Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gissa Hug

To say I am desperate for a little adult affection is a little extreme. But how else can I explain my willingness to participate in a Free Hug event in the centre of Chicago?

I heard of the event in passing late on a Saturday afternoon and before I knew it I had volunteered to be a Hugeee the following day. Oh this will be fun, I thought. Better than sitting at home on my own, with my feet up eating biscuits all day (although on reflection the sofa/biscuit combo has a lot going for it).

By the following morning my enthusiasm was waning a little. It was cold. I had lots of stuff to watch on the tele. The biscuit tin was full of tempting morsels calling my name. And I wasn't feeling in the best of moods and particularly desiring affection from complete strangers. But I had volunteered and felt it would be churlish not to show up. So off I traipsed into town. All the way there I kept ignoring the little voice in my head saying, 'why are you doing this exactly? no one will mind if you don't show up. you're probably going to have to hug a lot of wierdos.' I furtively slunk up to the meeting point to see who else was there and my stomach sunk a little when I saw the sad little group of misfits gamely holding 'Free Hugs' banners. Oh no.

I hotfooted it into Borders before anyone saw me and reconsidered my options. Could I really do this? I was going to look like a real wally and feel like a total prat. I wasn't sure I wanted the strangers I would be approaching to think I was part of this motley crew. Maybe there was a banner that read 'I'm not really with these saddos, but you can give me a hug anyway if you really have to'.

I debated my options for about 15 minutes, whilst diligently reading the latest overpriced copy of Hello! magazine, before finally coming to the conclusion that Sod It, looking like a wally and feeling a total prat would not be a new experience on.

I walked swiftly over to the ensemble before I could change my mind - hugged everyone there (it seemed the only appropriate thing to do and really, they needed the practice because it wasn't as if free hugs appeared to be in high demand from what I had witnessed). I picked up my Free Hug banner and joined the end of the line.

And then I just stood there. Holding my banner as if it was a shield to protect me from unwanted physical contact and with a face that said quite plainly, 'don't even think about it'. That first 10 minutes were probably the most uncomfortable I had ever felt in my life. People scuttled past us, eyes to the ground, as if avoiding a group of lepers who could infect them by eye contact alone. Some people actually increased their Sunday stroll into a slight jog to get past us quicker. I saw others actively cross the street to avoid us. I continued to stand there, feeling like a prize pillock, absolutely mortified that, not only had I entertained such a ridiculous idea, but had the stupidity to impulsively volunteer, followed by the madness to actually show up. This is a sad reflection of my lonely little life, I thought.

And then a group of young college students turned up. And all of a sudden there were hugs being exchanged in wild abandon - coupled with laughter and giggles and photos. Our little spot on Michigan Avenue had become a mini party and the whole mood changed.

From that moment on I became a woman possessed. I was determined that no one was going to escape getting a hug from me, even if they were practically sprinting away in the opposite direction screaming 'No! Just leave me alone you demented English freak'. I put on my best barrow boy voice and held my arms open wide - demanding eye contact with even the most nervous and evasive passer-by - shouting 'Git your free 'ugs ' time only. C'mon - get warm with a free hug. No purchase necessary. Don't be shy luv - you know you want to!'

We drew quite the crowd. And lots of people hugged. Most people laughed (some of them just at us - but others seemed genuinely cheered). And other, very kind and generous souls, bought us hot chocolate and biscuits for our efforts. It was the most fun 2 hours I have had in a long time (not that that's really saying anything - it's been a spectacularly miserable past 12 months) and an opportunity I would repeat in a heart beat.

The downside of this success is that I now have to wear a home-made badge at all times stating clearly 'Beware - Hugger on the loose'. It helps to keep me out of trouble when I exhibit over-friendly behaviour at the supermarket, because a smile just doesn't seem to do justice any more when someone kindly packs my bags for me...


  1. Sounds like brilliant fun and no stopping you once you'd started!

  2. Very unBritish... but sounds like fun!