Monday, April 28, 2008

Judge not the Free Hugs Guy, who brings smiles to the face of Cleveland

Posted by on Mon, Apr 28, 2008 at 5:11 AM

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Affection at a price you can afford.
Anybody who’s spent time at a liberal-arts college knows the Free Hugs Guy. He’s the character who walks around offering hugs to all who pass – at least when he’s not pursuing his other interests, which include juggling, spelunking, and majoring in decorative beading. He’s almost as ubiquitous on campuses as the World of Warcraft Shut-Ins and the Holier-Than-Thou Capoeira Crew. But this is Cleveland—a dead-steel town (which makes us manlier than live-steel towns) where a man’s sexual orientation will be questioned if he admits to ever having tried sorbet. That’s why C-Notes, stumbling out of the Blind Pig after having just smashed a PBR can on our head last Saturday afternoon, was a bit taken aback by the sight of a Free Hugs Guy trolling West 9th…. He was wearing the Official Free Hugs Guy uniform — long hair, sheer t-shirt, cargo pants, and sandals—and hauling a large sign reading, well, “Free Hugs.” The streets were completely empty of people, and he looked lonely and aimless. It seems that even the complimentary-embrace industry has trouble attracting business in Downtown Cleveland. “You want a hug?” he asked. We politely declined. When he’s not offering hugs to strangers, it turns out he’s Alex Mitchell, a 22-year old cheese factory worker. His Saturday mission was the product of the Free Hugs Movement, spawned by Australian alt-rock band Sick Puppies. While C-Notes suddenly felt an urge to run fast and far away, we were determined to get to the meat of the situation. Namely: “Why?” “The whole idea is to make people smile,” said Mitchell. “There’s so much hate in the world.” Mitchell spent five hours that day, strolling downtown with his sign and regenerating random Clevelanders’ inner chi. He traversed Tower City and hit the Q just as drunk fans were streaming out after Game 1 against the Wizards. Luckily, the Cavs had just won, because being the Free Hugs Guy, as one might suspect, does not include health benefits. Which is why he stopped short at the West Bank: “I don’t go over to the West Side because there’s some dangerous people over there. Whenever I would see a person that looked shady, I would turn around.” Which, ironically, is probably how the “shady” people feel about Free Hugs Guy. But if you listen to Mitchell, he’d love a vicious beatdown — as long as the attackers were enjoying themselves. “It doesn’t even really matter if you give me a hug or not,” he says. “Some people laugh at me, some poke fun. But the point is, I got them to smile anyway.” A bit superior perhaps, but it’s hard to find fault with a guy so into his mission that he’d embrace Hitler if given the chance. – Gus Garcia-Roberts

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