I left work later than usual Monday night and walked toward the Civic Center transit station along a deserted stretch usually clogged with cars and pedestrians.
I crossed the street to avoid a wild-haired man whose stare unnerved me. I sped up as I passed a hunched figure shrouded in blankets, guarding a shopping cart.
Downtown at night — for all its pricey lofts and new yoga spots — is still a work in progress. The disheveled and dispossessed reclaim their space when the commuters clear out.
I didn't feel scared walking those three blocks, but I did breathe more easily once I'd made my way down the stairs, through the turnstile and onto the brightly lit platform to wait for the Red Line train.
I'd plopped down on a bench to read the paper when I noticed a man ambling toward me. Dark-haired, with a neat mustache and pleasant smile, he was carrying a few flimsy shopping bags. Only his heavy parka — on a sweltering day — hinted that something might be off.
I made the mistake of meeting his eyes; that unleashed a string of questions: Where are you going? How was your day? Why do you look so tired?
He moved toward me and leaned in. "You look like you need a hug," he said. He wrapped his arms around me — not so tight that I couldn't break free, but hard enough that my cheek pressed against his soiled and smelly jacket.
I didn't know what to think.
I reached around and patted his back as you might a child's. Then I pulled away and mumbled a "thank you" that I hoped he would perceive as "goodbye."
I went back to reading, and he went back to staring. "Can I have your number?" he asked. I said no, but he persisted. "Can I give you mine?"
He leaned over and tried to hug me again. I stiffened this time and drew back. I shook my head, turned away, and he finally wandered off.
When the train pulled in and I lined up to board, he met me at the door. He pressed a piece of paper into my hand: "Jose," it said, in neat handwriting, above a phone number. I shoved it in my purse and hurried into the crowded car without looking at him.
On the way home, my body itched, and my throat felt tight.
I never want to be that woman who clutches her purse a little tighter when a black man walks by. I want to be nice, not judgey.
I know he's not the only guy who's slipped a phone number to someone he'd like to know. And I often chat up strangers in public and greet acquaintances with hugs.
So why did this feel so uncomfortable? Maybe because it's hard to know whether someone is dangerously unbalanced or just socially inappropriate.
On my drive from the station, I called my oldest daughter — the cautious, responsible one. She couldn't believe I'd been so reckless, that I'd so cavalierly let that man invade my space. Our conversation conjured up the risks: I could have been pickpocketed, contracted the measles or been stabbed.
At home, my middle daughter insisted that I'd done nothing wrong. Maybe the man had had a hard day and really needed a hug. Maybe submitting to his embrace was a way to practice compassion.
And maybe a long hot shower was all I needed to move on.
By the time my youngest daughter called, I'd stopped itching but hadn't managed to shake the feeling that I had done something wrong: It was risky to accept his hug. It was rude to run him off.
She's accustomed to dilemmas like mine. She lives in San Francisco on a dicey stretch of Market Street crowded with vagrants and addicts. Her daily routine requires a lot of fending off and avoiding. She relies perpetually on split-second assessments: who's threatening, who's just loud and annoying, who's off their meds today.
Trying to stay on the safe side of that shifting line is emotionally exhausting. You want to be nice, but not too nice, she said.
Her advice? Wear headphones or earbuds in public, even if they are not connected to anything. The sight is an isolating force that blocks social overtures. They create a space that most strangers know not to breach.
They give you permission to ignore someone — and not feel guilty for it.
I held on to Jose's number for several days before I decided to call. No one answered the first few times. Truthfully, I was grateful. I didn't know what I'd ask or how I'd explain my curiosity about our brief encounter.
On Friday morning, Jose picked up, sounding pleasant and sane. "I'm the woman you met at the Red Line station downtown," I said. He was silent, so I babbled on: "You wanted a hug. I'd had a long day. You gave me your phone number."
"Yes," he said brightly. "And you called!"
I asked, as delicately as I could, why he'd insisted that I take his number.
"Why?" he repeated. "To make friends." He said it slowly, like a question, his voice rising on the word "friends."
I felt both relieved and embarrassed. There was nothing dark or complicated about what Jose had done. He'd reached out to a person who had indeed needed a hug that night.
I thanked him and said that maybe I would call again. "Yes!" he said. "Can I have your number?"
I wished him a wonderful day and hung up gently.