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I was never big on hugging unless it was the result of such a spontaneous feeling that it couldn't be avoided. I've dodged professional huggers adroitly in many situations, not always successfully. Being hugged against your will is a little like being taken prisoner by the invisible man. You didn't see it coming. In some countries, like France, you can't avoid hugging (and cheek-pecking) if you know what's good for you. The French hug and smooch even if they've known each other for only five minutes. Not to let yourself be hugged by a man, especially if you're a woman, is some kind of crime against nature in France. In other countries, like Italy or Romania, men lick women's hands, but that custom is quickly going out of fashion as the locals become increasingly Americanized. At the same time, Americans are becoming quickly Europeanized and hugging is becoming epidemic. In the old days, Americans would rather shoot you than hug you. A stiff handshake was about the most that Americans would proffer, suspecting, quite sensibly, that getting too close to anyone, man or woman, might be misconstrued as invasive and subject to retaliation. All that prudent behavior ended in the early '60s, when Italian lecherousness (via Frank Sinatra) became all the rage in New York and then spread around the East Coast as far as Philadelphia. In the mid- and later '60s, the hippies started hugging in California, and that phenomenon spread all the way to the Midwest, taking in even small areas of Detroit. The Sinatra-inspired hug was to the hippie hug what a martini was to a joint. Sinatra's soused dreamers hugged with sex in mind. A good hug might lead to a good kiss, a kiss to the sack. The hippies hugged to demonstrate the ubiquitous presence of Love Supreme manifest in all things, including your fellow creatures. The hippie hug was supposed to be an end in itself, but it sometimes led to kissing, licking, shredding jeans, and using love beads with Kama Sutra oil. In effect, all the hugs of the '60s were expressions of a lust for living that communicated the joy of Americans to be no longer at war or so poor that they suspected anyone trying to hug them of picking their pockets. In the decades of Suspicion (the '80s and '90s) the hug retreated to cultish occasions and gang-related ritual. Now, in the early 21st century, hugging has come back programmatic, like everything else. People hug ritually, as part of a 10-step program, or at the conclusion of a religious service. The word "hug" is usually written down on the handout, so everyone will know what's expected of him or her. For all that, Americans still hug rather stiffly, as if there was still something wrong with it. Part of it is a remnant of the old suspicion that huggers are secretly thieves, and part of it is just plain shyness. Touching someone was a big deal in the days when there were few people in North America, separated from each other by 40 acres and a mule. Back then, if you touched somebody you were as good as proposing to them. Even the mule, if you touched it the wrong way. That's how it is, but personally, I'm becoming a hugger. The older I get the more I hug people. It's not sexual (well, mostly), but I feel as if some affection can't hurt. People are getting older and frailer, I see them less often than I used to, and every hug could be the last one. I'd rather I or they went out with a hug than with an awkward handshake. I guess I've joined the softies.

Andrei Codrescu's new book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years Of Writing From the City.


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