Better known as the “Free Hugs Guy,” Jermaine Himmelstein has been an appreciated and irksome presence in Washington Square Park in recent years. Last month, the tensions many felt that came along with his “Free Hugs” campaigns — including threatening and sexual remarks — came to a head when he was arrested for hurling a soda can at a woman who refused him a hug. Now, more information on Himmelstein has emerged in a story from the Times. The case turns out to not be so simple as Hugs Guy Gone Wild.
Himmelstein, 21-years-old, lives with his parents in the Jefferson Houses in East Harlem. As it turns out, they had no clue that their son spent his days giving out free hugs, believing him to be with friends. “This is not what I wanted for my son,” his mother said. “We don’t condone this.” Himmelstein expressed some remorse for last month’s assault, saying “I’m a little bit disappointed in me.” But he had no problem detailing the actions that landed him in jail:
“She says, ‘I have a boyfriend,’ and this and that,” Mr. Himmelstein recalled in the park this week. “Thinking I’m desperate, having no friends,” he became upset, he said. “I went and got a can out of the trash and filled it with water and I marched right back to her and threw it right in her face until her face was swollen,” he said. “Then I got a cup of ice coffee and I threw it at her.”
His mother, who first felt concerned after her always-punctual son didn’t return home by his usual 8:30pm, was more apologetic. She explained that her son is autistic, and graduated from Washington Irving High School last June at 20-years-old. “I’m not going to stand for this for life. I’ve got him hooked up with computer school. We’ll find a way,” she said. “Please tell every woman in America: I apologize. Any woman walking through that park, I apologize.”
Part of the appeal of living in New York is the vibrant cast of characters we encounter every day on our streets and in our parks, from performers to beggars and everything in between. All New Yorkers know to be wary of strangers on the street; we know that, like Himmelstein’s problematic “Free Hugs” campaign, anyone can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.Himmelstein’s story serves as a reminder that every person you pass comes from someplace, has a mom and a dad, can be ready to greet you with a smile or ready to snap.