She Wanted to Help Strangers. Would They Take Her Up on It?

On an overcast morning in April, Bianca Giaever was anxiously loitering outside the Union Square subway station. She scanned the New Yorkers rushing along on their weekday commutes and tried to psych herself up to go talk to them.

She was dressed rather noticeably, and perhaps slightly humiliatingly, in a red jumpsuit and a white sandwich board she had assembled the night before, writing the words “FREE HELP” in red marker.

It was the first day of a project by Ms. Giaever, 34, a filmmaker and radio producer whose work, inspired by performance artists like Sophie Calle and Tehching Hsieh, often involves personal journeys and interactions with strangers. She planned to offer no-strings-attached assistance to whomever she could, for about a month or so. No ask would be too small, thankless or absurd — “ANYTHING! (Except sex!)” she noted wryly on the business cards she printed up.

While seemingly straightforward, her mission had already opened up plenty of room for uncertainty. Would the strangers in this supposedly cold and impersonal city accept her help? And if they did, how much could she really help them? Over the course of the four days I spent with Ms. Giaever, things would get more complicated. But at the moment, she was focused only on finding her first client.

“Partly the motivation is not feeling helpful in my day-to-day life,” Ms. Giaever toldmeas she made a lap through Union Square. Helping people, she said, was not her natural instinct: “I feel guilty about that. So I feel like I needed a project to push me to be more generous.”

At first, most passers-by ignored her. A few smirked or snapped furtive photos with their phones. That may have been because of the sandwich board — or because of the small camera crew following her around to document the project.

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