Obscure Letters


Words and letters inundate us at every turn. Billboards, posters, signs, the glowing screens of our constantly vibrating phones—there is no escaping language. Some (perhaps most?) of this text is purposefully targeted towards us. A majority of the time, there is a specific message for us.

But for every word that vies for our attention, there is another one quietly sitting in a forgotten corner. What happens when these words escape our notice? What becomes of their existence? What does their purpose become?

metal trinkets

I walked down my neighborhood streets one sunny afternoon when a sparkle caught my eye. It came from a wooden post.

A wooden post? Why would it be shiny?

As I approached the towering pole, I amended my thinking. There were the three yellow safety strips between roughly waist and chest level, large stripes running half the circumference of the post. Those were, of course, shiny. But they didn’t quite twinkle. Plus, this sparkle had come from higher up. Maybe around eye level, or even a little further above the ground.

I squinted at the source when I was about a foot away. Then I stepped closer. It was a small metal disc, flat and oval-shaped, not much larger than a quarter. Some barely-legible words were engraved into its surface—“WOODFUME”, it read. As my eyes scanned the wooden surface, I suddenly noticed that there were more of these curious trinkets. “JP”, read another, and “OSMOSE”, followed by “INSP. 2016”.

It turns out that they were on every wooden post that I came across, in varying quantities, placements, and positions, for the next several blocks. Funny that I’d never noticed them before. I definitely hadn’t read them before. What was the meaning to these strange initials and names?

*   *   *

The phrase “INSP. 2016” gave me a good clue as to the function of at least several of these tiny metal plates. Someone was inspecting these posts, probably for public safety, and leaving their mark on the lumber that passed the test. But beyond that function for the limited number of people who check the streets for only hours of an entire year (I assume), what message does it hold for other people?

I was initially tempted to guess that there is no message for other people. After all, I hadn’t noticed them for years. I walked by these poles almost every day. If I didn’t even know they existed, could they possibly hold meaning for me?

But there could be another group of people who noticed these things, yet who weren’t using them to fulfill a civic duty. What do those observers get from the trinkets? Have these tiny metal signs ever inspired someone to scour for more information? Might there be a group of enthusiasts who collect them? For these people, there would be an entirely different message in these tiny works of art. As an unintended audience, these people would not be bound by the functional reading of such words. Perhaps the message was romanticized.

*   *   *

Later that week, I was walking through a different neighborhood. My eyes were restless. After the previous incident, I was curious as to what other hidden messages I could find on my streets. Having only become familiar with this particular area half a year ago, what trove of quiet words were waiting for me?

It didn’t take long to find something strange. And this message was truly hidden. Not just because I hadn’t noticed it before, but because something had crept over the very letters themselves to cover the words. A golden plate, letters engraved, was partially obscured by years of dirt and haphazard asphalt. What I could read had a company name and an address. Directly below that, I deduced, were the words “NO LEAK TO BASEMENT”. The letters at the top right corner were almost completely gone.

The large, silver metal plate on which the smaller gold plate sat must have been a door to underground storage. Given the state of this thing, is there still storage down there? Are these doors still in use?

If the answer is yes, then perhaps these words still have meaning. Even in their current predicament, perhaps the handler of the doors has read the letters thousands of times and memorized the message. Even without the physical forms of the letters visible themselves, they still give instruction.

If the answer is no, though, do these words suddenly have no meaning? The signs of neglect seem to say, “This message is unwanted. It is old and outdated, unnecessary and useless.” If no one needs the message anymore, perhaps, it is okay to obscure it. Then what becomes of the words? Will they be lost for eternity?

Engraved in metal as they are, the letters themselves will exist for years and years to come, even if they are lost below layers of materials. An adventurous curiosity-seeker may one day unearth the words to light and air once more. Over time, does the message change once the context of time has changed? By then, there will be no basement to leak into.

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