The Papermoon Diner in Baltimore is eclectic, full of idiosyncrasies and sits on the corner of a pocket neighborhood that is easy to overlook. It is by design, perhaps, that this shin dig is the most colorful establishment on the block, residential or otherwise. Yet it is overpowered by its landscaping, which can be mistaken for dilapidation, save the woman sitting on the bright red bench outside the front door. She is not the welcoming committee, but a wise sage you see to get your fortune told or palm read or spirit cleansed.
“Looks like there’s a storm coming, now doesn’t it?” she said. I looked off into the far distance where black clouds brewed like midnight coffee. It was bound to keep you awake.
“Yes Ma’am, it looks like it does,” I said and opened the door. “You have a good one, now.”
“Oh I won’t if it rains,” she said, and shriveled into a helpless old woman right before my eyes, afraid of the impending rain that looked poised to arrive in minutes time. But it was too late, I was already inside.
Hundreds of PEZ dispensers lined a glass trophy box in the lobby, along with other things I was too afraid to spend much time looking at, but would have plenty of time once seated. The decor was inescapable. Dolls, action heroes, figurines, large bold signs and lettering, CDs, cars and train tracks splattered the vibrant green and blue and orange walls and ceilings. The diner had a vibe that cross-pollinated the grunge underground lonely teenage world of the Inkwell in Long Branch, NJ with the sophisticated purpose of Bus Boys & Poets in Washington, D.C. Still, it was entirely it’s own world and unlike any “diner” I’ve ever been to. Alice on Acid would be a better name for it. Dismembered doll limbs and decapitated heads and naked bodies were dressed in accessories that didn’t even try to censor themselves. Coffee mugs sat next to doll heads on the shelf next to loaves of bread. GI Joe’s and Matchbox cars, Tonka Trucks and Army tanks all mismatched the room where children and adult laughter echoed off of everything shiny. The space was both unique and uneasy, if only because it flirted the creepy with intrigue. At any moment, I felt the threat of everything coming alive and my Saturday evening turning into a bad horror film like Chuckie, or Toy Story.
Just kidding, I love Toy Story. So I decided on that, and asked for the best seat in the house–a table for four by the bar. I occupied it as if it were a booth for me to make a home for my notebooks and phone and wallet and keys; my companions for the night.
“Please Do Not Talk to the Line Cooks–They Bite,” read the counter across the way. I was glad I wasn’t sitting at the bar, but laughed at the warning and wondered what joke had been serious enough for the establishment to stamp it in the eye line of customers. It was almost impossible not to talk to them if you were sitting them, and I had planned on being friendly had I not read the sign. Instead, I scrolled my Twitter feed and came across a 99U story on the importance of slow-cooked ideas, coincidentally perfect across multiple avenues of my life right now.
“The secret behind many of the greatest dishes is patience and pacing. When you cook something slowly, at lower heat for a longer time, the flavors and textures can yield culinary masterpieces. The process of our own creations isn’t much difference,” writes Scott Belsky, Adobe’s Vice President of Community and Co-Founder and Head of Behance.
I wondered if this is what was happening to my Caribbean Chicken salad with the raspberry dressing, and if this is why the line cooks were not to be disturbed.
“Few of us, except for the most legendary painters and novelists, can “slow-cook” for a living. Amidst everyday demands, we are line cooks obsessed with turning out results, and quickly…But we can round out our work by keeping a few slow-cooked projects going in the background of our frenetic day-to-day lives. The secret of slow-cooking is to not forget what you’ve got on the stove, and keep coming back to it,” said Belsky.
Turns out, I had forgot the quinoa on the stove a few nights ago. Luckily it was still delicious and not overcooked. But it is easy to get distracted with shiny things that grab your attention, and the decor of the Papermoon Diner was a prominent metaphor. It’s easy to remain in a dreamlike state where big ideas are all that is produced by our imaginations. Behance’s 99U is a great platform that reminds us otherwise. It’s mission statement reads: For too long, the creative world has focused on idea generation at the expense of idea execution. As the legendary inventor Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.” To truly make great ideas a reality, we must act, experiment, fail, adapt, and learn on a daily basis.
I don’t intend for this post to be a plug for 99U, but it does help me surrender to a truth that has been staring me down all summer, finally magnified by the Papermoon decor in an undeniable fancy that begs to be brought alive. No longer am I in that Inspiration phase where breaking the rules, defying convention and creating new definitions can spur fresh content for our lives in ways that change thinking and resulting behavior. I’m no longer in that phase of producing grand ideas that could make that happen. It is such a fun, comfortable and very safe place to be. You aren’t held accountable for your imagination, because rapid-prototyping your ideas is supposed to generate failure in order to move forward.
This Execution phase is actually what moves you forward, however. It’s something new, and scary only in the sense that it is absolutely necessary for your previous failures to matter. It’s a good kind of pressure that slow-cooks your project to perfection. The heat is always on, and you, always burning. For whatever reason, this caught me by surprise. It’s not that I don’t know what 99% perspiration means, or how to work hard. It’s being strategic about it that has tripped me up, or at least, made me uncertain about my steps. The decisions I make carry weight as pillars that provide a solid foundation for what it is I wish to create, and placing them purposefully will determine a structure that will allow it to grow within boundaries. Knowing the limits are crucial. It prevents the project from falling outside of the scope of its mission, and instead retains it to the walls that are designed to flex as it grows. I have unknowingly become an architect wearing eyes of functional design rather than the safety goggles of demolition. It’s easier to know what you don’t want then to build what you don’t know.
I am no longer a child of 25 waiting for the line cooks to serve me a delicious home-cooked meal, only to be topped off with the Chunky Monkey milkshake. No, I’m an awkward, growing adult learning how to cook for myself, and those gathered around the table are the honest judges of my decisions. The Papermoon Diner was an interesting place to have these realizations. It is a dynamic blend of in-your-face uncertainty that throws everything, including the kitchen sink, into the fabric of the establishment. And as a result it shocks the visitor into appreciating its uniqueness, and with food that keeps people coming back, eases the comfort level every time. I’m not sure I’d want to offer that same kind of wonder and mystique up front. I’d want people to know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, and leave the surprise of discovery up to the patrons. I’d want them to talk to the chefs and ask questions and know everything that’s going into their meal, yet completely blown away when they taste it. That’s magic served in a spoonful of inspiration, cooked to a degree 99 times that.