James Lileks
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Perhaps you've read stories about the professional shoplifting gangs that prey on big-city stores. It's an odd title: professional shoplifter.

"I'm not one of those dabblers," you expect them to say. "This is my trade, my craft. Look, I have a degree from Boostin University and did a semester abroad at the Ecole de Cinq Doigts in Paris, where I learned how to slip an entire baguette down each trouser leg and leave the store without a stiff-legged gait. These amateurs, they know nothing."

According to the New York Post, the professionals are grabbing an item previously ignored: Spam, America's favorite compressed pink brick of indistinct meat. The Post says the drugstore in the Port Authority bus station is locking up Spam cans in individual plastic antitheft boxes. A clerk has to use a special device to unlock the box and liberate the can.

The next step probably will be two-factor identification; the can won't open unless you enter a special code sent to your phone.

The price of Spam in New York has risen to 4 bucks, thanks to inflation and thievery. That was practically the weekly wage when Spam was introduced in 1937. Value meat! Every cook's friend. The ads from the '40s show happy people bantering in Spam-extolling rhymes:

"What's for lunch? / Spam's my hunch!"

"Extra extra, news that's hot / Spam 'n' pancakes hit the spot!"

"What will you G-men have for lunch? / Spamwiches sure suit the bunch!"

"What is this stuff? It tastes so keen! / It's Spam fried up in gasoline!"

"Spam 'n' eggs, for your morning starts! / It never rots, and has pig parts!"

OK, I made up some of those. Point is, the Minnesota specialty has been a worldwide cultural icon for decades, from its wartime service to its international fans to its peculiar adoption as a term for unwanted e-mail.

People would have been confused in 1937 to hear that your inbox was choked with spam. The phrase "half my mail is phishing spam" would make them think Hormel had invented a cod variant and distributed it through the postal system.

Now we have Spam bandits, or Spamdits, and they're professionals, of course — which suggests a crime boss, a Spamfather who sits atop a predatory organization that handles black-market Spam. Of course, the illicit market eventually will produce adulterated Spam.

Scene: the back room of a social club. One mobster, Jimmy Roundcans, watches his customer try some of the product.

The client leans back, exhales with disappointment.

"Who am I that you should disrespect me like this? Jimmy, how long do we go back? Did I not dance at your mother's wedding? And now you come to me with this insult. This is not Spam. This is Treet, the Spam pretender from Armour. "

(The men in the shadows of the room move their hands to their guns.)

"In fact," the customer says, "I had a client who questioned the last batch you sold me. 'Paulie Press-Meat,' he says to me, 'if I didn't know you better I'd say this was Mor, that ersatz Spam from Wilson Packing.' I think they stopped making that in '71. I mean, Jimmy, I know it's shelf-stable, but that's pushing it."

"But didn't I give you a good price, Paulie? Mor is less."

The next step will be fake Spam smuggled into the country. The way this year is going, I expect that the Department of Justice will announce a record-breaking seizure of fake spam, cleverly hidden inside 40 kilos of cocaine.