Jeff, One Lonely Guy, on seeking millions of readers for his new memoir of sincere viral stunt-work

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Jeff Ragsdale's first brush with notoriety (via Gawker)
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In October 2011, Jeff Ragsdale posted a few flyers around Manhattan, from Riverside Drive down to Canal Street. They read: “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me.” Under his phone number, he signed “Jeff, One Lonely Guy.”

A floundering standup comedian and failing actor, Jeff was out of work and out of luck. He had just gone through a traumatic breakup; his ex-girlfriend, with whom he had a consuming but turbulent relationship, filed a restraining order against him. He was having visions of suicide and needed to talk.

Five months later, he’s received nearly 65,000 calls and texts from people all over the world (many featured on his blog), and he’s compiled a book on the experience with author David Shields and columnist Michael Logan, Jeff, One Lonely Guy, which was released last week.

“I just wanted to talk to people,” he told me at a bar in Union Square the day after his book release party. “I put the flyer up, and I thought I’d get maybe 20 calls total. I didn’t even think that, and I would’ve been happy if I’d got at that point five people who would’ve just talk to me cause I was very, very deeply depressed.… But within two days New Yorkers overwhelmingly started calling. Like a hundred, two hundred calls, and then that next week it went viral.”

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The flyer took off on social networking sites and was literally passed to people all over the world through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, 4Chan, and Imgur. “Do you regret posting your #? You’re fuckin’ VIRAL baby!” reads a text from a woman named Cath. The emotion in the strikingly honest plea seemed a perfect fit for online communities; they’re the perfect medium for connection without the risk of loss. The embarrassment factor is cut considerably; it’s a first step in moving forward for many in taking the opportunity to reach out and connect to anybody who wants to listen. Sixty percent of the calls and texts, according to Ragsdale, have been from people who have “a high degree of pain in their lives,” and the other 40 percent are well-wishers. He gets a lot of people calling just to tell him a joke.

“This is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground told for and in the digital age. . . . This is Occupy Loneliness,” David Shields writes in his introduction to the book, and there is something to be said for the role the Internet played in swiftly snowballing both Occupy Wall Street and Jeff, One Lonely Guy: both are digital grassroots movements of sorts, one political and the other purely emotional. The book Jeff, One Lonely Guy is itself an interesting experiment in publishing: At a time when so many are concerned about physical books giving way to electronic texts, this book takes an idea that took shape via the web and, in a sort of reversal, has made it into a book. Jeff, One Lonely Guy is perhaps the first example of a meme made corporeal through sincerity rather than cynicism. Just as people have been reaching out to Jeff for real world contact, the book as object can provide comfort through its presence; for all the value in the safe anonymity of an online community, there is that basic satisfaction in holding and touching a book that cannot come from a social network. And, of course, a book as an object is something pretty easy to sell.

If the Internet has been used to connect so many people to Ragsdale, then there is something to be said for the ironic safety in opening up to a stranger, and he acknowledges that the anonymity makes it easier for callers to open up to him. “So many people tell me stuff they can’t tell anybody,” he said before our conversation turned back to his personal life and the motivations behind putting up the flier and publishing the book.

Ragsdale is no saint, and copped to being an intensely emotional guy, calling himself “hyper-sensitive.” He began tearing up when discussing his regrets over Megan, the ex-girlfriend, who he still loves but with whom he is in touch only through their lawyers.

“If we’d stayed together we would have destroyed each other,” he said. “I had a lot of opportunities destroyed because of it. My life became trying to help her out which was stupid. I can’t blame her, obviously, but … I moved her into my apartment after two weeks, basically, and it was a huge mistake.” Though I couldn’t help but notice as he was talking that Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” played in the background, he seemed genuinely still in pain, nearly a year post-breakup.

When reading the book, it’ clear that Ragsdale has an addiction to self-destruction, something he also admits. He is admirably candid in the book about the verbal and physical abuse both he and Megan inflicted on each other. In 2010, the couple even made headlines in New York when Ragsdale stood in Madison Square Park wearing a sandwich board that read, “I WAS VERBALLY ABUSIVE I’M SORRY, MEGAN!” A New York Times reporter saw him and wrote a short City Room blog post about the incident. Soon after, speculation began that the whole thing had been a hoax to get publicity for the couple, both actors at the time, which led to a follow-up City Room post that concluded, “After days of reporting and interviews, we’ve been unable to prove that the story of Jeff and Megan, such as it is, is a hoax.”

Ragsdale still finds the accusation irritating.

“We were in a fight, and then I would say stuff I didn’t mean, and we did it over and over to a point where she goes, ‘Well you’ve got to prove to me that you’re not going to do that. And I go, ‘Okay, I’ll wear a stupid sign. And I’ll go down like in The Scarlet Letter, and I’ll do it.’ It was like a performance dare because she’s an actress and I was [an actor]. We had no idea that any reporter was walking by.”

Many of the texts and voicemails recorded in the book veer into the sexual very quickly, and Ragsdale admits to “having two casual encounters with people who I’ve met through this.” He gets sent a lot of photos, and it’s clear that he enjoys receiving pictures of (lonely) lingerie-clad women.

“Do you think she’s naked?” he asked at one point regarding a photograph of a woman he’d just received. It was a phone snapshot of pretty woman lying on her side on a bed, with a bouquet of flowers covering her breasts, and it was hard to tell. I said no, pointing out a dubious strap of fabric by her shoulder.

“I know it’s shallow, but it feels good to be wanted,” he writes at the beginning of the book.

Ragsdale has been accused of posting the flyers as a stunt, too, but he insists that he had no idea he’d end up getting a book deal out of it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what the intention was when he first posted the flyers. During our meeting, he received texts and calls that he insisted on answering, even though several in a row were hang-ups. “I get that a lot,” he said. Toward the end of our meeting, he got a call that was not a hang-up, and I listened as his entire demeanor steadied, his voice going from a little shaky to entirely smooth:

“Hi how are you? What are you up to today? You’re lonely? Where are you at? I’m in New York City? Maine. Cool. I’ve never been in Maine what’s it like? Cold? Okay. Lot of trees. Why are you lonely? Bad breakup, lack of friends, or what? Wow, that’s amazing. So when your boyfriend’s asleep you get lonely. I‘ve never heard that. That’s interesting. And when your son’s asleep you get lonely. Shows you’re close to them. That’s cool. How old is your son? Older? How ‘bout you? I’m 40. Yeah, how ‘bout you? What are you up to today? Doing what? Cleaning? I’m actually in a loud place. Can I call you back later? At this number? Well, call me some other time if you want. I would like to talk.”

I asked him if he could describe the weirdest call he’d ever gotten. “I feel almost certain that a serial killer did call me, and that’s in the book. And it was so weird. His tone and the way he was talking and he called up and he was very standoffish at first and he said, ‘Aren’t you afraid by putting your number out there a serial killer will come and find you?’ And then he said, ‘Well, what if you’re a serial killer, and we were both going to try and kill each other?’” That was the weirdest call.

Ragsdale also suspects that he got a call from Jon Malkovich (“It sounded like him. It could have been him.”), and he said he was contacted by a lot of therapists. “Forensic psychologists thought that I was like a serial killer or like a weird pedophile. It was weird, but it was cool. I knew they were psychoanalyzing me to see if I [was] a criminal trying to commit a crime and that was really interesting for a while.” The forensic psychologists suggested he start seeing a therapist, something he has yet to seek out.

The most touching call that appears in the book came from an older, widowed woman named Marta. “I was walking down 5th Avenue and saw your flyer. I’m incredibly lonely too. I’m the ‘lonely woman.’ No family, friends. I live in a tiny room of a shared apartment in Queens. You want to go for a walk next weekend?” Ragsdale said yes. It was the first time he felt the need to meet one of the callers, and he is still in touch with her, obviously concerned for her mental health. “We just talked and had a cup of coffee.”

During the release party, a handful of Jeff’s friends staged a reading of some of the texts and calls. Then Ragsdale introduced a woman named Paulina whom he met through a Jeff, One Lonely Guy call; he told the crowd how much he admired her and how grateful he was to have met her. “That’s one thing I’ve gotten out of this. I’ve found so many people who have it so much worse than I have. So it made me look at myself. This girl. She’s happy and she has nothing. Her parents are gone. They have been since she was 4. Brother’s dying of AIDS. Her sister’s a drug addict in a shelter, and this girl keeps her head above water and she’s positive.”

At the start of the interview, I asked if he had changed after talking to so many people, and he sidestepped the question. I asked again, wondering if he even wanted change from the experience. “I don’t want to say it makes me want to be a better person. It’s a clichéd line. I needed to quit art and get meaning into my life. Doing it, you become so selfish.” Is he more aware of what he’s doing? “I think I’ll always be self destructive. It’s just who I am.”

He is now regularly in touch with ten or twenty people he’s met through Jeff, One Lonely Guy, whom he now considers friends. In looking for people to talk to about his own life, Jeff has taken on the role of listener.

“I’ll be lonely the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ll always have sadness in me. But, I mean, I can get by. I’m less lonely. People go, ‘Well you’re not lonely anymore.’ I always tell them, ‘No, I’m less lonely.’”

Image above: sitteevyoo via flickr