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Students aren't the only members of the Harvard community with interesting extracurricular activities.
One Harvard Dining Services (HDS) administrator says he spends between one and five hours a week speaking to students anonymously over the phone. But this administrator doesn't breathe heavily. He only raves about spicy corkscrew fries.
Each morning before breakfast this administrator--commonly known as the "Menu Man"--updates the culinary recordings in the peculiar inflected voice that undergraduates have come to count on to warn them of the day's dining hall fare.
"I originated the whole thing with an AT&T answering machine...four years ago," Menu Man said in a telephone interview yesterday, which was also Menu Man Appreciation Day.
"I used to work the nightshift," the familiar voice from 5-5700 says. "We were busy working and trying to serve the meal and the phones were ringing. The students wanted to know what was for dinner."
HDS workers would resort to taking the telephone off of its receiver because they were not able to handle the incoming calls, Menu Man says. "This was very non-productive."
So the HDS innovator who has become a personal friend to undergraduates from Mather House to the Quad asked his manager if he could set up an answering machine to respond to the requests.
Two years later, Menu Man discovered the wonders of voice mail and set up the full range of options that serves undergraduates today, although most students have never tested the limits to that range.
"A little trick is this," he says. "Looking at the keyboard, number 4 makes my voice go slower, number 6 makes my voice go faster, number 7 makes my voice go softer, number 9 louder and number 2 is a pause."
"But I'd prefer hearing my voice on 6 because I get sick of hearing my voice on the machine all of the time," he adds.
Menu Man, who refuses to divulge his identity, says he is "just someone who has worked here for too many years."
"I'm in the administrative capacity," he says. "I'm someone that students see every day. There are a couple of students who do know who I am. But who I am isn't as important as the message that I give."
Menu Man says that few members of the HDS staff know his secret identity. "I usually choose to do it whenever no one is around," he says of his clandestine activity.
Menu Man says he is about 40 years old, and was born in California's San Fernando Valley. "I was in the service," he says. "I was stationed here and I've been with Harvard over 15 years."
He says that the 20,000 calls he receives each month from students range from the brutally critical to the truly disturbing.
"It goes through spurts," he says. "At the beginning of a cycle of our menu, people want to know what's in this product. The second time they ask why we are having it again."
"There are a lot of people that call about their meal and really get expli- cit about their dietary habits," he says. Andover the holidays, "students who eat at otherhouses call me and say `I had to eat over here,and Menu Man, it sucks,'" he adds.
But Menu Man says most messages are positive."It's surprising," he says. "I tried to tailorDial-a-menu after Penn State, who has aDial-a-menu system. The person who did that saidbe careful, the first year all you are going toget is obscene messages."
Instead, Menu Man found, inebriated studentswould often call late at night to sing "`Menu Man,we just love you.' The problem is that people willperceive my role as Menu Man as a big ego trip,but it's not."
Menu Man Fan Club
Once last year Menu Man checked his messages tofind that someone had left a five-minute narrationof a parade in his honor. That message was thework of the Menu Man Fan Club, which was foundedin October of last year by Kenneth A. Smith '93and Steven A. Hoey '93.
"We include the entire Harvard community in ourmembership," Hoey says. He describes the parade as"a moving experience."
"Everyone's favorite float was the full-sizedbroccoli tofu with spicy peanut sauce and thedining hall checkers dancing around," Hoey says.
"[Menu Man] is a deity," Hoey continues. "Ihave seen apparitions of him, I have seen visionsof him. I have seen him out of the corner of myeye, but when I look he's not there."
"On a more serious note, he uses [theDial-a-menu service] to his and our advantage bybeing friendly, which I think is fantastic and Ithink should be applauded," Hoey says.
Menu Man attributes much of his popularity tohis seeming distance from the HDS administration.
"I think that I can be more credible than somemanager who might have to be more political," hesays. "Sometimes from my voice inflection[students] understand that [the dish] might not bemy favourite but yes, it might suck."
"I really think people like Menu Man," he says."But maybe it's because they don't know who he is.I think they can put any face they want to MenuMan."
But Menu Man still spends most of his timeanswering complaints, letting dining hallmanagements know what students are thinking andresearching the answers to students' many dietaryquestions.
"He's never failed to get back to me and hecertainly does seem to care," says John Nash, astudent who often calls Dial-a-menu with questionson the food content. "Nothing has actually beenchanged but they have at least taken it intoconsideration.
Menu Man, who says he will continue leading twolives "until I die or move," is not only an HDSinsider, but also knows who is who in the world ofanonymous telephone voices. Menu Man says he isfriends with the person behind the voice recordingwhich plays when people calling Harvardinformation are put on hold.
But "don't confuse us with the Action Man," hesays, referring to the mysterious man whoperennially crank-calls Harvard students. "We havenothing to do with him.
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