I have problems with Harvard e-mail. It isn’t just that I always open the stupid “I send this to have your advice” virus attachments or that I am inexplicably still subscribed to some awful porno equivalent of the BMG Music Club. We all have these e-mail problems and we put up with them in order to savor the joys of things like the Harvard Secular Society discussion list’s charmingly futile and interminable all-night debate between atheists and evangelical Christians over—get this—the existence of God.
My problem transcends constant telnet-checking and a bizarre urge to catalogue and index drunkmail. My problem is much more serious.
To paraphrase Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry (and Pogo): I have seen the enemy—and her name is Shelley Newman.
Shelley is a middle-aged woman, named after the English writer Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose hobbies include skiing and checking her e-mail. I have not actually met her (which was what Admiral Perry actually said upon beating the crap out of the British fleet during the War of 1812), but I have seen her—safely logged in at net-19427.fas.harvard.edu and at pool-141-154-119-99.bos.east.verizon.net, among other exciting locations. Shelley’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our paths first crossed innocently enough. About six months ago—two years after I was assigned dnewman@fas as my e-mail address—a friend and Crimson co-worker accidentally sent Shelley the top-secret message, “i’m hungry. my tummy’s grumbling. =op” Shelley replied politely:
I doubt I am who you were wishing to reach...
The message was quickly forwarded to its intended recipient (me) with the explanatory note: “i forgot the d in your e-mail address and now i am red.”
Three weeks later, Shelley received an invitation (entitled “what’s up sluts” and authored by Crimson editor Temple W. Simpson ’03) to catch up with my freshman year roommates over a slice of pizza at Pinocchio’s. It is unclear whether she took offense at being called a slut or whether she simply preferred Tommy’s to Noch’s. In any case, this time Shelley’s response was more pointed:
I do believe that you have the wrong Newman
change it. Please
It would seem that my friends had learned their lesson. Yet the very next day Shelley was invited to the 21st birthday party of FM Publisher Kenyon S.M. Weaver ’03. Uninterested in the promise of “debauchery, inebriation, and surely some nudity to follow,” Shelley issued a stern rebuke to Weaver’s roommate:
Please take me off your list. I am not a student, in the traditional sense and I really don’t need this sort of mail. You have too much time and too much money...get out and do something good for someone else.
This unwarrantedly bitchy e-mail prompted the suggestion from Weaver’s party-planning roommate (Simpson, who had screwed up my address twice in a row) that perhaps Shelley hadn’t been laid in a while—and that perhaps this was a job for FM cover model Anthony J. Herrera ’03, also Weaver’s roommate. Herrera will not confirm whether he encountered our antagonist over that weekend, but Shelley emerged early the following week apparently in a much better mood, playfully declining Jonathan M. Lee’s ’03 offer to participate in the planning of my blocking group’s trip to the Harvard-Yale football game in New Haven:
Please take me off of this list. I have no idea who this person is supposed to be, but... it ain’t me babe. I am old enough to be your mother and I am not interested in football... thanks for the invite, though... what a hoot!
At this point I could no longer ignore the quickly escalating situation. Within a week Shelley had gone from being a blip on an otherwise tranquil radar of reliable e-mail correspondence to being my alter ego. She was receiving the bulk of my social e-mails, had dissed Temple Simpson (twice!) and possibly slept with Anthony Herrera. Who was this woman who was old enough to be the mother of Jon Myungsoo Lee (were he not Korean)? I was determined to put a stop to her involuntary invasion of my life.
So I dashed off a friendly e-mail:
Dear Ms. Newman:
I would like to apologize for all the unintentional e-mails you have been receiving from my friends. I wish there were something I could do about it (aside from finding new friends who are more careful when addressing e-mails) but I guess all I can do is say I’m sorry for the annoyance and hope it doesn’t happen again.
The response came only two days later, after the former managing editor of The Crimson, Parker R. Conrad ’02-’03, e-mailed Shelley from Arkansas with the clearly drunken revelation that I look just like Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Shelley cc’d me with her reply:
I doubt this is for me... I am far better looking than anyone in that movie. Please...find out the real address of the person with whom you wish to correspond.
shelley newman (your name sounds fake...or worse, nuevo riche)
PS - David, if this is another one of your friends... maybe you had better take your own suggestion: find new ones.
Yes, Shelley had just insulted Parker’s name, which amused me to no end. But hold on a second! Beyond telling me to find new friends (not something I had actually suggested), Shelley was hinting that I was unattractive. Sure, this was because she was under the false, Parker-inspired impression that I looked like famed character actor Alan Ruck, which I don’t, but I was unsettled by the thought that this woman at least had a sense that I was a skinny kid with a “Love Me Do” haircut. And she knew my plans for The Game. And she knew the date and time of Kenyon’s 21st birthday party! What did I know about her? That she was middle-aged and not interested in football. I didn’t even have any idea how she got her FAS e-mail account. So I looked her up.
Unfortunately, Shelley is not ph-able. She is not listed in any Harvard directory. She has no telnet plan. Her phone number is not listed on switchboard.com. A google.com search yields a single mom who has been running her own resume-writing and career-coaching business since 1994, a collegiate golfer, a health care administrator named Sheldon Newman and a University of New Mexico accountant. No nontraditional Harvard students. Short of asking the resident Crimson computer geeks to trace Shelley’s login location, I had exhausted every possible venue for finding out information about my alter ego. Shelley was gone—and the trail had grown cold.
Nearly three months passed before I heard from her again. And then, one fine February day, Shelley was invited to another 21st birthday party. This one was a surprise party, which perhaps was what elicited her giddy response:
please take me off of this list. I am not who you must assume that I am.
21st birthday, indeed!
“Who is this Shelley Newman person I have randomly solicited?” I was asked. Ah, if only I knew…
So I took a chance and extended the olive branch once more to Shelley, apologizing yet again for the unwanted e-mails and inquiring as to whether I could make amends for the repeated inconvenience by taking her out for a drink. Perhaps we were long-lost relatives, I suggested.
The response that came back was bizarre, to say the least. Shelley informed me that her father has traced the family genealogy back to an English ship that arrived in Ipswich around 1640. After impregnating a girl in West Roxbury, one of the brothers of John Newman fled Massachusetts for Stamford, Conn., ultimately settling in Monmouth, N.J. After fighting in the Revolutionary War, the Newman clan took its wartime payment in land across the Alleghenies in Ohio. Incidentally, there is a David Newman in the family, Shelley said, who works in a factory in Ohio: “I think he follows NASCAR racing and is definitely not Harvard material.” It was at this point that I learned that Shelley was named after an English poet and is not Jewish (contrary to what many people assume, according to her), clinching the fact that we are not related.
Once I informed her that my family arrived in America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, she lost interest in meeting me. “I am in the middle of a difficult week. Perhaps we can talk at some other point,” she wrote in a subsequent e-mail. So I waited a week, then e-mailed her back. This time she said she was going skiing for four days and would contact me when she returned. She never did. I sent one final e-mail, to no avail.
And with that, Shelley was gone once again. I still have no idea why she came to Harvard (from Ohio?), what she is studying, exactly how old she is, or anything else about her (besides her complete family history, of course). First amused, then annoyed, then sucked in by her mysterious identity, I will continue to wonder—and to wade faithfully through scores of Harvard Secular Society e-mails as I wait expectantly for another errant 21st birthday party invitation to bring her back into my life.
David C. Newman ’03 is a government concentrator in Quincy House. As FM’s beleaguered proofer, he serves as the Crimson news executive responsible for controlling the magazine’s obsession with Jay-Z-derived slang. He can be reached at email@example.com. As this issue went to print, Shelley finally e-mailed Dave back—to alert him that she had received an unintended e-mail from FM compers seeking reporting advice for an upcoming story. Score.