I spent part of yesterday at our annual neighborhood cultural fair. I've been a couple of times- the offerings are typically somewhat uneven but the palpable good will and warmth overcomes that easily. You always run into friends, buy a trinket or two and wander home in a pleasant state of mind.
I was wandering around (there's a lot of wandering on this blog) with my friends and taking in the fair- checking out small stalls selling identical looking beaded necklaces and African inspired bags etc., when I saw something heart warming. There in the midst of cliche-confirming sad looking clowns, bustling food vendors and an assortment of vaguely left leaning booths and kiosks (holistic healing! vegan soap! peace councils etc.) was a young guy - probably in his late teens- holding a sign that said 'free hugs'.
At first this struck me as the kind of typically well meaning but slightly hokey thing that just would happen at this festival. But as I watched the small vestige of my cynicism faded away. As the guy stood there in the middle of the street, with his cardboard sign aloft, people of all ages, shapes, colors approached him smiling. Some impulsively rushed into his arms, while others debated it in their heads before shyly going forward. Some looked smilingly self conscious or had to be goaded by friends, while others were hugging him almost the second they saw him. Some did a short half hug, joking about it even as they made contact and others held on for a tight long while. Older people were most forthcoming, while younger people- specially teenagers that were closest to the guys age were the most self conscious. Groups of teenage girls giggled and watched but were too shy (refreshingly shy) to approach.
Through it all the guy stood smiling- saying little. He looked peaceful and somehow wise despite his boyish face and unremarkable clothes.
People broke away and hurried or strolled along their way, laughing at the experience. Everyone looked uplifted in some sense - even the ones that had started ironically.
There was something transformative about the scene playing out- for all its hokeyness, or how contrived it could have been- the simple act of hugging someone, without any expectations, looked utterly warm.
I was transfixed by the sight- for reasons I can't fully understand and that my friends were also bewildered, or at least bemused, by. I don't even know why I'm writing about it now but I know I could have watched those small human interactions for hours. Suddenly these gestures that one only reads about in hipster stories made sense to me. It got me thinking about how these small gestures matter in our ever more isolated and compartmentalized existence. What would it be like to magnify that effect somehow- how could one translate the idea of 'free hugs' in some larger, meaningful sense? Sounds ridiculous even as I write it...
Anyway, that's neither here nor there.
All I'll say is that it was charming.
So, did I hug him?
No I didn't - (though I did commend him on his willingness to take on such an enterprise in swine flu season).
I'm not sure why I didn't go up for my free hug ...but he touched me all the same.