Saturday, May 22, 2004

wherein i meet a legend

I went with my father today to a car museum. It was a private showing, just him and other random Kansas City businessmen of idiosyncratic linkage. One old man, who looked 60 but was probably 80 or 85, was simultaneously irritating and fascinating; he was clearly wealthy and completely satisfied with it, and had a love of non sequitors and bland statements which I wish I could share (I also wanted to throttle him). His name was Harlold Meltzer or something like that, I think. After witnessing the rise and fall of the Studebaker, when we were leaving, I asked my dad who the guy was. My dad, who I found out later does some business with him, instead of talking about his personal knowledge, the man's hobbies, work, or the like, instead said "Harold and his business partner, in the early 20's, invented Spam." This man had invented Spam. He had sold it to the army in World War II. He had then sold the rights to Hormel and made a ton of money off of the stock."

I just tore through my books stored in boxes in my closet at my parent's house. They moved after I went to college, so everything is still packed, four years later. After pulling aside mounds of Gibson, Vonnegut and Philip Dick novels, i found one of my favorite childhood books -- "Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things." I was a really boring kid. This book is still great, though. Harry's not in it. I'll have to write the editors; if horseshoes and long underwear make the cut, this one's got enough pop culture panache to have it's own section.

I feel like I've met a celebrity, this old man in a driving cap and peachy-pink short-sleeved polo shirt. This man invented Spam. Spam is not a wonderful creation; it is not record-breaking in technology or palatability. It has, of yet, had no huge effect upon the world as an object or food. As a concept, however, it has made it through the worlds of military ration and sensible nuclear-family kitchen staple, past the realm of last-resort cheap meat for the homeless and impoverished, into the realm of the uncertain signifier. Monty Python made it funny. It's often placed on t-shirts with the names of bands cleverly placed in the same font where the logo used to be. Most importantly, it now represents the millions of penis-enlargement and home-mortgage messages that are sent to the very corners of our electronic world.

It is utterly rediculous that this should sit so heavily on me. This man's creation is going to outlast his life; it's a household word. What does he think of this? I'd interview him, publish his story, but it would probably make a really awful book. It would make an equally awful special-interest story in the local newspaper. Nobody should care that this man invented Spam. I would try to wrap this up with something poignant, 'a la This American Life, but it's kind of embarassing and largely pointless. There is no thesis statement here. I met the guy that invented Spam.

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