If you’ve ever slept with a customer, done drugs, or worked in food service, then much of Over Easy will be familiar, nostalgic even. Though I disagree with Pond’s “deep instinctive feeling that this was a story”, as a snapshot of a point in space and time, it is invaluable. Pond successfully reanimates the tiny, combustible universe of Mama’s Royal Café, a nexus of transitions: Pond’s personal graduation from student to worker, popular culture’s skin-shedding from hippy to punk, and the rerouting of cultural thrust from the visual arts to music.
A trusting narrator, Pond plants few signposts, makes fewer proclamations. Though her younger self (Madge) has the heightened sensitivity and perceptions typical of the narrative persona, Pond is both honest (about her own youthful awkward horniness, for example) and generous (foregrounding her more overtly charismatic co-workers). In one deft sequence near the beginning (check out that text-in-coffee spiral!) we witness Pond’s withdrawal into memory in parallel with Madge’s withdrawal into her notebook, to create a perfect symbol of what made Mama’s Royal Café in Oakland, CA, special. The result is both light-touch cartooning flair, and the kind of detail choice that really rounds out a readers’ vision of Mama’s. Especially a 21st Century reader, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’ll let you know now what the book doesn’t tell you, which is that this is the first volume of two. I can understand that not being foregrounded in the marketing material, or the hardcover itself, but it’s kind of important in terms of that unsexiest of unsexy phrases: “managing expectations”. Leafing onward through the last fifth of the book, I found myself awaiting an abrupt turn of events, some kind of existential revelation, anything to reconcile the dwindling page count with the story’s empty horizon. It didn’t come, and while any dissatisfaction may be all mine, anyone expecting closure should be warned, it ain’t here. In fact, the ending of this volume seems a peak in Pond’s experience of Mama’s, a lyrical moment of beauty perceived and shared on multiple levels, between Madge and her older future self, Madge and her charismatic manager, Lazlo, and of course, between Pond and the reader. This sharing distinguishes Over Easy from, say, Fun Home or Are you my Mother, both of which Pond has expressed admiration for. Where those works follow Bechdel’s distinct processes of thought and emotion, Pond is recounting a rite of passage, and seems keener to say “you know what I mean, right?”, and listen as you map your memories onto hers.
Though Pond offers some panels from her POV, the invitation to see with her eyes feels less about sharing her perspective, and more about discovering Mama’s for your own first time. That’s the generosity I mentioned before, and it is rooted in the conviction that Mama’s was a special place, or a place where special people (“all the brilliant monkeys”, as the manager says) came together. She even pulls off an early fake-out as Madge is given a tour of the place, the panels progressing to a bottom-right half-page of Lazlo opening the kitchen doors, prime page-turn reveal stuff, surely setting up a “this is where the magic lives” splash … but instead we’re greeted with half a page of the staff’s non-plussed expressions, cigarette ash a-dangle from their mouths. Madge is still on the wrong side of the counter. That, and she’s looking for that “wow” moment in the wrong place. It’s not what lies behind the kitchen doors, it’s who.
This leads us to the central conceit of Over Easy, the one that this first instalment hangs on, that Mama’s is a special place. That this particular cocktail of bad and good poetry, routine verbal misogynistics, bed (and toilet) hopping, drugs, and devotion to a weak but charming manager is different to any other brew. It is and it isn’t. Mama’s serves better food than their diner competition, and the spontaneously organised poetry night at the book’s climax is a truly special happening, sure. But what makes Mama’s remarkable isn’t where it is, who works there, or what it serves, but the era Pond encapsulates.
The fall of hippy culture and the rise of punk. The continuation of the sexual revolution, and the continued spread of drug use. These contexts loom large in Over Easy, framing the grabby hands of the café’s affiliates, the sexual snakes and ladders, and the immense reassurance of a little creativity (Madge’s literary references, Lazlo’s pseudo-lyrical announcements to nobody in particular, the poetry evening) within the larger context of a culture in flux. What’s interesting is the robustness and the lack of judgment on display. The cook who routinely calls the waitresses “lyin’ whores” to their faces is never reproached. The kitchen hand who jokingly gropes (there’s a phrase!) the lesbian waitress (known as “Lesbian”), awakening her latent desire for men, or at least one particular man, and drawing a crowd of “Lesbian”s friends to the diner thenceforth, is at no point judged, nor is Lesbian or any of her friends. There is no shaming here, no enforced fidelity to labels or pronouns, no calling out for invasion of personal space. Far more judgment is attached to whether someone is a hippy or a punk than to their fluctuating choice of sexual partners, or how they speak or act with their colleagues.
Pond has, by her own admission, excised much and made composites of multiple characters. She seems more interested in capturing the energy of the time than in strip-mining it for behavioural comparison points, or yardsticks for tolerance. And perhaps volume two will be the downfall volume, where resentments explode, wandering hands are smacked, drugs take their toll, and words join sticks and stones in the “break my bones” department. But for a 21st century reader, in a place and time where people break up by text, blank co-workers after illicit liaisons, fill social media with privileges to check and categorisations to check for, and there’s an endless stream of revelations about misogyny’s extreme manifestations, well… Mama’s does seem like a place where people have differences, they come together, they drift, but everyone deals with it pretty upfront, warts and all, and gets back to work. This is both the strength and the weakness of Over Easy, that it is a memoir of pleasant, seemingly imperturbable drift, unbroken by even the most awkward and incestuous of hook-up fallouts. Nothing seems important or unpleasant enough to puncture the haze. Is this a lost societal toughness? A sign of ignorance and disengagement? The result of an author choosing mood over conflict, evocation over exploration?
Whatever the answer, two things are certain: a lot happens in Mama’s, and none of it really matters. People bang in the toilet, the cooks abuse the waitresses who abuse the cooks who take the drugs which come from the guys who grope the girls who shrug it off and head out with the customers; while Madge inevitably graduates from kitchen hand to waitress, and nobody seems to have a clue where to go beyond Mama’s.
The first years after we leave education, whatever age, are rarely the most directed or coherent of our lives. They yield, hopefully, a handful of truly beautiful insights and moments, but more importantly they help us find a direction, they allow us to aim at something. In choosing to revisit her years at Mama’s, Pond confers a status of interest upon them, yet this volume doesn’t fully justify that status. She worked in a nice place where people were thicker-skinned and more openly free-spirited than people are now. Her manager (like many managers) inspired loyalty through force of personality. Times were different, and everyone did their job well, and with heart. I’m hopeful that the next volume spends less time in passive remembrance, and more on connecting the Mama’s years with Pond’s development, with her choice of an actual direction. That would be really interesting.