Childhood

What Can Giving Valentines to Strangers Teach You About Love?


Wanting to recapture the joy she felt in Valentine’s Day, the writer took to the streets armed with heart-covered cards. And inadvertently created a movement.



February 14, 1986 was the best day of elementary school—and also the worst. I went to a hippie private school where we called our teachers by their first name. That week, Bonnie had told us to bring Valentine’s Day cards for our entire first-grade class. We couldn’t participate (or “sarpisitate,” as I said then) unless we had a card for every student. We all obliged—I tossed my cards at my classmates with glee. But there was a catch: We were not allowed to look at our box of Valentine’s Day cards until we got home.

As Bonnie repeated the rule throughout the day, I felt like a sad puppy. All those cards—just out of reach! With so many stickers! But love would have to wait. Impulse control was never my area of expertise, and I passed most of the day wondering what was written on all those valentines. Did Jason Hendrix love me? He had chased me around the room with a pair of safety scissors. And he didn’t seem to mind all those hearts on my Care Bears lunch box, or my habit of cutting off all my hair. What if I gave him my juice box? Would that make me look desperate? Or could that be the start of something beautiful?  

The end of the day came, and together with my older sisters, I boarded the giant yellow bus that smelled like stomachaches. We shared the bus with our rival school, Gagi. The kids from Gagi would taunt us weirdos from Kazoo School with actual kazoos, and we would shout, “Gag me!” because that’s what we said back in the ’80s. But this was a taunt-free day, and I scampered into a seat all by myself so I could be alone with all this love. Like the opposite of Pandora’s box, it released a bounty of valentines onto my lap—one gift, two gifts, three gifts, four. They kept on coming.

As far as I recall, Jason Hendrix didn’t express his love and devotion via paper doily, but it didn’t matter. I was mesmerized by the sweet kapow of one note after another—high on heart-shaped cut outs, dreaming the afternoon away. Which was all well and good until the bus stopped moving. I looked up. Everyone was gone. The driver stood to leave. My legs didn’t reach the floor, and my head didn’t peek above the seat, so she hadn’t seen me all the way in the back. I burst into tears. I was never going to see my parents again.

The driver was on her way into the wilds of the bus depot, but my screechy cry stopped her. I don’t know if I even knew my address. I probably just said I wanted to go home, which she likely already knew. When I did make it home—through some combination of magic and sorcery—the scene was not quite bucolic. My sisters felt guilty for not getting me off the bus, and my dad was upset to have temporarily lost a 6-year-old somewhere in the bus system. All in all, a wonderful night of guilt and redemption.

Two years ago, I had hundreds of Hello Kitty valentines spread out before me in the Brooklyn brownstone I call home. It was February 14, late morning, and I decided to make all of New York my elementary school classroom—to follow Bonnie’s rules and give everyone a valentine. I wanted to bring that feeling I felt on the bus, when I was lost in a flurry of paper hearts, to the people I met on my commute. Even though I was 33, divorced, with no children or even a dog to my name, I had something to give, even if it was only a piece of paper decorated with expressionless kitties. 

After putting all the pieces together, addressing each card “to you” “from me,” I packed them up in my laptop bag and headed out onto Dean Street. There was only one guy on my block. I walked up to him and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and handed him a card. He yipped. Hello Kitty and I had taken him by surprise. And then … he told me to have a great day. A fabulous day. The best day. 

I kept going, handing them out here and there as I walked to the train. I gave myself a few rules: Don’t chase anyone down, practice gender parity, accept no for an answer. One of my neighbors was scowling on Nostrand, but when I gave him a card, his scowl lightened to a grimace, and I thought, This is an improvement. As I leaned down to hand a card to a homeless man curled up by the entrance to the A train, I thought, You fucking idiot, this man wants a home, not a card. But I countered that thought with, All I can do right now is see him. So I saw him, and gave him a valentine. It took me a bit to work up the nerve to hand them out on the subway, but I did. Only one person refused. Almost everyone was smiling at Hello Kitty. I sprinkled the cards throughout my day. To musicians on the subway platform. To passersby. To everyone who strolled through my co-working space.

When I got on a train that evening, the car was so packed that I could barely move—body to body in some sort of subway Jenga. But I managed to reach into my bag to pull out the remaining valentines. “I was thinking about you this morning,” I said to two ladies who appeared to be friends, and to a super-tall dude. “This is the only valentine I’ll get all day!” he told me. 

A year later, I invited friends to join me in my valentine-giving crusade. I hosted a crafting party and so my “Army of Lovers” was born. We got some attention on BuzzFeed, New York Daily News, and even Good Morning America. The next thing I knew, people across North America wanted to enlist. That anyone would care about a crafting party in Brooklyn, and the valentines that came out of it, was beyond my wildest dreams. I scrolled through the messages from so many strangers after the party and cried on the floor, overwhelmed by the Pandora love box I opened so many years ago. Which is what I want—for everyone to feel that sense of elation that I felt on the bus in first grade when I saw that love was possible. That it could be real and tangible and true.

 

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