My Day As A Free Hugger

By: Stephanie Balcacer

What do a New York City police officer, a doorman, and a used car salesman all have in common? While this may sound like the beginning of a cliche joke, they all shared one thing: they each stepped forward to give out hugs on the open streets of New York City to a random free hugger; that hugger just so happened to be me.

As a native New Yorker, I have come to understand the rules of the city streets: never make eye contact with the guy who eyeballs you, carry your sharpest key in your hand as an easily fashionable weapon of defense, and when you’re walking you must always scowl as if someone has burnt your chicken dinner.

Despite knowing these cardinal rules, my day as a free hugger was quite ordinary. I stepped out of my house and minutes later I was bombarded by cars honking at me as the drivers sped away yelling “Free Hugs!” Although people had no problem freely exclaiming, and sometimes whispering under their breath as they breezed past me, “Free Hugs!,” they did not approach me unless I prompted them to.

Another observation I made: no one tells you how hard it is to put yourself out there when it comes to giving hugs. When I approached my first hug of the day, an elderly woman sitting solitary in her wheelchair under a medical building’s awning, I found this difficulty manifested itself in my heart hammering away at my chest. The irony of my fear weighed heavily on my mind, and I couldn’t allow myself to be terrified of this woman.

I pushed forward and asked if she wanted a hug; a pause followed, as I imagined her wondering, “Why is this flower crowned hippie with a sign tied around her neck talking to me? Does she want money? Is she homeless?” I had to repeat myself again. She eventually nodded and allowed me to give my first, and rather awkward by my own account, free hug of the day.

As I walked away from my first successful hug, it dawned on me that being a free hugger requires a lot more than what I had imagined. It means mentally preparing yourself to block out the doubts of how effective your own campaign will be. It means smiling consistently through rejections and allowing people to think you’ve lost your mind. A case for example: smiling often garnered one of two responses which were either a smile back or a look of concern specifically reserved for interventions. It’s a tough crowd out here in New York City.

With that in mind, I continued my free hug journey into the concrete jungle by taking a train over to Manhattan. Riding in the middle of a crowded train made it nearly impossible to avoid people staring at me and the glaring neon orange “Free Hugs” sign that hung lazily over my chest. Despite having an abundance of people around me, I only managed to snag three hugs on the subway and engaged in a discreet game of “Catch the Dodgey Eye Glance” with one man. He eventually gave in with a half smile; it was no hug, but I had to take what I could get. It seems the MTA really has done a number on the spirit of New Yorkers.

The next point of destination was John Jay College. The walk to class on 11th Avenue introduced me to a pair of burly guys standing in front of a bar drinking their cans of Coors Light.

“Free hugs? You giving free hugs?” one of the guys asked as he leaned casually against a car.

I gestured to him for a hug to which he replied, “Free hugs are here, but you gotta get a free drink with me in there.” He motioned his head over to the bar in front.

“Nah man, I’ve got class,” I said as I gave him a consolatory hug. While I walked away, I made a mental note to give free hugs next to bars in the near future if I wanted to get my drink on.

As I approached John Jay’s campus, a pair of construction workers called out for free hugs. After I gave one of them a hug, he had one simple request: “Don’t forget to send the college girls over to me for more free hugs.” Duly noted.

All these random encounters might have some people wondering: why she decide to sacrifice herself to the massive hub of 8 million people that is the city of New York? Simply intrigue. Free Huggers walk about freely in all their altruistic glory, but it’s debatable whether people bother to look into why they’re okay with placing themselves into the shark tank that is the city.

As it turns out, The Free Hugs Campaign began in 2004 as Juan Mann’s journey (the name is not a joke) of seeking a way to open up human lines of communication beyond the confines of technology. As the campaign’s official website puts it, “In this age of social dis-connectivity and lack of human contact, the effects of the Free Hugs Campaign [have become] phenomenal.”

It is a message that has the ability to resonate with many people who may feel isolated in a world where interactions are mainly executed through social media; it was one that I had to explore for myself.

The discovery I made was that the campaign moved well beyond the portal of technology to create connections. As Juan Mann said, “It’s two words, one idea. [Hugs] translate through so many different cultures and to so many different people and so many different places. It’s not a brand new idea.”

My walk around New York City echoed those sentiments, as I found myself being embraced by people from all walks of life. From the clean-cut doorman who beckoned me over for a hug to the somewhat criminally inclined ticket scalpers at Madison Square Garden, hugs were welcomed and warmly received as the universal sign of solidarity.

For Juan Mann, it is canon as a free hugger to always “Expect the unexpected. You go out thinking one thing, You just don’t know; you just don’t know what the city has in store.”

Being a free hugger for a day taught me how truly undervalued that piece of advice is. What did the city have in store for me?

During an order I was placing at a McDonald’s on 57th street, one of the managers in charge came out from behind the counter to give me an enthusiastic embrace.

“Free Hugs for you, free hugs for me!” he boomed. Unfortunately for him, McDonald’s policy requires free hugs to be exchanged under certain conditions. His supervisor came out to mildly reprimand him by exclaiming, “No, no free hugs until after 6 P.M.”; he waved her off and gave me a wink before departing for his duties. The Free Hugs campaign had no limits or boundaries binding it down.

As my day began to wind down, I added one final touch to my day as a campaigner; I wanted to make myself more available to people, so I decided that music was the best way to do it. I incorporated a wireless speaker into my journey and blasted music from 59th Street down to Herald Square. Was it not Madonna that said, “Music makes the people come together”?
I had plenty of looks that translated into annoyance, but it was all made up for by the moments when people joined me in my musical expedition; men clapped along to Pharrell’s “Happy” song, and a UPS guy cheered from the inside of his truck to “Move Your Feet” by Junior Senior. Not everyone was a part of it, yet somehow they were.

My final hug for the day was given to me by a noticeably tipsy man down in the Time Square’s shuttle hub. Although he did not understand the language of the sign I held, the smile I gave him was enough to produce an embrace. It was a reminder of something Juan Mann had mentioned: “The catch with free hugs is that it has the word free on it. It belongs to everyone, even if they don’t want it. It’s up to everyone else to decide how they will use it.”

I later came to understand that the man only spoke Spanish. Although I am a Spanish speaker myself, I’m not quite proficient in it. Despite this minor obstacle, it became my business, after a day of embracing all kinds of people, to make sure this man was included in this journey. It was the culmination of my days work in one person; it was finally understanding what the Free Hugs Campaign is really about.

As Juan Mann said, “Everyone is responsible; it isn’t just a solo project. This is a team effort. It requires everyone. We’ll always be a part of something. It’s just a matter of whether the something we’re a part of is the right thing.”