Monday, March 16, 2009

KANSAS CITY, September 2003 — A Lil' Jake's Barbecue Beef Sandwich was calling my name. Loudly. Clearly. I had no choice but to heed the call. So there I was, walking north on Grand across 13th Street, with a pang in my gut and Jake's pink concrete pig in view.

Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed something in the street. Graffiti painted on the pavement.

I stopped to read it and was almost flattened by a Deffenbaugh truck. I jumped up onto the curb and heaved a deep "whew," whereupon I caught a whiff of the sweet smoke emitting from Lil' Jake's smoker and was reminded of my original mission.

About a half-hour later, when I'd finished the aforementioned sandwich, I returned to the corner, waited for the light to turn and traffic to clear then stepped into the intersection to get a closer look at the graffiti. It said:

IN KubricK's `2001

Yeah, I know. Weird.

It gets weirder.

The message wasn't painted. It was some kind of tile, a bit larger than a license plate, that had actually been imbedded in the street. Each letter looked to have been hand carved and inlaid in a plastic or epoxy base. I tried to push my thumbnail into the tile. It was rock hard. Harder than the asphalt itself.

Probably a "street art" project by a grad student at the Art Institute, I thought as I started back down Grand.

It was 1996. A year of many unexplained phenomena. The Macarena. Tickle-Me-Elmo. Beavis and Butthead.

Since then I've walked right over the thing dozens of times and each time made a mental note to further investigate its origins. And each time promptly mislaid the mental note.

A couple months ago, however, on my way back from Jake's, I made an actual paper note and kept it clutched in my hand all the way back to my cube at The Kansas City Star where I "Googled" the wording on the strange tile.


Up popped more than 30 Internet addresses referring to other such tiles found in other cities

Turns out there have been more than 130 documented sightings of these "Toynbee tiles" — as they're nicknamed on the Net — in at least 20 cities around the United States (and two in South America!). In New York almost 50 tiles have been counted, in Philadelphia nearly 30. Twenty have been spotted in Baltimore, including four at one intersection. And there have been at least 16 documented sightings in Washington, D.C., — one a block from the White House.

All the tiles say virtually the same thing. And they all look virtually the same, except some are made with colored letters and others only black letters.

The Internet accounts and stories from other newspapers indicate that the first tiles were discovered in the late 80s. Nobody has ever claimed to have witnessed any of the tiles being imbedded. And nobody has ever publicly claimed responsibility for making the tiles.

So, what are they?

Perhaps the urban equivalent of a crop circle. A mysterious sign appearing in the night. A cryptic message left behind by beings with a seemingly extraterrestrial agenda.

Or perhaps by a paranoid journalist-hating Nazi. In some cities, the basic tiles are sometimes accompanied by an adjacent tile that urges people to "Murder all journalists, I beg you!" And in Philadelphia, next to one of the regular tiles, was a long rant, also made up of individual hand-formed letters imbedded in a tile, that blamed "hellion Jews" (whatever they are) for a long list of personal problems that the tile maker seemed to be experiencing.

I called Kansas City's street department and its media relations officer Nancy Regan agreed to meet me at 13th and Grand to inspect the tile.

"You say you first saw this seven years ago?" she asked incredulously. She stared at the tile and shook her head. "I work just a few blocks away and I've never even noticed it."

She said she'd ask around the department and see if anyone knew anything about it then call me back.

She called the next day. "Nobody here knows what it is. And to the best of our knowledge you're the first to bring it to our attention." She laughed. "I even brought my boss to the corner to look at it. It's just the craziest thing."

Crazy is one word for it. Nuts and wacko also come to mind.

Let's examine the message and the medium of this little mystery.

The author appears to be urging pedestrians who encounter his tiles to consider the possibility that dead people might be, or should be, resurrected somehow on the planet Jupiter. Though, given that Jupiter is pretty much a giant ball of burning gas, being resurrected there seems a rather unpleasant proposition.

The tile maker attributes this dubious idea to Toynbee and Kubrick. The Toynbee in question is almost certainly Arnold Toynbee, the prominent 20th century British historian. And Kubrick would be Stanley Kubrick, the British filmmaker most famous for "Dr. Strangelove," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Toynbee, who lived from 1889 to 1975, was best known for his theory that humanity's perception of its history shapes its future. This theory was turned on its head and used as the premise for a 1983 Ray Bradbury short story titled "The Toynbee Convector" in which a character by the name of Stiles travels 80 years into the future and returns with stories of mankind's marvelous achievements. Stiles' reports of a future free of war and disease prompts people to join forces to work together to attain this future and in 80 years they have succeeded. Stiles then reveals that his story was a lie. But the world he prophesied has nevertheless come to pass, validating a kind of corollary to Toynbee's theory, that humanity's perception of its future shapes its present.

Fundamental to Toynbee's view of history was his belief in the central role of religion. "Religion holds the solution to all problems of human relationship, whether they are between parents and children or nation and nation," he said. "Sooner or later, man has always had to decide whether he worships his own power or the power of God."

Jonathan Clark, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, says Toynbee's ideas fell out of favor for a time because of a reluctance among most contemporary historians to accept the premise that religion plays a critical role in the birth and demise of civilizations. When asked if Toynbee ever proposed that dead people might be resurrected on the planet Jupiter, Clark responded promptly (and without the slightest trace of humor). "Not to my knowledge," he said, in a clipped British accent.

Clark says that the work of recent scholars, specifically Samuel Huntington, has "rehabilitated" Toynbee. Rehabilitated, but not resurrected. At least not on the planet Jupiter.

Jupiter figures prominently in Stanley Kubrick's classic "2001: A Space Odyssey" and is even more important in its regrettable sequel "2010."

In the first film Jupiter is the destination of the ill-fated spaceship "Discovery" and its mission to determine the nature of the strange monoliths that seem to appear at the dawn of each of humankind's evolutionary leaps forward. While in orbit around the giant planet, astronaut Dave -- having successfully disabled HAL, the maliciously malfunctioning supercomputer -- experiences a cosmic rebirth. Rebirth, but not exactly resurrection.

I rented a copy of "2001" hoping to glean a clue as to the mysterious tile maker's intended meaning. Problem is I couldn't watch more than ten minutes of the thing at a time without falling asleep. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful made and crushingly boring movies of all time.

Though Toynbee and Kubrick were both brilliant British visionaries whose lifetimes overlapped, my superficial research on the Internet reveals no obvious overlap in their bodies of work. Their ideas do not appear to have influenced each other in any significant way and they did not, as near as I can tell, join forces at any time to propose that when Earthlings die they be transported to Jupiter for the purposes of resurrection.

Time to consult the experts.

I'm standing at the corner of 13th and Grand with Kansas City detective Todd Butler and Jeff Martin, supervisor of street maintenance and repair for the city.

The "Toynbee tile" we're staring at isn't the only strange thing at this intersection. A few yards away, a group of men huddled in a bus stop shelter are passing around a marijuana cigarette. Detective Butler watches closely. Half a block away, a woman staggers slow-motion into the middle of 13th street and proceeds to pull down her pants. She screams something unintelligible to no one in particular, hikes her pants back up and returns to the sidewalk.

"Maybe the tile is emitting some kind of cosmic ray that effects people's thinking when they get close to it," Butler deadpans.

Butler and Martin are here to analyze the composition and content of the "Toynbee tile."

The tile is located in the crosswalk used by pedestrians crossing 13th Street on the east side of Grand Boulevard. It's about nine feet from the north curb, and about four feet away from a big manhole cover. It's approximately 11 inches wide by about five inches tall.

"The first time I saw it I was in my car," says Martin. "And I thought it had to be made of thermal plastic, which is the material used to mark pedestrian crossings and for the yellow or white stripes in the middle of a road. But if, as you say, this has been here since 1996, then it can't be thermal plastic. That stuff doesn't last that long. In fact, the last time this street was re-surfaced was in 1996. So, it had to be stuck in here sometime after that."

He bends down and rubs his hand over the surface of the tile.

"When you look at it closely you can see that it's some kind of epoxy or super hard plastic that's actually inlaid in the asphalt itself. To do this would require a lot of prep. You'd have to heat the road surface. You'd have to have special equipment. An operation like this would take some time and if you wanted to avoid being seen while you were installing something like this it would require some planning. Whoever did this has fairly sophisticated know-how."

Detective Butler nods. "Maybe. But he's still psycho."

Butler is comparing photos of other tiles in other cities with Kansas City's tile.

"The lettering isn't identical in each tile, but clearly it was created by the same hand. So you can conclude that the tiles were not mass-produced by a machine," he says. "It looks like they were handmade, one at a time by a single individual.

"Obviously this person has the resources to travel to all these cities, even to South America, to put these things in the streets. It's probably a man, because the tiles are obviously installed at night since nobody seems to have witnessed them being put in. It's unlikely a woman would risk being alone at night in a downtown environment. Plus there may be heavy equipment involved.

"And he probably drives from wherever he lives to the cities where he puts these markers, because flying with whatever equipment he uses would likely be a problem."

The detective studies a photo of the long manifesto the tile maker imbedded in a Philadelphia intersection. Along with "hellion Jews," the mystery man clearly believes that most of America's media have conspired to make his life miserable. Specifically, he blames Knight-Ridder for joining forces with the Philly Mafia to run him out of town. (In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted here that Knight-Ridder owns The Kansas City Star.)

The screed provides Butler with clues.

"This guy refers to a `movement' but subsequently only refers to himself," Butler notes. "This tells me that he wishes there was a group of people with him, but that in all probability he's acting alone. He probably lives alone.

"He doesn't really seem to have any kind of agenda. He talks about being harassed but he doesn't say why. He doesn't claim that people are out to get him for his political views, for example. There doesn't even seem to be a connection between his `Toynbee idea' and his claims about the media hounding him."

The detective concludes that because the tile maker has never threatened violence in any of his street plaques and has never stepped forward to claim responsibility for them he may not actually be paranoid in the clinical sense.

"This dude seems satisfied to make these things and just let them speak for themselves," Butler says.

I tell the detective that my daughter's pet theory about the tiles is that they're sites where invading spacecraft, perhaps from Jupiter, will land. This prompts him to offer a theory of his own.

"Maybe they're coming to Earth for our food," Butler speculates. "Maybe the tiles in Philadelphia are located near Philly steak joints. And in Chicago they're near pizza places and in New York near delis. I mean, here we are, a half block away from one of the best barbecue places in town. So maybe when the aliens land they won't eat us. They'll eat our lunch."

"Mystery may be the point." So says Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. Baym speculates that perhaps the primary reason the tile maker has not revealed himself is because the mystery he's created will then be solved.

"The interest he's generated on the Internet and in the media may be his only real objective," she says. "The message on the tiles is so obscure that the intent may not have been to communicate content. The medium and the placement of the messages may be more important than what they say.

"The Internet loves these kinds of things. They feed its appetite for conspiracy and speculation."

Much of the best information about the tiles available on the Internet is there because Bill O'Neill put it there. In 1992, O'Neill, then an undergrad student at Temple University in Philadelphia, started noticing the tiles imbedded in the streets. He began asking around in an effort to learn more about them, specifically who made them and why. He learned nothing. Nobody knew any more than he did. This led him to create a Web site ( devoted to the tiles and an exploration of their meaning. O'Neill's site has since become the primary repository of anecdotes and theories about the tiles, including a database listing more than 130 locations where tiles have been sighted. The listing also features several photographs of tiles submitted by visitors to the site.

"It's been interesting," O'Neill says. "People will find these things and become curious about them and when they search the Web they find our site and then they start reporting their findings to us. We've become the clearinghouse for tile info."

But O'Neill says he's no closer to knowing who's making the tiles and what they mean.

"I still have no clue. Whoever it is, he seems to still be out there. We've had reports of some of the tiles being paved over, but then some of them reappear."

In March 1983, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Clark DeLeon wrote a short article about a Philadelphia social worker named James Morasco who was trying to get local newspapers to publish his theories about colonizing Jupiter with dead people from Earth. Not surprisingly, the local papers didn't pay much attention to Mr. Morasco's ideas. DeLeon's story mentions Morasco's belief that Arnold Toynbee and Stanley Kubrick have figured how to reconstitute dead people on the fiery planet. According to DeLeon, Morasco even founded an organization dedicated to this notion.

This tantalizing bit of information is the strongest clue as to the possible identity of the tile maker, even though DeLeon does not reference the tiles in his article.

Last month I called the only James Morasco listed in the Philadelphia telephone book. A woman answered the phone. When I asked to speak to James Morasco she was evasive.

"He's not here. May I ask who's calling?"

"Well, ma'am, I'm a writer with The Kansas City Star. I'm doing a story about some strange tiles that have been found imbedded in streets all around the country..."

"My husband doesn't know anything about that. Besides he died in March. But he didn't know anything about it."

I apologized and asked how old Mr. Morasco was when he died. He was 88.

If this James Morasco had been our tile maker he would have been in his 70s when most of the tiles were made and inlaid.

I'm not buying it. It's got to be someone else.

But if the late James Morasco was the tile maker he went to his grave with his secret and is now presumably on the planet Jupiter getting a tan.

I return to Lil' Jake's to contemplate the mystery over a beef sandwich. The joint has been renamed. It's now called Danny Edwards' Famous Kansas City Barbecue. I ask Danny if he's ever seen the tile.

"Every time I go to the mailbox," he says. "And I have no idea what it means."

I ask him if he thinks maybe it's a beacon or a landing site for invading spaceships from Jupiter. `Maybe they're coming for some barbecue," I suggest.

"Could be," Edwards shrugs. "But we're closed on Sundays."

— Story originally published by The Kansas City Star, September 6 2003