Army of Lovers

And they’re hoping you won’t yell at them for stopping you in the street.

Erika Anderson has always loved Valentine’s Day cards. One year as a kid in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she missed her bus stop because she was so engrossed in the cards she’d received from her classmates; she ended up at the bus depot, sobbing and alone. But that’s been no deterrent—now a New York City resident of five years, she’s on a mission to spread Valentine’s wishes to total strangers, and she’s assembled an “Army of Lovers” to help her do so.

“I just think we live in an age of alienation,” Anderson tells CityLab. “In cities, in particular, it always feels like a really odd contrast to be surrounded by so many people—thousands, millions—and yet why aren’t we connecting with each other?”

Born on a commune in Tennessee, Anderson quips that this is her version of free love. “To me, it’s a day when we can recognize the humanity in someone else we don’t know—just for a moment—and it’s on a day when people are perhaps more likely to feel lonely,” she explains.

The impetus came in 2013 when she was dating someone but not really sure what the status of the relationship was. “I was like, you know what, I’m not even getting in touch with that dude today,” she says. Anderson spotted premade Hello Kitty cards at a drugstore, wrote “to you, from me” on each one, and handed them out along her morning commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

The following year, Anderson’s cousin encouraged her to ask friends to join in, so she hosted her first Valentine’s crafting party in her Brooklyn apartment. Word quickly got out, and before she knew it, Anderson had all kinds of people—strangers around the world—asking how they could join her Army of Lovers. Last year, she hosted a public crafting party at her co-working space on the Lower East Side. This year, she’s holding another one on February 6, and partnering with Catholic Charities to enlist more volunteers. She’ll also mail out two cards to anyone who gives her their address—one for them, and a blank one to give out to a stranger.

People from all walks of life—“religious people, people in the army, moms in Pennsylvania”—join in, Anderson says. Folks who were bored, who love crafting, who had been through a terrible break-up, or who just wanted something different to do showed up to the crafting party.

At the same time, it can be nearly impossible to give things away to New Yorkers, who are conditioned to be instinctively distrustful of, well, everyone. But especially people handing things out on the street—are they religious zealots? Struggling comedians? Those damn makeup con artists? But somehow the Army of Lovers seems to break down that barrier. Sure, some people said “no thank you” or simply sped up rather than take a card. But for the most part, Anderson and her army have been met with unbridled enthusiasm. People have given her hugs, kisses on the cheek, and asked for extra cards they can hand out.

(Army of Lovers)

Beowulf Sheehan, a photographer, remembers passing out Valentines with Anderson in Grand Central last year, when she gave some to a group of military police standing guard. “It was great to see these guys lose their stonewall faces and light up,” he tells CityLab. They also handed cards to a couple taking wedding photos, homeless people, and a tween tour group from the U.K.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows, though. Anderson was distributing cards in an Apple store, to the excitement of the customers, when she was asked to leave. She tried to offer the security guard a Valentine, but he wasn’t amused.

Folks are participating all over, from San Francisco to Nairobi. The poet and psychologist Lucy Griffith found out about Army of Lovers via Instagram and organized a craft party with her writer’s group in Comfort, Texas. “Love was our power, glue guns our weapons!” she recalls. Griffith handed them to strangers at all of her usual haunts and says that, with the exception of one man who refused, “everyone else seemed genuinely touched.”

Emily Lindin, the Bay Area-based author and founder of the UnSlut Project, also adopted the project. Last year in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, she handed out handmade cards at Bay Area farmers’ markets. “I was a little nervous to go around interacting with strangers,” she says, “but it was a positive experience every time. A couple of times, people kind of lined up to get one from me.”

Anderson is the first to admit that the project is a little hokey, and she doesn’t care. “So it’s cheesy and ridiculous,” she says. “Maybe I am just cheesy and ridiculous, and I just have to accept that.”

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