Today, racing through Pitt Street Mall in the Sydney CBD, to meet up with my friend, Wendy, for lunch, I happened to notice the familiar sign of the "FREE HUGS" guys. It was the first time I'd noticed the sign in about a year - I'd assumed they don't stay as late these days. I also noted that the Asian man holding the sign wasn't the regular "FREE HUGS" guy - perhaps the original guy was overseas again? - but I didn't think too much of it as my watch was closing in on 1.00pm and so I quickened my pace.
As you know, I'm in the city every Thursday, usually early evening, doing the rounds of my favourite book, comic, collectibles, CD and DVD shops, a ritual I've done almost every Thursday night since 1977, when I was at the Guild Teachers College, Ultimo. After classes at college I'd often walk all the way up to the CBD from the old Grace Bros. building at Broadway, usually all the way to Circular Quay, dropping into all my special and secret haunts along the way. (So many of the old second hand bookshops have gone, of course...)
Four years ago, at about 6pm, I noticed a neatly-dressed guy in Pitt Street Mall, holding a large sign advertising "FREE HUGS". He wasn't busking - there was no hat or bowl on the ground for people to toss money into - he was just giving out free hugs.
It was a puzzling scene and I recall watching him for quite a few minutes - he was catching quite a few hugs - and I was probably thinking, "If the idea is to frisk (and mug) people while hugging them, he's pretty blatant about it." I remember both of my hands were barely holding several bags of packages and, knowing me, I probably had more purchases stuffed in my backpack, so I decided to just toss him a smile as I passed, and declined any attempt to give or receive a hug.
Now, it's not as if it's the weirdest thing I've seen in the mall. There are always unusual buskers to be found there - singers, musicians, jugglers, silver robots, living statues - and even a young guy who used to dress up as a very realistic nodding donkey. One cold winter's night in 2003, there were even numerous almost-naked young men, handcuffed to poles as faux Buck's Night grooms, to advertise the premiere night of "American Pie: The Wedding"!
Eventually, the "FREE HUGS" guy and his pals had become a Sydney institution: someone to swap a smile with every so often, but I never did collect my free hug. A few years ago, a great Youtube music clip appeared online of the original guy - he calls himself Juan Mann. (Get it?)
The Youtube clip that stepped up Juan's notoriety
From that publicity, Juan managed to attract the attention of "GMA" (not "Good Morning Australia", but "Good Morning America"!), and then... Oprah Winfrey! (Not to mention the Sydney City Council, who tried to close down his "operation" because he didn't fit the standard profile of a busker.) I remember seeing the Oprah clips, and the petition fuss, on the nightly news, and being impressed that his little gesture of humanity had paid off in such an abundance of good will and positivity, but I still didn't give it much thought. According to Google, I missed his appearance on Andrew Denton's "Enough Rope".
The Free Hugs Campaign on TEN News, featuring Juan Mann and band, Sick Puppies
Well, after lunch, Wendy and I were hurrying back to her office. The Asian man was still soliciting "FREE HUGS" a few metres away, but suddenly Wendy was greeting a friend and chatting away as if completing a conversation from a previous day. The distinctive velvet jacket and ponytail on her friend should have clued me in. We were talking with the Juan Mann!
Well, I finally got my hug today! And it was cool that Juan seemed just like an old friend - he's already become such a familiar part of my Thursdays. Wendy was saying that Juan told her a few days ago that he was celebrating the fourth anniversary of his "FREE HUGS" campaign. I'm in awe. And tonight, trawling through all the Internet gossip about the campaign, I feel great!
Shimon Moore and Sick Puppies, who created the Free Hugs Campaign video