37 Hugs for 37 Strangers, 1989

Free Hugs Campaign at LAX

With hindsight in my hands, I now think of this experience as my first ‘performance art’ piece. I had been studying the scientific benefits of touch when I traveled to New York City to run a 5K race at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1989. It was also my birthday and I wanted to do something wild and weird to celebrate it.

So, I committed to roaming the streets, offering free hugs to anyone who would like one, aiming for 37 hugs to 37 strangers on my 37th birthday. At the time, NYC was quintessentially “New York,” aka as far from touchy-feely California as I could get. My Manhattan friends’ offered dire warnings for my safety. “It’s dangerous to get so up close and intimate with strangers in New York!”

Nonetheless, I was successful. I hugged people walking their dogs in Central Park, NYPD cops guarding the subway, passers by on the street. My 37th and pinnacle hug was late at night, jogging down Fifth Avenue around 11 pm to the start of the race. I passed a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk, begging for change. At first I ran by and mentioned I was not carrying any cash. Then it dawned on me, I did have something to give him.

So I reversed course and offered him my standard menu of a free hug. He accepted. As he stood up, the air swirled around him and I was engulfed with the aroma of street life: basically, urine and various other body odors. Still, the look in his eyes, as they filled with tears, stays with me to this day.

I am drawn to the ‘art of humanity’ that explores interacting with other people. I relate to the work of Marina Abramovic and Mierle Laderman.

I don’t have any photos from my experience in 1989, however, I do have a video I made in 2007 when I encountered people from the Free Hugs Campaign at LAX. This is from my video podcast, Beach Walks with Rox. It started as an experiment in the technology, then became a daily show for over 400 days, and finally wrapped up after 778 episodes when my co-star, Lexi Dogg, passed away. We earned over 2 million downloads!