very long time. I know it's good for Oakland and the economy for it to thrive and grow. Things change.
How has the culture and climate of Mama's changed over the decades?
It was a fun anarchic punk opera while it lasted but it couldn't keep going on that way. I think it still attracts colorful personalities, which is great, but now there are rules. I have to commend the owner, George Marino. #1: Running a restaurant is really hard. #2: Keeping a restaurant open for 40 years deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
Going back and writing about yourself as a twentysomething, is it hard to avoid being nostalgic for that time and era, or does it just reinforce the parts of your youth that will always be with you?
I'm not nostalgic for the time or the era. I know too much about the damage done to feel nostalgic. The part that is hard to write about is being young and stupid. The only thing about it that I'm nostalgic about is that it was one of the few places where I felt truly understood. So I think that yes, it does reinforce essential parts of me.
What drove your decision to do Over Easy in green tones?
Mama's Royal Cafe was originally a Chinese restaurant built, I believe, in the late teens or early 1920s. The interior is red and green. I wasn't going to do full color and I wanted to keep it simple. That shade of green – which is Winsor-Newton Viridian, by the way – just happened to resonate for me.
What's next for you?
I have to finish PART 2 of Over Easy!
Images courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly