New Harvest, 2012
In late October 2011, my friend and former student Jeff Ragsdale posted this flyer around New York City:
Jeff recently realized that he would never achieve success as a stand-up comedian and actor. He’s only very sporadically employed, broke, and living in a tiny room in a boarding house in Harlem. Having gone through an extraordinarily painful breakup this fall, he was extremely lonely. “New York is a terribly difficult place to meet people,” he wrote me. “I was isolated. I wanted to talk to as many people as I could, but not through a keyboard. I wanted to hear a voice, so I came up with the idea of posting this flyer around NYC.”
Jeff thought he’d get a handful of phone calls. He received approximately a hundred calls and texts the first day. The second day he received from people out of state. Several posted a picture of his flyer on the article- and image-sharing site reddit.com, where it quickly became an internet sensation. Soon thereafter he began receiving approximately seven hundred calls and a thousand texts each day.
He’s spoken with people from all over and as far away as Spain, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Taiwan, Australia. Thousands of people have written blogs about the flyer. He’s received more than 60,000 phone calls and texts. A Google search of “Jeff one lonely guy” turns up millions of hits. Clearly, the phenomenon has gone global.
I was, to say the least, intrigued when Jeff told me about some of the remarkably urgent and candid phone calls and texts he’d received; we quickly realized there was the potential here for an unusual book. Over the next two months, Jeff sent me thousands of texts and transcriptions of phone calls.
Michael Logan and I rearranged the material into this chorus of voices talking about the searing loneliness of existence in America at this moment.
(A note on formatting: We’ve provided whatever information we have about each person who called or texted Jeff. Phone numbers include area (or country) code and prefix only, no last names are used, and all first names have been changed, along with any identifying details. If only a first name is provided, the phone number was blocked or Jeff was unable, for a variety of reasons, to record the caller’s phone number. Ellipses within a passage indicate the elision of Jeff’s responses in a phone conversation or text exchange. Transcribing phone conversations, we conformed to standard American usage; texts are reproduced verbatim. The passages written by Jeff are in italics.)
People reveal remarkable things to Jeff. And he reveals remarkable things to them, and to us. It’s definitely a two-way mirror: Jeff gives out at least as much as he gets in. Numerous formerly abused and abandoned women call Jeff. A 16-year-old who survived ovarian cancer and chemo writes Jeff in order to feel a connection to the outside world again. Air Force pilots stationed overseas send pictures of themselves dressed as clowns for Halloween and give Jeff advice on how to deal with women. A Starbucks “associate” texts Jeff that she doesn’t have the courage to quit her job because she needs the money, though this thought makes her angry. A pre-med student says he’s happy that Jeff put up his flyer because it forces him to think about his issues before dealing with patients. A pimp texts to find out how Jeff is doing with the ladies.
Mikhail Lermontov said about his own book, A Hero of Our Time, the first Russian novel, “Some were dreadfully insulted, and quite seriously, to have held up as a model such an immoral character as my protagonist, Pechorin; others shrewdly noticed that the author had portrayed himself and his acquaintances. A Hero of Our Time is in fact a portrait, but not of an individual; it is the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression.”
I think of Jeff and the people portrayed here in the same way. This is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground told by and for and in the digital age. This is the authentic sound of human beings, at ground level, often in economic freefall, trying to connect in whatever way possible, below the radar of Big Media. This is Occupy Loneliness. This is America singing—singing a dirge.
“[Jeff’s] crazy idea actually worked.” —The Oprah Blog
“You can either make fun of Jeff, One Lonely Guy (it would be very easy to parody) and reject its self-help earnestness or you can respond as I did: transported by a healing work of art despite (or because of) the enormous amount of pain surging through it. The symphony of voices here is an overwhelming reading experience. This short book is also a verification of a legitimate new form of narrative; it’s the definitive document so far of where our medium is heading. I’ve never read anything like it.” —Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho
“OMG I love this!! It’s so Russian—very reminiscent of the Chekhov story “Complaint Book” (entries in a complaint book at the railway station).” —Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
“With Reality Hunger, David Shields offered us a manifesto, which unlike most manifestos, actually changed the world. Here, teaming up with Ragsdale and Logan, Shields embodies his ethos: we have crossed over the threshold, and are now—strangely, terrifyingly, beautifully—in this transformed world.” —Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
“The lit equivalent of a kiss-and-tell reality show and a frightening, utterly riveting thriller. This is not a pretty book, but it shows us the world we live in: unbearable everyday humanity, unwashed, unvarnished, completely captivating.” —Frederick Barthelme, author of Natural Selection
“A Goldman Sachs trader gave [Jeff] updates on the Occupy Wall Street protests. Others gave advice, and many vented about their own issues. . . People phoned from as far as Japan and Saudi Arabia.” —New York Post
“But black-box confession isn’t new to the computer age, and the main thing that distinguishes Jeff’s activities from the work of a priest or a counsellor is his lack of training. His callers know that. Many have aired their problems previously through professional channels and now want to connect with someone who’s like them—someone who has nothing practical to offer but who may understand. . . They text Jeff. They don’t sit by themselves for months staring at their coffee tables.” —Nathan Heller, The New Yorker
“In Jeff, One Lonely Guy we are light years removed from the Orwellian Big Brother. Instead we relate face-to-face — more accurately, device-to-device — with the man with the iPad in the café, the woman on the train clicking through her cell phone, the executive who can’t stand to be away from his Blackberry for one minute, the teen who sends hundreds of texts a day. Alas, technology tempts us with the potential for genuine interaction. Or does it? The text messages and voice-mails Ragsdale receives are also a form of one-way traffic, flavored less by the give-and-take of personal interaction and more a form of self-engagement.” — The Huffington Post
“The experience of reading it can be close to revolutionary.” — Bookforum