"Hey, buddy. Whatcha doin'?" the Philadelphia train station policeman barks as he comes into focus from the background, pointing at the "free hugs" sign. When you are a free hugger your attention isn't on the background. It's on the faces of people right in front of you. He learned in his first year hugging that you can tell when someone is about to hug you by their eye contact. He is sure this policeman will not hug him.
"I think there are a lot of people who can use a hug . . . and I like to give them," he reports for the 331st time in his 5-year love affair with free hugging.
"Let me tell ya," the cop begins. "We might be called the City of Brotherly Love, but we ain't."
"Let's test it out," the hugger challenges, hoping there are no city codes that prohibit a few minutes of free hugging while he is waiting for his sister to arrive from Boston. Hugging is at once a solitary and intimate activity. It creates an immediate physical closeness, one generated from the place at our center that is good and loving. Because it is so pure, one can hug strangers for only so long at a time. Turns out free hugging fills up your heart and exhausts your brain. The hugger knows he will be there only a short time--maybe 30 minutes.
The cop continues to joke with him until the hugger has to distance himself, sensing the uniform an obstacle to those thinking about hugging. Once he does he becomes a magnet and enjoys several robust hugs from curious Philadelphians.
It still amazes him that people want to share their story with a stranger who hugs them; sure enough a woman hugs him, and then wants to share her story.
"You know I was out in Portland, OR a couple of months ago, and when I walked through Saturday Market there was a group of people hugging. I just thought it was so fun. I'm glad someone is doing it here."
"Were you in Portland on the Sunday after Mother's Day?"
"Yes, it was Mother's Day weekend, how did you . . .?"
He laughs, "We probably hugged there! That was me, and a dozen others who hug on that Sunday every year." They laugh together. He teases her that running into him is a sign she's supposed to start hugging in her city. The hugger reports the details of this kismet to the policeman who is only mildly amused.
He can't wait to tell the story to Lauren, his latest hug recruit back home. Lauren is a friend of the woman who runs the global free hug movement from Chicago. Because the hugger reports in to the Chicago mothership after the global event each year it is a natural for him to be thought of as a contact when Lauren moves to Portland. The two met first when she joined the annual gathering of friends and family near Skidmore Fountain. The thing they all have in common is they love to give and get free hugs. The hugger met Lauren the same day he hugged the woman from Philadelphian. It was likely Lauren hugged her too. There is something about hugging that makes connections. Hugging strangers is intoxicating. You get high on the loving energy, and then you need a nap. Sharing it with others is double coupons.
A new kind of connection for a veteran hugger
It wasn't for the hugging that the hugger decided on Eugene, Oregon's Country Faire. It is one of those bucket list items many Oregonians have already checked off. People around him were shocked he had never been to an event that fit him so well. He announced his Faire plans to a friend whose family has attended since the early days. Her advice was simple.
"You have to bring your VW van. That's a must. And tie-dye shirts. And sparkles."
"I've got the first two covered, but I don't know about sparkles."
"Oh you'll have sparkles before you leave, I guarantee it," she promised with a wink.
The Oregon Country Faire attracts 50,000 visitors on a Saturday in July each year, includes music, food, booths and all around goodwill and frolicking. It's a perfect hug environment and the hugger was prepared by having both a free hug tee-shirt and his sign. By Saturday he was used to costumes, paint and nudity. He was also taken by the extended length of time people were willing to hang in a hug. There were no dreaded A-frame or side hugs. They were all face-to-face and prolonged--a term he had come to know as "hugging until relaxed." What he wasn't ready for was a combination of the two.
Thus when two topless women (except for painted sparkles) in turn pushed their decorated bosoms into his chest, holding his breath wasn't an option, though he tried. In turn each woman hugged longer than expected. When they were through with him, he was breathless and had sparkles. The women giggled away.
One of the best additions to his hugging life are two tee-shirts gifted from traveling friends who remembered him in India with a dark green and a black shirt, both with white writing saying "Free Hugs." Tee-shirts making hugging hands free, and the best part is when he forgets he is wearing the shirt and a stranger surprises him with a hug.