Just around the corner from your safe, warm home, there exists a secret, hidden world of hidden, secretive secrets, a place of mystery where the unidentified flying objects are all knives that want to stab you in the face even though no one is holding them…except Bigfoot. It’s a place filled to the brim with black ops snipers who are planning to take you out right now because you know too much DON’T LOOK DON’T TURN AROUND JUST RUN
In my definitely-not-absinthe-inspired first post here at Backroadsia, I mentioned that I would be taking you, dear reader, on journeys into this world.
Journeys…into the unknown.
I also mentioned there would be picnics.
Picnics…into the unknown.
Field Investigation 0001: The Toynbee Tiles
Location: Tribeca, Manhattan
Investigation Date: 3/15/15.
The Mystery: Since the early 1980’s, tiles have been showing up embedded in public city streets, in about two dozen major American cities and a few in South America as well. Most of these tiles are roughly the size of license plates (with some being much larger, in particular those left along major interstates), and seem to be made of linoleum and some kind of asphalt-crack-filling compound. Most of the tiles bears some version of the same message:
IN MOViE ‘2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
Over five hundred of these tiles have been found. In some cases, the text is different; more often, there are other, peripheral messages in smaller print around the main message. The artist seems to have believed that he was targeted by a vast conspiracy involving the media (specifically the Knight-Ridder newspaper empire), the government and the USSR (which he was still referencing even long after the fall of the Soviet Union).
Oh, also, (awkward cough), Jews. He wasn’t too crazy about the, um, the Jews.
In fact, many of his tiles are so offensive I wouldn’t show them here, but a quick Google search will bring you a wealth of this individual’s special brand of crazy.
The dominant theory is that the tiles refer to historian and religious philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee, who wrote about a thousand scholarly books on the history and potential of the human race, and exactly one brief passage where he said – well, this is what he said:
“Someone who accepts—as I myself do, taking it on trust—the present-day scientific account of the Universe may find it impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again; but, if he did entertain this belief, he would be thinking more ‘scientifically’ if he thought in the Christian terms of a psychosomatic resurrection than if he thought in the shamanistic terms of a disembodied spirit.” (Experiences)
Academia’s response to this was to smile while politely excusing itself from the conversation, mumbling something about having to “go stand over there now.”
As for MOVIE 2001, as much as I would love to believe he’s referring to MOULIN ROUGE, some of the tiles specifically name-check Stanley Kubrick. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Jupiter is where Dave Bowman has his trippy experience where I think he dies and gets resurrected (like most people, I’ve really only seen parodies of this sequence, but I think it’s also around Jupiter where that giant obelisk is floating in space with the giant space baby in it). Oddly enough, I haven’t come across any Tiles research that deals with the theories surrounding Kubrick’s films, which are said to be riddled with all kinds of insane symbolism, most famously alluding to the idea that Kubrick was hired by the US government to fake the moon landing in 1969.
So who made the tiles? No one has any idea, really, although the dominant theory is that they were originated by James Morasco, a Philadelphia man (sometimes referred to as a social worker, other times as a carpenter, so, one imagines, Jesus). There’s scrips and scraps of evidence linking him to the phenomena, most notably a call-in to a local radio show in 1983 where he pitched the idea of resurrecting humans on Jupiter, only to be berated by the show’s host for it. But Morasco died in 2003, and the tiles kept right on coming, maintaining a consistent style and aesthetic.
The most recent tile to appear here in New York City was in September 2014, in a little neighborhood we like to call Tribeca.
The Toynbee Tiles: lunatic artifacts of a fringe universe, frustrating and infuriating and ugly and vaguely terrifying. A window into a dark and maybe imaginary world that dwells just beneath the sane surface of the your safe, safe sham of a world.
The Investigation: When Gothamist reported on the new tiles, they referred to RESURRECT DEAD, the supposedly quite excellent documentary on this topic, describing the film as being not just about the tiles, but a “portrait of obsession, fear and the great city of Philadelphia.” In much the same way, my investigation was a portrait of douchebaggery, overpriced juice and the neighborhood of Tribeca.
Hey New Yorkers: Have you been to Tribeca lately? Remember when Bazzini’s was there, and it was still a charming and quirky neighborhood, gentrified but not at the loss of its old-New-York soul?
Yeah, that Tribeca is dead. Dead forever.
Our first order of business was to locate food, because this is required for all picnics, not just those of the paranormal variety. I brought up the possibility that the concept of “picnicking” was vague enough to allow for multiple interpretations, and that given the freezing, freezing wind and the fact that our photographic subjects would be in the middle of busy city streets where picnics are typically not allowed, perhaps we could interpret the term more liberally. This idea was swiftly rejected by my team, who insisted on being picnic purists. Just a drink, they insisted. Just let us drink some juice while standing next to the tile, because you made us come all the way out here, and you owe us AT THE VERY LEAST JUICE.
We set out bravely, underdressed for the cold wind because we had one warm day last week and had therefore already put all our winter clothes away.
Our first excursion was into a juice bar that will remain unnamed, but suffice to say, it set the mood for the Tribeca of 2015 in much the same way that the smushed-nose guy who threatens Luke in the cantina sets the mood for Mos Eisley. Look, we live in Park Slope, so we’re no strangers to juice bars, but this place looked like one of the friendly juice bars we’re used to in Brooklyn was redesigned by the dispossessed spirits of a thousand murdered Genius Bar technicians. Also, there was no bathroom, which was the most pressing concern as Field Agent MacDonald hadn’t gone before we left which was entirely her fault but still.
There was an entire wall of vaguely pornographic stickers with phrases like “Dairy is the ultimate cockblocker” and “Gay men who drink juice are F&%$ING SEXY.” Within a few seconds, Field Agent Labrecque signaled to me with her eyes that she would never let me forget this juice bar. She had retreated into a corner and huddled quietly as if shielding herself from a Dementor attack, muttering, “I feel like I’ll never be cheerful again.” Within a few seconds, Field Agent Asher, who is five years old, had grabbed one of the stickers and started reading it, and Field Agent Labrecque informed me that I would be solely responsible for answering any questions he had about it.
Our party came next upon a cafe which will also remain unnamed, but upon the sight of which Field Agent MacDonald began shaking her head and stumbling backwards. She would at first only say that she once “had a bad experience there.” UPDATE: It has since come to light that Field Agent MacDonald’s “bad experience” was that “all the baristas were really mean to me.”
We entered nonetheless and were immediately greeted by the sight of hundreds, perhaps millions of wooden sheep. There was nothing comforting or cute about the sheep. The sheep were not there to be our friends.
Our time in this dark, catacomb-like cafe was harrowing but brief, and resulted in the successful acquisition of juice. This juice, admittedly, was very good.
So finally we came upon the first of the Toynbee tiles, a full block from where it was supposed to be. I began to investigate. It was slightly upraised from the sidewalk, adhered and pressed firmly into the asphalt. The dominant theory, incidentally, is that the artist uses a hole in the floor of his car to drop the tile, which is covered in wax paper and asphalt crack sealant. The passage of traffic over it gradually presses it into the sidewalk, and also wears away at the wax paper.
The text, I believe, is: “A real resurrection is easy and is proved by the first caveman who made first of genus (genius, maybe?) tools.”
My first impression upon seeing a real one was two-fold: One, I don’t think this is a copycat situation, because of the unique flavor of this artist’s crazy, and because of his distinctly choppy semantic style (sporadic spelling errors included).
Two, I think there’s something hidden in the primary message that no one has ever decoded. TOYNBEE IDEA/MOVIE 2001/ RESURRECT DEAD/ PLANET JUPITER.
There’s almost a specific poetic meter at work. Or, at the very least, they feel too stunted and bullet-pointy to be useful as any kind of mission statement. I wonder, having not actually seen Foy’s film, if anyone has attempted to look at this from a cryptographic perspective, because it looks for all the world like a coded message, and if so, no one has yet cracked it. As for the surrounding text: “cavemen” could be another reference to 2001, which opens with a bunch of cavemen inventing fire, which leads me back to the idea that this is all tied to the Kubrickian conspiracy stuff: just riddles leading to other riddles.
We walked another block to where the tile was supposed to be, and sure enough, there was an exact duplicate of the tile, indistinguishable from first.
Worse for the wear, for sure, but otherwise identical, despite the fact that each of these is presumed to be individually hand-crafted, which leads me to suspect that HOLY CRAP THAT’S THE GHOSTBUSTERS FIREHOUSE
We were momentarily distracted because we discovered the actual, 100% real Ghostbusters firehouse.
Now, mind you, this is just the exterior – or is it? Wait, did they use the inside too? Is the actual fire pole still in there, like right in there? Is the containment unit still in there? Is Jeannine still in there???
I felt an immediate need to force my team to pose for photos. Field Agent Labrecque, still withdrawn from the world following our earlier adventures, expressed that she was uninterested in pretending she was holding a proton pack, asking if she could just be a “research Ghostbuster.” Sorry, Agent, there’s no such thing as a frigging Research Ghostbuster, or is there is, their research would only consist of developing new and better ways of shooting streams of ionized particles at ghosts.
Sorry, wait, where was I? Right, the tiles.
Two identical tiles close by each other, indicating some kind of systematized production technique, and both right around the corner from the actual Ghostbusters firehouse. So what’s the connection? A quick web search reveals that the Ghostbusters never traveled to Jupiter, not even on the Real Ghostbusters. On the other hand, GHOSTBUSTERS is literally about academic researchers using science to explain how the dead are resurrected, and then also using science to imprison all the resurrected dead until the EPA forces them to shut the whole thing down and screw you forever Walter Peck.
There is no way there’s not a connection.
Maybe, like the films of Kubrick, GHOSTBUSTERS is really an intricate coded message, rich in a symbolic language that no one has ever tried to decode? What if the screenwriters were a part of the same secret society that Kubrick and Toynbee both belonged to, working behind the scenes to develop (or oppose) technologies through which the human race might achieve physical immortality and embedding their films with subliminal messages to inspire – or warn – the human race in accordance with their agenda?
Anyway, because we had the juice, Field Agent MacDonald proudly ventured out into the street for the official Picnic. She is pictured here, standing above the tile and bravely holding her precious cold-pressed juice.
But in another, more accurate sense, here is what was really happening:
Just as we were about the leave the area, Field Agent Asher took note of a third tile. It should be noted that Field Agent Asher did not have the clearest understanding of our Mission Objective.
We made our way back to our warm vehicle and set off, leaving Tribeca in the dust forever, pausing only so that I could inform Field Agent Labrecque, now that it was too late to do anything about it, that the juice had cost $10.
Honestly, if there ever had been a sinister secret society operating out of this neighborhood, either they’ve succeeded in taking over or they’ve been priced out like the rest of us.
So wait, why are you doing this again? To see all the weird stuff. It’s all book research! Everything feeds into my future explorations of the Back Roads! I’m actively trying to figure out what, in my universe, the “real” explanation for the Toynbee Tiles is. All I can say right now is: it won’t just be the work of one very industrious racist.
But you couldn’t you just do the research at home, since other people have already taken pictures of the same things? Go away, you can’t sit next to me anymore.
OK, so what do you think it really is? I think, most likely, it’s the work of a small right-wing collective of individuals that Moresco was a part of. As for whether there’s any truth to Moresco’s claims that the FBI tried killing him because he was onto something BIG, forcing him to flee the country for South America…look, I really have no idea, but I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility. Scoff if you want, but I promise you, stranger things have happened, and though I may joke about the existence of a big, sinister world lurking beneath the surface of the one we all play in every day…there have been times in my life where I’ve caught glimpses of things I know I wasn’t meant to see, and I’ve been really haunted by those experiences. Now, I don’t go to bed at night scared that armed snipers are lurking in the bushes outside my building…except on the nights that I do.
And I do suspect there’s a code that no one’s yet cracked.
Can you share how you actually feel about all the world of the paranormal in general? Yes. I will say all this exactly once.
The Unknown is my bread and butter (a phrase, incidentally, which is also sometimes related to picnics). The premise of my novel and the entire series that will follow is that every hushed secret, every unsettling rumor, and every mad bit of whispered gibberish point the way toward a bigger reality that disorients and ultimately cripples our conventional understanding of the world. And I should also be clear about this: by joking around on the blog, I don’t mean to mock these topics, and by the same token, by including these aspects of paranormalia in my grand American mythology, I’m not suggesting they’re all strictly fictional. Daniel Boone was a totally real guy, but he’s achieved a mythic status in our culture. Ghosts and UFO abductions and cryptids like Mothman exist in just the right gray area, where accounts of these phenomenon are common but highly subjective, and no one has yet been able to provide a coherent explanation for them that mainstream science will accept. And so they have (real or not) become a part of our collective ephemera, of our lore, our modern mythology. Now as for me, personally, if anyone cares: I do believe in the absolute reality of at least some of these phenomena, and those beliefs are entirely experientially derived. I don’t expect anyone to fall in line behind me on this. Suffice to say: mainstream scientific consensus changes all the time, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways, and many ideas that are now commonly accepted were once ridiculed as fringe and relegated to the pseudoscience dust bin. Ultimately, on a personal level, we have our individual experiences and our ability to think critically about them, and that is pretty much all we have. Well, that and our imagination, which is just as vital in the quest for truth as it is in the work of creating create good fiction, and for me, it’s perfectly acceptable if it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the two.
NEXT WEEK: As a writer who writes things, I think that I should, like so many of my fellow writers here in blogtonia, write about writing. So I promise I will try that. But, as a traditional trickster spirit, I should also warn you that I break all my promises.