A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, March 31, 2014

Touch: Professional cuddle in Financial District

It’s 9.30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and I am squeezing through the commuter crowds on my way to get professionally cuddled. In my tote bag is a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush, as I’ve been instructed to wear comfortable clothes and to have fresh breath.

Say what? Well might you ask. Some background: The woman I am meeting is named Alison, and her company, Cuddle U, touts the benefits of “nurturing touch therapy”: lower blood pressure, higher serotonin levels, a stronger immune system. She also claims that “love is touch”—that we are hardwired from birth to thrive from human contact. CuddleU is one among a growing roster of professional cuddling businesses, among them BeSnuggled, in London, Cuddle Up to Me, in Portland, Oregon, and the Snuggery, in Rochester, New York. All are explicitly nonsexual and have strict behavior guidelines. Most of Alison’s clients seek out CuddleU because they are undergoing stressful life experiences, because they not did not receive adequate nurturing in their childhoods, or because they don’t have someone in their present lives to hold them compassionately. Most are male; Alison describes her cuddling style as “motherly.” As my visit was purely experiential, and I did not fit into any of those categories, I was a different sort of client (and told her as much).

New Yorkers receive intense human contact daily, as my commute to CuddleU reminded me. But intentional, loving touch is, of course, quite different: as we know all too well from the subway, accidental contact between strangers often ends badly. How many people move to New York and immediately open the doors of their apartments, not to mention their own bed covers, to strangers? Alison started CuddleU last November, after moving here from California. She discovered the human yearning for nurturing touch—and her aptitude for providing it--through her experiences working in a convalescent home. 

I ring the doorbell and Alison answers, wearing yoga pants and a purple V-neck T-shirt. She gives me a brief hug—nothing too “cuddly” or strange. We exchange a few pleasantries. Her studio apartment—where she also lives—is spare and immaculate. I preview the places where I will soon be cuddling: a white shag rug, a bed with neatly folded comforter and a box of tissues is perched beside it. New-age music plays, mingling with the rumble of the West Side Highway. After I change, I find her waiting on the couch; she pats the seat next to her. We chat for a little bit: we could be any two strangers getting to know each other (except that I am in my pajamas). 

 Finally she says, “So, want to cuddle?” I reply, “Sure?” She sets a timer and draws the blinds. We start by sitting side by side. Needless to say, it is strange to be in my familiar striped pajamas, resting my head on a stranger’s shoulder, and to have her stroking my hair and hand, the workday world spinning outside. I try to imagine it as a massage, which, if you think about it, is just as odd, just more culturally accepted.

We don’t talk. I hope I am clean enough; I can smell her brushed-after-coffee breath and a not-unpleasant lotion smell. When my neck gets a crick, I ask if we can try the carpet. She brings over some pillows and lies down next to me, spooning me with the comforter over us. There’s a zing of static as we settle in, and we chuckle, which breaks the strangeness. Just as I am becoming nervous about drooling on her pillow, she says, “It’s okay to drool; everyone does.” She must see it all, I think. I can see how this might feel comforting—a “next-best thing”--for someone who doesn’t have a regular nurturing connection in their lives, but I can’t help comparing it to the cuddling I receive regularly at home. 

My arm starts to fall asleep so we switch to the bed—her most popular cuddling spot --and I try putting my head on her chest and she drapes my arm across her body. My mind wanders. A few days ago my son cut his lip on some ice and I cradled him in almost the same position; I could feel his body relaxing into mine as we breathed together and his cries subsided; our energy was intrinsically connected. Despite the intimacy of the situation, she manages to maintain an air of professionalism, and I feel completely safe. Safe, but the absence of emotion casts the whole experience in a strange light.

Alison suggests a forehead-to-forehead position, creating a heart shape between us. This is intense, breath-wise, and because we are looking at each other directly. I decide to talk, which eases the awkwardness—for me, anyway—and find that she’s very easy to talk to, and wish I had done this earlier. The timer goes off. With some relief, I change into my street clothes and pay her eighty dollars via PayPal. 

Outside her building, an orange-striped ConEdison chimney spouts steam. Plastered to it is a sign: “Nothing sometimes feels like everything.” This makes me think of the disconnect that sometimes happens between sense and meaning: that you can have the sensory experience but miss the meaning—or have the meaning without a direct sensory experience, such the knowledge of being connected to someone even from afar. That said, it makes me smile to think that in New York, you really can find anything you need. 


Anonymous said...

Terrific account. Really fascinating. Thank you for another remarkable blog entry. Another hidden corner of NYC come to life.


twinkle said...

Amazing story, Caitlin. You are such a trooper!

Anonymous said...

i wish i knew what more to say, but all i can offer is an inarticulate . . . "hmmmmmm." very interesting.\