'Oh, thank heavens it's you, Bob Levey," said the soft female voice in my left ear. "I need help. You see, Bob, (long pause) . . . . I'm a potato junkie."

I never know what to say at moments like this. The first ten things that rattle through your skull are hopelessly wrong. You can't say, "That's nice." You can't say, "Did your mother hate you when you were a child?" All you can utter is whatever pops into your head that doesn't sound patently offensive. Which, in my case, was:

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. I'm a junkie for the hash browns at Hot Shoppes. I mean, I used to be. I mean, well . . . ."

"What do you mean, ma'am?"

"They've quit serving the ones I loved," said the junkie. "They're predone now, and they taste like cardboard. I asked the manager in the Langley Park Hot Shoppes the other day. He said some business school graduate thought it up. Said it was too expensive to have somebody peeling potatoes in the back."

"I'm amazed that you called me, ma'am," I said. "After all, it's well known that I absolutely despise all things caloric."

"Tell me another one."

"I wouldn't try. Let me see what Hot Shoppes has to say."

"And you'll put it in the paper?"

"I'll put it in the paper."

"Just promise me one thing."

"What's that?"

"That you won't use my name. All my friends think I eat bean sprouts and drink purified water. Just call me The Potato Junkie From Takoma."

Your wish is my command, TPJFT. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about your wish and Hot Shoppes management.

"We have not been boiling or peeling potatoes for a long time," said Don Wyvell, division director for Hot Shoppes. "Our hash browns are raw and frozen and we cook them . . . . This new type is a little easier for us to handle. It is faster to cook and it requires less attention on the grill. But it tastes like a potato, and it tastes good."

I suspect, though, Don, that for junkies, it doesn't taste good enough.