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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Free hugs

He cleared off his cluttered desk, reached for a piece of blank paper and a marker the color and smell of licorice, giving no thought to whether or not it was weather-proof. Outlining large block letters to fill the page, he wrote, “FREE HUGS” and saturated the white space with the pungent ink. He could feel the adrenalin surge like he used to feel painting charcoal under his eyes or getting his ankles taped before a big game.

But he didn’t go that day. He didn’t go the next day either. On the third day he knew it was time. He put on his helmet, fired up his midnight blue Vespa and heeded the call of the urban university campus buzzing with the anticipation of fall quarter. It was a safe place, a friendly place where he might find huggers. His thoughts occasionally veered from the twelve miles of sunny road to worst case scenario. Rather than concern himself with being mugged or robbed, he worried no one would hug him.


On that Friday before school started he walked through the student union and out the other side to park blocks filled with paths and benches, and students eating lunch and looking for transcripts, and employees walking books and computers on carts between buildings ahead of the big rush. A lamppost beckoned; he set his helmet next to it and pulled out his sign. When he unfolded it he could feel its lack of sturdiness in his knees. He took a deep breath and stood there quietly holding his offer. He watched for people watching for him.

Though he was a veteran at marching in the street “against,” he was new to standing “for.” While hugging was unlikely to spur old ladies to flip him off like he’d experienced in protest outings, it was still unnerving. He made some rules to make him feel more in control. He rejected the shtick of a guy he’d seen on YouTube who hassled people for a hug. He also pledged to refuse no one. As he stood there feeling alone he wondered if Gandhi would regard hugging as a significant enough change to seek in the world. He wondered if Gandhi hugged strangers. Or if strangers hugged Gandhi before he was well-known.

The ten minutes he stood there without a hug (or was it only two) confirmed his fear. People hurried by, some looked at him and quickly looked away, some pretended he wasn’t there as if he were panhandling; some stared openly as they passed. A few smiled. In pensive moments of waiting he felt invisible, and conspicuous.

And then she was walking toward him, a smile the size of Georgia, arms stretched in a V for voluptuousness. She enveloped him in her big bosoms, hugged him hard and laughed, “Yeah,” and then stepped back to let her friend take her turn. Her friend hugged with similar enthusiasm. They thanked him and walked on down the path, laughing and joking. He watched after them smiling, and swallowed the lump in his throat.

He watched a child-size young woman walk by for the third time pushing a cart, her eyes darting at and away from him. A few yards beyond sat a group of exchange students eating lunch, smoking cigarettes and speaking words he couldn’t understand. They gawked at him then joked amongst themselves. He looked down, eyelids shielding him from rebuke.

When he looked up there was a big guy in Carhartts about to pounce, arms outstretched. “Oh, what the hell,” he was saying. The big guy was a good hugger, unafraid of what onlookers might think. When they separated he said, “I didn’t have much hugging when I was growing up. My family didn’t hug much, ya know?” Eye to eye, the big guy went on. “Then I was married to a lady and we didn’t hug much either. And then I started going to meetings where everybody hugged. I learned how good it is for the soul.” He nodded and looked in the distance. “Thanks for doing this,” the big guy said. And then he walked away.

The sheer surprise and the big guy’s authenticity floored him. He breathed in and out slowly, found his feet, watched the big guy in the distance laughing and talking with the falafel vendor. And just as he was about to be steady, coming at him just short of a sprint, a gangly guy talking on a mobile phone. The two made eye contact and the guy on the phone said to his listener, “Hold on, I gotta hug this guy,” and without breaking stride he hugged large, resumed his pace barely skipping a syllable in his chitchat, and charged the air with the extreme blast of his energy. The hugger felt silly and laughed, standing there by himself in the crowd.

He wondered how long to stay. “Quit while you’re ahead,” said the monkeys in his brain. “You want to leave on a win.” But when the hug was good he wanted another. And when the hug left emptiness, he wanted to stay to get another win.

And then he was approached by a young father and his school age son. “My son wants to know why you are doing this,” said the father.

“I like giving hugs and I think there are a lot of people who could use one.” He directed his words to the boy.

“I really like hugs,” the little boy announced.

“Would you like to hold my sign?”

“No,” he said as he stepped back.

“Would you like a hug?”

“Yes,” he said reaching upward. The hugger kneeled and wrapped the child in his arms.

“I used to hug him,” said the father. “He’s too old for that now.”

The hugger stood up. “That’s how you’ve been in the past; doesn’t mean that’s how you have to be in the future.” They locked eyes.

“Thanks for letting him hug me,” said the hugger as he turned his back to the duo before he stepped farther over the line.

The next thing he knew the young lady with the cart, having left it on the path, bounded toward him and gave him a quick embrace. And then she sprang away, looking back over her shoulder before she and her cargo disappeared in the crowd.

He was surprised to watch one of the exchange students get up from his bench, stomp out his cigarette and march toward him. His friends gaped and chattered, urging him on. The hugger was engulfed by his smoke-filled sweatshirt. He reminded himself of his commitment to all comers.

He had a satisfying hour filled with forty or fifty hugs. He was full and lit, like the orange light on the battery charger after it’s been plugged in all night; he felt smug and slightly invincible. He was equally hooked on the effect he had on those who merely smiled. The hug drug flowed through him like chi after bodywork.

He envisioned tougher parts of town, crowds of people who might pretend to be too tough to hug—like in the town square. He needed more practice for that adrenaline rush.


On a sunny Saturday in October the farmer’s market beckoned and he obeyed. It’s one thing to solicit hugs at a state university in a broadminded city; it’s another to go to the countryside where politics are displayed on gun racks in pick-up trucks. He wasn’t sure if country folk would hug a stranger.

The crisp morning air still stung as he mounted his scooter, hug sign tucked in the compartment under the seat. The short distance across the river and up the hill to the market was paved with the same uncertainty. “What if no one hugs me?” he fretted.

The parking-lot-turned-marketplace was lined with vendors cuddled in blankets under makeshift tent-booths; a middle aged woman bowing a fiddle and her husband strumming a guitar performed for neighbors tapping their toes under plastic tables and chairs. The smell of quesadillas wafted through the aisles. The mushrooms spilled out of a big basket under the first tent like the butterflies overflowed his stomach. He fussed over where to stand, avoided eye contact until he was sure, and then chose a spot near the entrance.

He pulled out the sign, careful not to tear it, unfolded and then held it close to his chest. He took a deep breath and then looked for people looking at him. He waited, breathing deeply to quell the flutter. Eyes landed on his sign, then on his bearded face; they looked and averted or looked and stared into his large brown eyes. Some smiled.

And then she came, a woman in a wheelchair, “Boy I could use a hug,” she decided out loud in a drawl uncharacteristic in the neighborhood. “You’ve come to the right place.” He stooped and they reached for each other. They held longer than he thought she would. Her husband stood grasping the handles on the back of her chair, big grin on his face, wheeled her away without speaking when the hugging stopped.

And then as if lining up for pancake breakfast, middle aged men in John Deere caps and red suspenders and women in ankle-length Lee jeans and tennis shoes hugged him with an “oh-what-the-heck” demeanor until he had touched around thirty or so. But the market director sealed the deal when she waited in line in order to invite him back to hug again. He was hooked on free hugs.


On an overcast day in early November he had an urge to hug in one of the city’s more Bohemian neighborhoods. With its pubs and coffee houses, theaters and counter-culture shops, he considered it a primo location. He was confident he would find takers and noticed his butterflies had dismissed themselves as a result. It began to sprinkle and he wished he’d used a different marker when his “EE”s began to run.

His first customers were fellow huggers, half dozen pubescent girls with signs and an asterisk that suggested a donation in exchange, in order to support their school. They were enthusiastic cuddlers, overjoyed to encounter a kindred spirit. One by one they stepped up, wished him luck and then they were gone.

As soon as the girls bounced away he noticed one of his own kid’s friends, mouth gaping, watching him from across the street. It was the first time he was “caught” by someone he knew. He felt exposed and vulnerable, but the post-hug photo taken for them by a passerby eventually found its way onto facebook. And so on his third outing he went viral and created a second generation of huggers all eager to join him on future outings.

He abandoned his post on a high note almost twenty minutes after he’d promised himself he would go, after a group who had been watching from a bar across the street took turns getting “a piece of that hug action.” He felt giddy riding home down the old highway, drivers around him unaware of the sign under his seat, wind sliding beside him on both sides, sealing the energy he soaked up in his latest hug fest.


Each encounter boosted his repertoire and courage. Although time had already begun to erase faces, some hugs were unforgettable. But he needed more time in the “hug seat” to prepare for the 25,000+ daily visitors of staggering varieties he would find in the center of town. He grabbed his sign, gassed up Grace his VW van, and cruised the twenty miles down the freeway to the airport. He felt adventurous; it was his first inside location, a government entity guarded by police and security, and he had no idea what to expect from people who were entering and exiting planes. His butterflies made him a little nauseous.

It didn’t take long at his post near the security entrance for a soft-spoken young man in his early twenties to notice the hug sign. “I really need a hug,” he implored. And so they did.

“Why do you need a hug?”

“I have never flown before. I am flying today and I’m scared to death. Can I have another one?” He hadn’t thought through whether or not there should be a hug limit.

And then the cop appeared.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving free hugs.”

“Why are you doing that?”

“I love getting hugs and I think a lot of people could use them.” The cop’s face was puzzled, and amused.

“Are you going anywhere today?”

“Nope, just back home at some point.”

“How long do you think you’ll be doing this?”

“I don’t know. Do you want me to stop?” In all his preparation he hadn’t considered whether or not he was willing to be arrested for hugging.

“No, you’re fine,” the officer said as he walked away.

She was 40ish, slight build, medium length brown hair, and she was packed for flight. She approached and asked, “May I have a hug?” He signaled his agreement by putting out his arms to welcome her. She melted into him; and showed no sign of moving on. For a minute or more. It occurred to him he’d never considered a rule about who should break a hug first. He whispered in her ear, “You are a good hugger.”

“You are too,” she replied. And then she turned, picked up her bags and walked away. And with her went his breath. He was left standing there, u-shaped jaw, overwhelmed by the level of intimacy he shared with a stranger in the airport.

And then a colleague rolled up sporting luggage and a puzzled brow. He was surprised when she asked, “What are you doing?” That unforgettable sting of familiarity prickled his mid-section again. When he told her she said, “Really,” as if he’d lost his mind. And then gave him a quick A-frame hug and patted him on the back with an ambivalent hand. Her disapproval trailed behind her like gaudy perfume.

Then the policeman was back. “Hey, we have to talk again. We got a complaint.”

“From someone I hugged?” He was crushed.

“No, from someone who thinks you’re a nuisance. Can I see your ID?”

“Do you want me to stop?” He pulled out his driver’s license and handed it to the policeman.

“No, we’ve had our eye on you. We think you’re fine. I just have to make a report now and so I need your information.

The cop handed back the ID. “How much longer are you going to be here?”

“Not much longer now; this conversation has sorta dulled the luster.”

“Once you get the next hug you’ll feel better.”

At that, a woman dropped by for a squeeze. He noted the cop was right.


He hugged at several more locations. Free hugs were more difficult and more exciting than he ever imagined. He liked spreading goodwill one moment at a time, and especially affecting everyone who noticed in some way.

He learned at one of the city’s shopping centers that security could find him in less than ten minutes, and according to the guy on the Segway that hunted him down, hugging is some sort of solicitation. Injustice screamed into his ear, “I am hugging for free for God’s sake, not selling magazines.”

“Yeah, go tell your kids you muscled a hugger today,” he said with his inside voice before he skulked out of the mall.

He learned that the number of hugs he was able to coax was in direct correlation to clothing. There were always fewer hugs from well dressed people, and a tie or high heels drastically decreased likelihood of any interaction. He learned to hug people whether they smelled good or not. He found out that hugging itself is a good sales pitch for young transplants trying to prove to their visiting parents the wisdom in their choice of location. He agreed to be photographed with the families for their albums, and in doing so became part of family lore. He concluded there are two types of people, those who will hug a stranger and those who won’t, but eventually someone will hug. He learned to bounce back from derogatory comments, but puzzled over how one could think hugging was disgusting. He discovered that about forty or fifty hugs and sixty minutes charged his batteries. He put confidence in his pockets with each outing, and then one day he felt ready for the town square.


It made sense to him to wear jeans. He’d worked in casual and dress clothes and the number of hugs per hour didn’t fluctuate. A white shirt might be too hoity-toity in this part of the city. He chose denim. He climbed on the 43 bus, the method he chose to help him feel like a part of the hubbub, a familiar trip he preferred to driving his car alone from the suburbs. While he fidgeted with his sign, he didn’t anticipate real trouble. At the very worst maybe some hassling or panhandling and some stinky kids, maybe someone acting crazy. He got off the bus early so he could ease into the urban rhythm.

He could feel more than hear the beat of the hub, bodies pulsing rhythmically with traffic criss-crossed by light rail traveling north and south on the edges of the square. Street kids crowded the northeast corner, some sitting on benches, some on the walls that frame the space. He decided not to stand in the middle of their jive talk which often sprouted into yelling. He ruled out the middle of the square with all eyes on the children’s choir singing holiday songs on a stage all decorated with fir boughs. He also passed up the Starbucks’ northwest corner assuming they would interpret his actions as soliciting. He chose the southwest corner where the yellow and green line trains spilled commuters onto the streets, and unfolded his sign. He watched for people watching for him. He wondered if he would have the courage to stand in a piazza in Italy or a Zocalo in Mexico. He wondered if people everywhere would stop for a hug.

He caught a woman looking at him with a grin. “Gotcha,” he joked, growing her smile wider as she passed without stopping.

He met eyes with a Dad maneuvering a stroller through the crowd. The Dad stared at his sign and then at his face and then back to the sign. “That’s creepy,” the Dad scowled louder than necessary as he pushed his baby away.

At one point a woman approached him and asked, “Are you panhandling?”

“No. Why?” he asked.

“Do you need some money, cause I’ll give you money if you need it.”

“No thank you, really.” The lady shrugged and walked on.

But, hands down, it was the lost faces of the street kids he wasn’t ready for. Some were homeless but some merely chose to hang out on the street rather than enroll in “normal.” Most were smokers; many were pierced like pincushions and tattooed like comic books. “Man I could sure use a hug,” admitted one of them as she pressed her head against his chest. He wondered how long it’d been since she’d let an adult hug her. Once he proved safe, her two friends sought his embrace as well. He hugged a dozen more kids who came and went, alone or in pairs, and could feel their heartbeats as if they belonged to their worried mothers.

He was struggling with the usual tug-of-war between stopping and just one more hug, when he looked across the street and settled upon the gaze of a familiar face. His middle aged eyes strained to identify the guy until his heart heaved as he realized it was a client—a government guy—who hired him the day before to do some consulting work. The jig was up now. He couldn’t hide his sign. He couldn’t just run, though he considered it for a second. All he could do was smile through troubled lips as the client crossed the street and greeted him.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving free hugs,” he admitted.

“Why are you doing that? Here?”

“I like hugs and I think there are a lot of people who could use a one, especially here.” The client smiled nervously and looked around to see if they were alone in the crowd.

“Well, er, okay, I guess.” He looked around again, snuck in a swift A-frame hug with a quick pat, and looked around again.

“Talk to you after the holidays,” the client said, with a hesitant crease between his brows and haste in his retreat. The client disappeared into the revolving door of the high-rise kitty corner across the street. The faces of the hugged looked on as he marched away, first the little boy who liked hugs and the father who didn’t and then the big guy in overalls who had only recently learned to hug. The moving image of the mobile phone guy who could walk, talk and hug at once brought a smile.

The hugger wondered if it would be the last time he saw or heard from the client. He shrugged; then unfolded and held up his sign. In the scheme of things, it didn’t matter to him one way or the other.

1 comment:

  1. Holy cow, Tonia-that was beautiful. I don't have a sign, but stop by any time you'd like a free hug!