Growing accustomed to life at the occupation takes time. Yesterday morning, James Gardner awoke at four to the sounds of a drunk man cursing, and before he finishes that story, a quick fight starts, a blade is removed from a pocket and its user is evicted from the camp in less time than it takes to speak the numbers "911." Those who, like Gardner, spent last night in the snow, have quickly learned to take care of themselves -- though most already knew how.
Gardner's winter focus seems to be on a succession of layers that travels from a knit beanie through a black jacket, its left arm encircled in orange duct tape for solidarity, to the set of Hot Hands he's squeezing. The red FC Barcelona scarf around his neck still has its tag on, as though someone donated it in a hurry when he heard the weather forecast. In the two weeks and two days that Gardner has occupied Civic Center Park, this last one was his coldest night yet.
"At first, this was all just a camping spot," the 27-year-old says. He moved here with a friend, now a fellow occupier, and her puppy, a popular brown ball named Dirty Red. "But the second I got here I felt déjà vu, like I had already been here, though I've never come to Colorado in my life. There seems to be a lack of god in this city, and I wanted to reach out and help people."
But though he doesn't acknowledge it directly, Gardner's time here has helped him help himself. Gardner's formative years are full of smallish-town strife spent, for the most part, in Anderson, Indiana. His earliest years developed in a series of group homes because his mother couldn't meet the needs of her young wild child. The results are betrayed in his criminal record, which includes two misdemeanors before age 22, and a marriage that failed early.
"I was the best husband I could be, but I married for all the wrong reasons," Gardner says. "Most women would probably slap me for admitting this, but I just wanted to feel what it was like, to be a husband and have that role and be loved. But I realize now that I didn't do it for her -- or for me, for the best for either of us, really."
Gardner made it through eleventh grade before he left the special education classes he was placed in for ADHD and the peers who mocked him with aggressive consistency. In high school, he clung to a cheerleader named Trish as long as he could before moving on to a series of unassociated jobs: McDonald's, yard work and a stint in a puzzle factory in Tipton, Indiana, where he trimmed the edges off of Christmas scenes, Elvis's face and the Coca-Cola logo.
This work history has informed his Occupy Denver role in a unique way: When his jobs didn't protect him or provide for him, he looked to himself for help. "At McDonald's, one of my coworkers threatened to stuff my face in the grease fryer, and I reported it to my manager for safety," Gardner says, speaking quickly, as though he's afraid you'll stop listening to him at any pause. "He didn't help me or value me or protect me, and the entire thing was so corporate. I threw my hat at him and walked out."
Gardner's eccentricity is of the friendly variety, betrayed in small lessons he's learned in the sixteen days he has occupied Denver: lessons about personal space ("You can break someone's aura"), about civil disobedience ("seeing the city waste its money every day on police force here"), winter ("I got my Polar Bear patch in Boy Scouts") and personal growth:
"The other day I remembered this time four hookers tried to beat me up at a truck stop in Gary, Indiana, and I used what I learned to help with conflict resolution with others here," he says.
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It's a strange lesson, sure, but many at the occupation are. He takes a breath and follows it up, again quickly, with an important detail.
"Male hookers, that is."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver: Did unnamed 2nd assaulter knock over cop on motorcycle? (VIDEO)."