The Flier that Launched 150,000 Phone Calls and Texts

atkins-bookshelf-booksYou are living in a large city, tossed about in the ebb and flow of a sea of faceless crowds. You just survived a difficult breakup. You feel alone, isolated, and depressed. What do you do? How do you meet people? In October 2011, Jeff Ragsdale, a young man from Seattle, Washington working odd jobs in New York City, was feeling and thinking those very same things. Ragsdale is one of the most compelling individuals featured in Tony Shaff’s brilliant documentary, “Hotline” released in 2014. Ragsdale shares his epiphany: “It’s tough to meet people [in very large cities]. I don’t buy that you can really rub elbows, or it’s on such a superficial level that you can’t really get much out of it. People in big cities are on guard. I went through a tough breakup, I was isolated, lonely. As I was walking, I’d go, ‘You know, how can I meet people?’ This is probably the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life. And I kept seeing [fliers that promoted] ‘Dog Walker,’ ‘House Mover,’ ‘We’ll Clean Your House’… And I go, ‘I want to write a simple flier’ and the idea came into my head right then, I’m just gonna put, ‘If anyone wants to talk about anything, my phone number [347-469-3173], Jeff, one lonely guy.’ I thought I would say I’m lonely so it’s just stuck there.”

Ragsdale’s lime green fliers caught the attention of many NYC pedestrians, especially ones with smart phones who photographed it and posted it online. His flyer went viral as soon as the images hit Reddit, a popular social networking and news website. Fortunately, Ragsdale had an unlimited cell phone plan, because it started to ring, and ring, and ring. Ragsdale elaborates: “I was on the phone for 17 hours in one day. For about nine hours straight I was plugged in at Starbucks, and everyone was watching me because it was so viral. Every five seconds a new call would come in, so I had like eight people holding on the line. I’m talking to this person, I’ll call you back, I’m jotting down numbers. But it was like running ten marathons at Starbucks. Some days I’ll get 500 texts, so I spend a couple of hours trying to respond to every text.”

But playing therapist to the world, has its rewards and its burdens: “Right now, I have at least 700 people to call back. And these are nice people and their voice mails are endearing… Sometimes I just cannot get the motivation because I’m so drained, and it’s hard to call [everybody back]. I know that I have to do as much as I can. I want to call all those people back. But after a while, it gets overwhelming. I’ve probably broke down on ten calls and once you break completely down and you’re crying with another person, there’s nothing that is off-limits. Those calls are just profound on what you can find in the basement of yourself and in them. It’s very revelatory, you know?… There is nothing that I won’t talk about. I am a very curious person. I want to try and learn about human nature, and heal myself, and if I can heal or help someone else along the way, great.”

Stephanie, one of his callers, expressed her concern for Jeff: “I do care about him very much and I can hear the strain in his voice. I can see it on his face. It’s a lot to take on. He worries about each and every one of these people, and he worries when he doesn’t have the time to get back to them. He wants to develop something and give something back to each and every one of these people. And you know what? That’s like tens of thousands of people? It’s an enormous amount. It’s a huge undertaking.”

When asked about one of his most challenging calls, Ragsdale spoke candidly, fighting back tears: “I’ve had very difficult calls, but I once had a guy call me over and over for a while. He was a nice guy, and then one day he called and said, “You know, I’m not gonna be able to talk to you anymore because I am dying.” Just that he took his time when he was dying to talk to this guy who put this flyer up… it absolutely killed me. [Here he is] his last months on earth, and he’s calling this guy who posted a flyer with his phone number. Some of those calls show you the greatness in humans, that they would call on their deathbeds someone to try and help them. It’s the human spirit… there have been such amazing phone calls [filled with such] emotion.” After many months, the burden of his mission is weighing heavily on Ragsdale who admits, “I am getting to the point where it is not helpful because I can’t give myself anymore to people because I’m so overwhelmed and I’m so overused, in a way, of like getting back to everyone that the responses may be not even strong anymore.”

In 2012, Ragsdale published his journey in a book titled, Jeff, One Lonely Guy. The book earned the immediate and enthusiastic praise of author Bret Easton Ellis: “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… The most powerful reading experience I’ve had in the last year is Jeff, One Lonely Guy by Jeff Ragsdale. What I mean about a new art form: Jeff, One Lonely Guy by Jeff Ragsdale is really the first example of successful post-Empire reportage yet.” Moreover, Ragsdale has breathed new life into an invention more than 139 years old, when Alexander Graham Bell uttered those immortal words: Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Ragdale’s one-man hotline, logging in thousand of hours on the phone, also underscores another fundamental truth: mankind’s deep yearning for connectedness. Another young man, featured in “Hotline” who works on a suicide hotline, eloquently addressed this point: “The main reason people call hotlines is because they are looking for a connection. I think people are looking for a connection wherever they’re at and it doesn’t matter as long as you have people who are open to that connection. There’s a safe place for people to meet and to talk and to just give them a safe place to be real and be who they really are. We don’t have enough of that in the world, so that’s why there will always be hotlines.”

Ragsdale’s bold venture to offer kindness and compassion inspires us to follow in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, who wisely observed: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” Ragsdale adds: “The only thing we can do on Earth in a godless universe is to help other people because it is a crazy human condition. It makes no sense. And if I can limit someone’s suffering a little bit then I did something [significant] before I evaporate into nothingness.” Next caller…

Read related posts: The Little Red Wagon that Changed the World
Universal Human Values
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: Jeff, One Lonely Guy by Jeff Ragsdale (2012)


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