Time Traveling with Papermoon Diner

There’s a lot that I don’t know about Papermoon Diner in Baltimore, Maryland. And what I think I know, I may not even remember correctly. Sometimes, I’m not even sure how to get there. I bet that with the quickest bit of Googling, I could easily find the basic information; when it opened, who the owner/creator is, the restaurant’s role in the community, the motivations behind its art and what’s on the menu.

But I don’t want to know any of that or remember Papermoon Diner any differently than I do. Not because I don’t care but, because for me, Papermoon Diner is a single standstill point in space within the unstoppable passing of time where I have made my own memories. Papermoon Diner is just there, and is a bit mystical and mythical and mysterious without further consideration. And I like it that way.

In the early 2000’s, I was doing video and photography for this local band called Sky Blue Baby. Singer Scott Meredith would suggest these cool places to eat after practices and performances. In pre-smartphone days, Guitarist Joey Pasco would point to this road and that from the passenger seat of my 1969 Volkswagen until we finally careened up to the corner of that unassuming little neighborhood in Hampden.

We’d arrive late at night and the cacophony of glittering mannequins, bathroom furniture turned into flower pots and used license plate motifs were curious abstractions in the dark, lit briefly by passing headlights, offering mere suggestions, provocations.

Inside, Scott had already arrived and welcomed us to a rickety paint peeling old wooden table, flanked by colorful mismatched chairs and surrounded by walls and ceilings of a simple 1960’s American row home that had been re-appropriated with blankets of plastic toys from the 1980’s and prior.

Dense clusters of the space robots that I grew up playing with stand in battle formation, their feet screwed securely into the wall, forever locked in combat. The hand-painted eyes of goofy 1950’s Kewpie dolls are gazing sideways suspiciously. Magazine images of smiling lying politicians and obscure record album covers are the wallpaper. Sparkling sequins. Vast collections of Pez dispensers behind plexiglass. Edison bulb chandeliers lined with nude plastic human forms. Primary colored trim molding.

“Perversions of the past” as musician Beck once described his music would also be a completely applicable assessment of this encircling Hieronymus-Bosch-esque montage of the middle to the end of the 20th century and its underlying theme of gender questioning.

It was at one of those storied tables where I’d once carved “Martyr” into the wood surface that Scott was lamenting over a jilted lover. I replied “perfect never lasts,” and that became a lyric in one of the band’s songs. Just like that, a snippet of conversation at Papermoon became art, just as some kid’s yard sale special ended up affixed to a ceiling for eternity, to make some undefined statement about contemporary life.

Sometimes I met the cast and crew of local theatre shows at Papermoon. Sometimes it was the cast and crew of student movies. Sometimes it was just a night downtown with a few good friends. Classmates and rival bands and fascinating personalities were often seated next to you while you ate at Papermoon.

Everyone talked excitedly over soft drinks, bizarre milkshakes, coffee, pesto chicken, turkey and avocado sandwiches, tofu, eggs benedict – everything always accompanied by unique and strange sides and sauces or dressings.

Despite food being served on random chipped vintage plates and heavily scratched and dulled mismatched silverware, everything was always adventurous and delicious, the sum more than the parts; one congruent statement of the food and the place and time and no time and every place.

My wife and I had breakfast at Papermoon the morning after a long wedding shoot downtown recently. I enjoyed a crab omelet with sides of bacon and rye toast and drank timeless black coffee from a thick ceramic mug. They got new chairs since the last time we took our daughter there for lunch a few years ago. But don’t worry, the chairs are repro 50’s diner chairs; chrome and metallic vinyl – they fit right in even if their colors do match.

In the city where John Waters films used to happen, Papermoon Diner is both an expression of Baltimore and a magical place of its own. The site of inspiration and creativity as well as the necessary recharging of those energies. The creepy blank stares and cosmic gestures of mannequins wrapped in Christmas lights are a time capsule from the past and a love letter from the future.

Now I know, from keeping various antiques and oddities on shelves around my home, these things get dusty. You’d think that with all the crazy whacked out stuff on the walls of Papermoon, the place would be filthy with cobwebs and allergens. But all that hip “junque” installed everywhere is always pretty damn spotless. It reminds me of a Richard Bach novel wherein this vintage bi-plane is always in unaged factory mint condition no matter how many years passed. It is later revealed the the pilot of the perplexing aircraft was a time-traveling ghost. THAT is Papermoon Diner.

I don’t live in Baltimore anymore. I’m not in my 20’s. I don’t do much night prowling with starving artists these days or get my words written into songs or carve them into tables. But it’s nice to know that the place where I was and did these things is still there for someone else to.

And this is why I don’t care to know much more about Papermoon Diner. It doesn’t matter when it opened because it’s always been open. It doesn’t matter what the address is because Paper Moon is every American diner. And while I’d love to meet the artist or artists whose project Papermoon Diner is or was, I doubt I’d even know how to thank them justly. As long as there are young inspired wanderers who are hungry for life and a good bite to eat, I imagine that the Papermoon Diner sign will be lit, and I’ll manage to find it.

All images © 2021 Johnny Martyr – Leica M6 TTL 0.85 | Leitz 5cm 1.5 Summitar | Kodak Tri-X 400 | Kodak HC110b

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