This Valentine's Day, one DePaul student is on a mission to warm up Chicago from the inside, one winter-hardened soul at a time. With his arms.
"Sometimes we lose the physical intimacy of contact as we go about our daily lives and sometimes it's just a reminder that we're humans," said 20-year-old David Melia. "We need physical interaction with each other."
The laid-back Lincoln Park resident bills himself as a professional free hugger, a man who goes around the city soothing strangers' souls by enveloping them in an embrace.
"When I'm standing downtown or walking down the street, people come and approach me to give me a hug," he said. "There's a lot of people who really need a hug that day. They might be having a bad day but it turns their day around."
Melia, who claims to share an average of about 50 hugs per day, says he decided to become a professional free hugger six years ago after seeing some teenagers giving free hugs outside a movie theater in Downers Grove.
Since then, he's spread a little sunshine to approximately 50,000 strangers and written a book about hugging.
"Two chapters I wrote for a class at DePaul the fall quarter of my freshman year, then over the six-week long winter break, I finished up writing it," he said. "The layout of the book is the first couple chapters are the different types of hugs that there are and different variations to the different types of hugs that you can have."
Proceeds from the book, combined with the success he had running a side business selling goods made out of duct tape, helped him finance a cross-country free hugging tour.
"Even though I didn't give as many hugs as I would've liked during that time, I did meet a lot of really cool and awesome people," he said. "I learned a lot about myself and what free hugging really is."
Lest you think he wanders around randomly surprising strangers with a quick snuggle, you'd be wrong. The key, he says, is in the advertising, which comes in the form of his wardrobe.
While some free huggers merely wear a cardboard sign, Melia has gone to great lengths to make it known he wants to hug you--yes, you.
"I have four or five T-shirts, two sweatshirts, a stitched hat with a ‘Free Hugs' patch on it, a nice dress shirt with ‘Free Hugs' stitched on it," he said. "I also have an Adidas jacket, like a warmup jacket for soccer that I have 'Free Hugs' stitched onto as well."
But while the basic premise of a hug is fairly simple—two people wrapping their arms around one another, Melia is quick to stress that no two hugs are the same.
"There's a running jump hug, there's a spin hug," he said. "The traditional hug can be done with one person having both arms over and one having both arms under so the over-under approach. There's the cross approach, left arm over approach, different things like that."
But as with any form of interpersonal interaction, there is etiquette involved as well.
Melia said the ideal hug is firm, not sloppy, and lasts between 2-3 seconds. The key to pulling off a successful hug is being able to read your hugging partner's body language so you're not letting go too soon or, worse, lingering.
"One of the cues for people to say it's enough is a pat on the back," he said. "It's a ‘I think this hug has been going on for long enough.' If you feel a little bit of a release, then you know it's time to let go. Sometimes when I know the hug should be longer is when I release, I don't feel them releasing so it might be a longer hug."
But despite the fact that he's made it his mission in life to go around hugging strangers, the man who describes himself as a professional hugger finds himself alone on Valentine's Day.
"I think hugging so many people, it's harder to really build a more intimate relationship," he said. "I get a lot of girls to hug me and there's a lot of guys that hug me but just taking that extra step and being in a relationship is something that I haven't been able to make happen."
Melia said his ideal valentine won't have any problem with the fact that he's hugging others. In a perfect world, she'll be the kind of person who joins him in spreading a little sunshine around Chicago.
"It would be someone who is really into hugs and understands the need for hugs and is willing to go out there and free hug with me on my journeys," he said.
So how's he going to make a living off this?
Melia said he's planning on selling Free Hugs T-shirts and books. He's also in the process of developing an app aimed at identifying the best cities for free hugging.
He does have a simple, free, piece of advice for anyone looking to up their hugging game this Valentine's Day.
"Realizing what each hugger likes and making sure you both are on the same page when giving a hug," he said. "Sometimes it's awkward if you really don't know how the other person is going to be hugging you. A nice firm hug is always better than a floppy little hug."
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