Looking back, I suppose it was inevitable. With outgoing answering machine messages being the primary artistic outlet for millions of frustrated comedians, DJs and conceptual artists -- who pioneer past the banal "Please leave a message," and insist on telling jokes, making puns and playing snippets of their favorite songs -- it seems wholly natural that we have reached this watershed moment in history. It is 1996, and the world has its first voicemail superstar.
I heard about him the same way most people probably do. A friend in San Francisco, who was tipped off by a friend in New York, forwarded an e-mail to me, imploring me to call the number of "some weirdo in North Carolina who reads the school lunch menus on an answering machine." After reaching his extension on a 24-hour info line -- where you can also get the weather, the temperature and sports scores -- a slightly overexcited man with a high-pitched voice comes on and welcomes listeners to the home of the Lunch Menu Man.
He is supposed to be reading the daily schedule for that week's hot lunches, but all I can say is that what he is doing here, while ostensibly listing various combinations of ham and cheese, baked potatoes, hoagies and fruity gelatin, is so shocking and deranged and unnatural, so completely unrelated to the task at hand, that a listener is paralyzed by terror and seized by uncontrollable laughter. His voice, sounding like a cross between a crazed Ross Perot, a dying loon and someone deep in the throes of passion, swings and loops around each syllable, stretching out words and sounds without concern for the fact that one can scarcely understand what he's talking about -- the actual contents of the menu quickly become immaterial. It's odd and scary and utterly hilarious, and by the time he got to "green peas," which he drags out for 10-12 seconds, sounding more like "greeeeeeeeeeeen peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeazah" I was choking, breathless. I couldn't see, with tears streaming down my face, my head resting on my desk for lack of muscle control.
Though I have tried, it is impossible to adequately describe. I offer you a small sampling of Lunch Menu Man magic, but for the full effect I implore you to stop reading and right now pick up the phone and call 704-377-4444, extension 1955. Please do it now. Yes, now. Please. Stop reading and do it. You will thank me.
I trust that you have now experienced the terrifying beauty of the Lunch Menu Man, and are wiping away the tears and/or changing your pants. You are no doubt wanting to know more about this person, looking perhaps for some reassurance that he is incarcerated or in a padded room, where he will be unable to do harm to you and your loved ones.
No such luck. The Lunch Menu Man is a free man.
The Lunch Menu Man is David Price, a 34-year-old former car salesman who for the past year has been reading the Charlotte, North Carolina school lunch menus for a local voice mail system. Wanting to know everything about him, I call him for an interview and when he promptly calls me back, he sounds like a normal person. In fact, he seems downright nice -- kind and polite and seemingly concerned with keeping kids in school and well-fed. He says he is married and has three young children. But just when I am ready to believe in his normalcy, when I start feeling like the existence of the Lunch Menu Man is a perfectly regular thing, I come to my senses. I was talking to a grown man who reads, like a raving madman, children's lunch menus -- and makes a living doing it. How? Why?
It all started over a year ago, when he decided to give up the car sales business to take a 9-to-5 job, so he would have more time to spend with his kids. He got a job selling ads for the Concord Tribune, where part of his duties included reading movie listings, obituaries and the school district's lunch menu into a 24-hour information line operated by the newspaper. He found the job unbearably boring, and while he knew that with the obituaries he "couldn't really do much to spice it up," he felt that with the lunch menu, he might be able to go out on a limb to make it more interesting. With only 200 people calling the menu line a month, he said to himself, "What's the harm?"
With no prior experience as a professional lunatic, he simply began reading the standard menu as if he were in the deepest depths of delusional DT's. He claims that there was no source for his method, that he had never before been institutionalized, that it was based on "pure whim."
Pointing to just how sick our society has become, something clicked, word got around, and in the first month the menu line's load jumped from 200 to 5200 calls. He knew he was onto something, but his burgeoning popularity came not without the power struggles, obstacles and jealousy familiar to any genius. His wife urged him to read the menus like a sane person -- she was afraid he was "being smart" and would get fired. Her fears were oddly prophetic.
Soon after, his boss at the Tribune, wanting to rein him in -- no doubt envious of the imminent stardom of his protigi -- gave him an ultimatum: either he would be a newspaper ad salesman or he would be the Lunch Menu Man. Price considered his life, his past and future and the tantalizing possibilities ahead. The choice was easy, Price recalls.
"I said, 'Lunch Menu Man.'"
He was let go, but in no time a larger newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, picked up Price's Lunch Menu Man, recognizing what the smaller minds at the Concord Tribune simply couldn't see: that something big was happening. In no time his lunch menu extension was averaging 18,000 listeners a month, and Price was getting e-mail from Japan, fan mail from England and Australia, and calls from "Good Morning America," People magazine, Jay Leno and the "Late Show with David Letterman."
He now reads the lunch menus for school districts in Tennessee, Michigan and Minnesota, with plans in the works for Alaska, Indiana and Oregon. The popularity of his voicemail lunch menu reading shows no signs of abating, and his empire is growing.
He has a web site (http://www.charlotte.com/ads/menuman), where he also reads a collection of haikus about SPAM ("SPAM-kus"). He has Lunch Menu Man T-shirts (704-377-4444, extension 1952). He makes personal appearances, mostly at grade schools, where he talks about staying in school. And he was recently contracted by an elevator company to make recorded messages -- "Fifth floor, please step out," etc. -- to be thrust onto unsuspecting passengers. Eerie, no?
If there were any doubt in one's mind about just how alarming a phenomenon the Lunch Menu Man represents, consider this: A radio station in Tennessee recently flew Price out for a public appearance, where fans came with their answering machines so he could record outgoing messages for them.
The world had its first voicemail groupies, and Armageddon inches ever closer.