By Ken Trainor
If you saw a 48-year-old man standing on the corner of a busy intersection giving out hugs, how would you respond? Kevin Reid decided to find out. He positioned himself by the Horse Fountain at the entrance to Scoville Park, Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, for two hours on a recent Sunday morning and held up a hand-written sign: Free Hugs.
It was May 1, May Day, so anything goes, right? I was sitting in Red Hen, looking out at the park, working on my column, and there he was.
Some people are huggers and some aren't. But hugging total strangers on a Sunday morning at a busy corner is, for most of us, outside our comfort zone. And that was Reid's goal — to widen the comfort zone.
Frankly, he looked like he needed a hug, so I went over and gave him one. I was the first. Things snowballed from there.
"It was really an incredible experience," Reid said the following day, noting that drivers were honking and waving. Cars stopped at the light, and people got out for a quick squeeze. A boy about middle-school age kept circling on his bike, then finally came up to get hugged. A teenage boy walked by, very shy, but eventually accepted one.
"As he was walking away," Reid recalls, "he turned around and called out, 'You really made my day!'"
Not everyone was convinced, of course. One guy passed and muttered, "Creepy." A middle-age woman asked, "Don't you get enough hugs from people you know?"
The answer came from numerous hug-ees who testified, "You can never get enough hugs."
They've got a point. Hugging a stranger is liberating. Permission to hug changes things. So many of our one-on-one interaction these days are digital, virtual, a step removed. Hugging a stranger is strangely immediate.
Reid said it was simple. Just hold the sign, smile, "and let people come to you."
An Australian started the "free hugs" movement in 2004, Reid said. He calls himself Juan Mann (i.e. One Man). You can find out more at FreeHugsCampaign.org.
Reid is a musician and guitar teacher who recently returned to the area following a four-year hiatus in L.A., Sedona and Nashville. He describes the latter as "a culture of friendliness. Nobody walks by without smiling or speaking."
He got tired of walking past Oak Parkers without being acknowledged.
"It's a cool thing, breaking down barriers, creating a sense of community."
Two of his young students, Lia Flannery and Isabel Smith, came along and got into the spirit of things. Lia's mom, Millie, shot video, which is undoubtedly on YouTube by now.
"Kids were running and leaping into our arms," Reid said. "We gave out over 100 hugs, including several group hugs."
A lot of people asked why he was doing this. "It's very much an extension of my world view," says the man who recorded "We Are One, A World Anthem" with his brothers and a host of other musicians. You can hear that song at aworldanthem.org.
"I like to be a positive influence in my environment. This creates a bunch of ripples. People left with huge smiles." One young man from India put it best when he told Reid, "It's kind of a love-thy-neighbor thing."
A community is built one interaction at a time. People meet at church, school events, youth sports sidelines, the Lake Theatre, Farmers Market (which begins May 21), block parties. Giving free hugs is just one of many community-building techniques. My good friend, Bob Sullivan, has made it his life's mission to strike up conversations with strangers on the el or while standing in line.
But never underestimate the importance of touch. There are plenty of people in our community who have lived for years without being touched at all.
Think about that.
Reid says he's not a raging extrovert. "This was definitely out of my comfort zone," he said. "I was not eager to get out there." But several more of his students have expressed interest, so he's planning to get out there again in June. A Day in Our Village (Sunday, June 5) might be a good opportunity.
In the meantime, if you want to hear Reid perform, he plays on Fridays and Saturdays at Potbelly's, from 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. "Stop by sometime and say hi," he says.
Or just give him a hug — between songs of course.
As they were leaving the park on May 1, a guy up on the hill by the War Memorial came running after them, calling, "Hey, hey, can I get a hug?"
"Let's connect," Reid says. "Let's rival Nashville. Instead of just ignoring one another, let Oak Park be known as one of the friendliest communities. Let's not just be known for our architecture."