The word on the street turns cryptic

October 19, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Do the words Toynbee Ideas in Kubrick's 2001 Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter mean anything to you?

They're right under your feet.

The cryptic words are on at least seven street markers on Calvert and other streets in downtown Baltimore. These aren't manhole covers or spray-painted graffiti; these are shoe-box-sized markers with black engraved letters. They're permanent.

No one knows how or when the street markers got there or exactly what the words mean. Their existence stumped folks at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, the Baltimore Film Forum and the city's Public Works Department.

Even Baltimore filmmaker John Waters has never heard of these markers.

Hundreds of people and cars pass over them every day. To see the markers, you'd have to look closely at the asphalt in the middle of several downtown streets, and please wait for a red light.

The known locations include Guilford and Lexington, Holliday and Fayette, Redwood and Calvert, Calvert and Lombard and Calvert at Centre streets. The words appear on at least four markers on Calvert Street.

Apparently, the writer drove around town laying down a stencil of the engraving. The "2001" markers appear to be made of white adhesive material resembling material used for crosswalks. The letters are angled -- the work of a hurried hand in the face of oncoming traffic?

"The person knew what they were doing," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of the city's Office of Promotion, who first spotted the markers about a year ago. Intriguingly, Mr. Gilmore discovered the same markers on crosswalks in New York and Washington. D.C.

The markers are unsigned.

"Nobody knows who did it," says Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, who first noticed the markers in Baltimore about three years ago. "It's one of those secrets. The basic feeling is, there's one person who was very careful about not taking credit for it."

Since the artist's identity remains a mystery, all we can do is try to decode the words: Toynbee Ideas in Kubrick's 2001 Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.

The Kubrick clue

The simplest reference is Kubrick's "2001." Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey," was released in 1968. Though the city's Public Works director, George G. Balog, says he's never heard of the markers, the department does say the stretch of Calvert Street bearing four markers was last resurfaced in 1965.

So, the person could have placed the markers in the streets any time since 1968, when the movie came out. The engravings do look well-worn. The writer could be long gone.

"Sounds like a film buff on a very bad acid trip," says Richard

Macksey, a humanities professor at the Johns Hopkins University who formerly taught film production classes. "I knew a lot of students at the time who were interested in Kubrick, but I don't think they were up to this high-tech antic."

He'd love to know who did it. "The idea of getting this into Calvert Street is amazing," Mr. Macksey says.

Any monoliths?

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theater, wasn't aware of the markers but found them hilarious: "You didn't see a monolith hovering over the street, did you?"

Mark Crispin Miller, a Kubrick expert who teaches media studies at Hopkins, says the movie had the power to inspire people not only to think but to create art themselves.

"It's not just that this person wanted his opinions etched in the streets of Baltimore," Mr. Miller says. "It's also poignant because there was a time when a work of popular art could move people profoundly."

In other words, he's not expecting any street art in the name of Forrest Gump.

Back to our street marker. What does Toynbee mean?

The late British historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee was renowned for "A Study of History." Spanning 20 years, his provocative, 10-volume work attempted to explain what makes civilizations rise and fall. He said psychic factors are the decisive forces of history, which is not predetermined. (A little light reading.) Mr. Toynbee's work landed him on the cover of Time in 1947. He had nothing to do with the making or writing of "2001."

Mystic connection

The professor did have a mystical streak that showed up in his writing. And here lies the probable connection between his work, Kubrick's film and the street marker: Toynbee Ideas in Kubrick's 2001 Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.

"Toynbee seemed to imply some regeneration through religious means," Mr. Miller says. "And one could derive some comfort from the ending of '2001,' which can be read as suggesting a phase after the human phase."

"2001: A Space Odyssey" is more mysterious than these street )) markers. They deserve one another.

What does it mean?

The movie has something to do with evolution, but it almost defies explanation. It features the suspicious, on-board computer HAL and those perfectly ambiguous monoliths. One monolith beams signals toward Jupiter. The space explorers then follow the trail to Jupiter. In the end (or is it The Beginning?), the movie seems to say that man will outgrow his machines and become a child again "after the human phase," as Mr. Miller says.

"A lot of people saw things in the picture," says Louis Blau, Mr. Kubrick's close friend and the man who bought Arthur C. Clarke's story for Mr. Kubrick to make into a movie.

As for our street artist, "you got a space cadet running loose," Mr. Blau says. "I'm sure there's one in every city."

WHAT DO YOU KNOW?

Can you solve the mystery of the downtown street markers? If you have information leading to the identity of the artist, please call staff writer Rob Hiaasen at (410) 332-6768.

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