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For Whom; the Spam Tolls

A meditation on the beautiful agony of spam.

12:00 AM, May 12, 2003 • By JOEL ENGEL
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BEFORE THE SUN ROSE above the hill east of my house and while the silence outside was still prayerful, I toddled over to my computer and clicked "Send & Receive." A shiver raised bumps on my arms at the anticipation of what messages the night and my 1.2 megabit digital subscriber line had brought me. Good news from my agent? A quote from priceline.com? Another urban myth from my mother?

No, something from "martineijob" about something my PC must have, which is funny because I don't have a PC (I'm a Mac guy); an offer from "bilshan wins" for inkjet cartridges, which is funny because I don't use an inkjet printer; and information from "ightduthward" that I absolutely need in order to invest successfully during the uncertainty of wartime, which isn't funny because I don't have any money to invest even during peacetime. There were also encrypted subject-line messages like "tmcdaniewqr" and "db2d22000" from senders like "malvina Salvador" and "gardytjetyajettm." Too bad no one was offering an Ovaltine decoder ring. Delete, delete, delete, delete, delete, delete.

Like most people, I hate spam even more than I hate Spam, so I'm pleased that Senator Charles C. Schumer, Democrat from New York, has made himself useful and is at last fighting the good fight. The fact that I don't live within his jurisdiction won't stop me from voting for him should he indeed sponsor a law against junk e-mail and then shepherd it successfully through the maze of legislators paid for by lobbyists who are hired by spammers who've gotten rich thanks to people who actually respond to these insane offerings. Who are these wretchedly sad consumers, and why won't they stop spending money foolishly so that the mother's milk dries up and these parasites drop off? One can only hope that the bright lights turned on by the Federal Trade Commission's recent three-day spam hearings will make the cockroaches scatter, or at least put the fear of Roach Motel into them.

Honestly, I'd pay to see the commissioners issue subpoenas for runnionpmc, selling P.O. boxes; kristenzm763za, asking whether I'm "bored signed on still bored?"; pitboss, urging me to "just do it", and all the other spammers who've been stealing my bandwidth ever since the klez virus sucked my e-mail address out of someone's address book last year and began bouncing it around the world. Better yet, we'll have the networks televise the hearings and let grandstanding politicians pad their populist bona fides: "The question is this, Mr. Eiadlifea[lkdazkn902--and I remind you that you're still under oath: Deletion by hanging or lethal injection?" I can imagine the chants of "We're mad as hell" as the hordes of--

Wait now, what's this? Another incoming email message . . . from one Jaunutis, Chitrakanth. Huh. Chitrakanth. Wasn't that the name of a college roommate? Maybe I better take a peek, check whether I recognize the face. I'll click on it, without even noticing the subject-line message: "tons of drunk & wild girl photos." Let's see . . .

Well, they may be roommates, but they sure didn't live with anyone I knew in college. The screen is a montage of threesomes of young blondes, some apparently practicing yoga poses on each other. I'll just delete, right after I read the copy:

"He made no move to take my hand, but said quietly, I do not want you as Toki wants you; I want you . . . who ambushed them?"

The opacity of these words strikes me as a Zen koan. I pause to ponder their meaning.

Ponder, ponder, ponder.

I am almost through pondering, frustrated not to understand how Toki wants you, when now my eyes fall on it--the semicolon, that sweet forgotten prince of punctuation inserted between "you" and "I" as delicately as small round stones in a Japanese garden. Oh, the aching beauty, the sublimity.

A simple semicolon--less than a period and more than a comma, a diacritical mark so rarely used anymore that one could search all of the nation's top newspapers on any given day and not be graced by its sight. And yet, there, in a caption above a vile, sordid, pornographic collage, a semicolon's unexpected appearance has the power to recall Shakespeare himself, and thus echo our language's enduring splendor.

It is enough to make me weep for joy; it is enough to send me to my keyboard, to urge caution on Senator Schumer before he inadvertently eradicates poetry from the Internet; it is, finally, more than enough to keep me from turning up the heat on my spaminator--at least until I know who ambushed them.

Joel Engel is an author and journalist in Southern California.