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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sunday hugging is for believers

The unpredictable urge to hug strangers perplexed him, and grew little by little. It had been weeks since he’d been out, and something told him it was time. While it was hard to think of hugging as an addiction, the thought had crossed his mind. He rolled and secured, then packed two signs in his backpack, the tired but trusted original he handmade some months before, and a brand new manufactured one his daughter had commissioned for him for Christmas. He hadn’t been able to tell her, but he wasn’t sure he could use it. He worried it might appear too official, make him less approachable. He had a cross-town errand to run, and on his way home a bright spot on the waterfront esplanade caught his eye. As he parked Grace, his VW van and headed toward the river he had no clue that Sunday hugging is for believers.

The air smelled of fog, though the early blanket had been pushed north and south on the river by a patch of sun intent on warming the busy walkway; cyclists in packs shouting inside jokes at 10mph, runners matching cadence with music piped into their ear buds, couples strolling hand in hand. He knew from experience pairs rarely broke rank for a guy giving free hugs. He understood their reluctance.

He pulled out the new sign, smelled its plastic pretension and found he didn’t feel any different holding it than he did the old standby; it was an easier transition than he expected. As the excruciatingly long minutes passed without hugs he obsessed about leaving the old sign behind in his pack. As if it cared. As if he created bad luck by replacing it. He willed himself to stop.

He waited and watched people too focused on each other to notice him. He wondered about the guys sitting at freeway exits, homeless veterans asking for money; he guessed how unnoticed they felt with people afraid to look, maybe afraid to see. He catastrophized about having received his last hug. He sneered at the unthinkable--maybe there were only so many embraces and then no more. He concluded there might be such a thing as a bad hug day when one should just go home. He tried to forget his abysmal hug count and appreciate the atypical blue sky, but his spirit was bruised by each person that didn’t stop.

With only three lackluster hugs in an hour he descended from sad to morose. To increase his count he packed up and headed for the town square, the hectic hub he’d only recently started working. He walked the six blocks confident he would find a colorful crowd of huggers there.

Experience dictated finding a spot to stand in the sun. He welcomed the warmth in damp winter weather, plus he knew his face looked brighter and more appealing in the light. He first wondered about his face when long minutes between hugs left him too much time to think. As he stared into the faces of passersby he noticed how some looked huggable and some didn’t. He found his own hugger face in the mirror coming out of the shower one morning. He was surprised to see his eyes and graying beard kind of sparkled in the sunlight. He experimented then chose an expression that fit him, and from then on he stood in the sun with his playful “come-on-why-not” look.

Feeling his luck changing, he crossed streets without benefit of the “walk” sign and found his favorite corner sun drenched. He wasn’t there long when a parish of people, some with loud voices and one carrying a megaphone, opened their outdoor church on his corner. They passed out pamphlets and tried to get people to stop and listen to their orator sing praises of Jesus. The hugger was clear he didn’t want to be connected with a group, let alone a religious sect. A hugger can’t be too careful when it comes to staying neutral and avoiding sponsorship.

He scoped out another sunny corner, but when he arrived and was able to take it all in, he realized this one contained a handful of quiet Muslims demonstrating their capacity for peace and non-violence. “We want you to see we’re not all terrorists,” he heard one man say. While the hugger found himself drawn more to the quiet of the Muslim contingent, their cause didn’t abide by the solo nature of his work either. He took the “Muslims for Peace” brochure he was handed, said thank you and looked for another place to stand.

As he looked for a new perch on the next block he mused about his CIA-like behavior, always picking places where he could put his back to something. He supposed he learned it from his corrupted stepfather who was always checking to see if someone was behind them and would never be caught in a church or synagogue as a result.

A stocky young person delivered an exceptional hug before the hugger spotted the yarmulke. Having left his loosely Jewish household at a time when only a man could wear one, he was left wondering why it felt like the man in the yarmulke had boobs. He hoped he didn’t look shocked when they faced each other and exchanged words. “I come from a family of huggers,” said the young person with a hint of embarrassment.

“I-I s-see that,” stuttered the hugger trying to recover, though like a magnet, his attention switched to a kid on a skateboard coming right at them.

“How’s business?” interrupted the kid on the skateboard wearing an oversize baseball cap and carrying fries and drink, managing not to knock the two of them down like bowling pins. Yarmulke vanished.

“It’s good,” reported the hugger.

The kid leaned against the building and set his drink on the ground. He started eating and continued the small talk. “Hey man, like, why are you doing this?”

“I like giving hugs and I think there are a lot of people who could use one. You could think of it as my own version of Sunday service.”

“That’s bomb,” agreed the kid, his head bobbing and his mouth full of fries doused in ketchup. The kid looked like he was planning to hang out. The hugger wondered how to get rid of him.

“Ya know, I work alone, and it’s hard for me to get hugs when someone else is around.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry dude.” But before he picked up his stuff he asked for a hug. “Ya know, I think I might make me a sign,” he said as he delivered a pathetic side version with some pats.

“You’re going to have to learn how to hug better than that,” warned the hugger with a nod.

“Really?” The kid on the skateboard paused a second and then agreed, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“Trust me.”

And then Yarmulke was back, “Today was Sabbath, a day of peace in the Hebrew religion; hugging is peaceful.” He was pretty sure by now this youngster was a woman, so he made a mental note to do some research on women and yarmulkes. The hugger hoped her churchmen embraced her.

It hadn’t occurred to him he might rub elbows with God’s soldiers on Sunday. He considered hugging theistic, spiritual but not organized. Part of what he liked about it was walking away “filled up” like he used to feel when he left Sunday service, but he could hug when he wanted, wherever he wanted without having to feel pressured to contribute to a capital fund. He didn’t have to succumb to the will of the group, or put up with their sloppy interpersonal skills. He didn’t want to be committed and coveted this version of sanctuary.

The square was Sunday quiet, light rail on weekend schedule, few street kids, no employees reporting for work. There were a couple of people who asked for photos with him but avoided the hug. He obliged.

One guy said as he walked by, “My hugger is God so you and me aren’t a good match.” Then it got really quiet, for a creepy several minutes.

He saw her from a distance, an elderly woman in layers of sweaters and a hat, walking in rhythm created by the cane planted with her right hand. He could see from a distance her dark eyes fixed on him, looking deep. He knew before she arrived she would hug. Her face was troubled.

“I could use a hug,” she said when she arrived out of breath. “I am not feeling so good today,” she admitted.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said as he bent to wrap her in a moment of tenderness ordained by his need to be at this spot at this moment. They lingered for several breaths in the musty smell of her clothes. “Do your best to make it a great day,” he urged.

“I’ll work on it,” she promised with a grunt more doubtful than hopeful.

As she walked on he wondered if the old lady had beckoned him, and shivered at the thought of such telepathy. He checked the clock above the jewelry store, 11:15. He noticed his belly calling him for food and wondered how long he’d been there.

When he looked back to street level, her eyes were fixed on him as she headed his way, “Can I have a hug?”

“Of course,” he said opening his arms. The pretty twenty-something hugged him like a hungry stray inhales food, disquieting in her willingness to linger. When they separated she thanked him with eyes full of tears.

“What going on?” he pried, unable to tell if it was the Daddy in him or merely his insatiable need to know.

“I just moved here from Sacramento and I’m homesick. I don’t know anybody and I feel pretty alone. But the hug helped.” She tried to stiffen her lip.

“Want another one?” She melted in his arms and he could feel her sobbing breath in his shoulder. They hugged for a minute or more and when they stepped back he handed her a tissue he had stuffed in his pocket early that morning. She mopped and they talked about her company transferring her, and her intention to work and attend college in the fall. She told him about the sun porch at her apartment and the cat she was glad she brought from home. He bragged about the friendly town she’d chosen and assured her she would quickly find her “peeps.”

“Do you know where a vegetarian can get something to eat around here?” she asked. He directed her to his favorite Indian food a few blocks away.

“Thanks again, maybe I’ll see you on my way back,” she said.

“After that hug I’m heading home,” he assured her. “They don’t get much better. Thank YOU.”

He walked to his van with the fullness he imagined one might feel after doing the work of angels. He continued to be blown away by the level of intimacy hugging allowed him to share with strangers. And yet he worried whether or not he offered the young lady enough support, the old lady a big enough hand. Was it sufficient to be kind in their moment of need? Or should he have done more?

As he drove home on the road overlooking the river, he relit the day’s moments like slides dropping in a Kodak carousel. He paused on the changing faces of the two women, pain to comfort, tears to hope. He was reminded of his early concern about too few hugs, and then discovered he couldn’t recall how many he’d had that day. He entertained a new holy grail, one based not on the number of hugs he generated, but a spiritual calling of sorts to go and find one or two incredibly important ones.

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