Longform

For those living off the grid, the world is full of free stuff — and freedom

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Joshua does not feel guilty about the thousands of dollars he's stolen.

"Taking money from the government — is that stealing? Is that wrong? I don't think so," he says. "I don't think we should have to work hard, making other people money, just to have food and a roof over our head. Some people work for themselves, and that's different. But the kinds of jobs that a college degree gets you — I don't see the value in that."

Despite having a master's in mathematics from the University of Colorado at Boulder — a degree that can net the recipient a job that pays $90,000 a year — Joshua lives on only a few hundred dollars a month and gets most of his meals out of a dumpster. He lives in a community warehouse space he founded with a few friends in Denver's Art District on Santa Fe, a place where they live and host music shows and art openings. (Joshua requested that neither the address of the space nor his last name be published.)

Joshua is sitting in that space now, sipping a cup of tea, his dreadlocks pulled back in giant pigtails, while he explains his relatively newfound philosophy on life, a worldview that stands in stark contrast to the one he held a few years ago. A section in the corner of the warehouse marked "Free Store" is filled with clothing, books, electronics and bicycle parts. Gallons of beer are brewing around the corner, dozens of bicycles are locked outside, and behind him sits a refrigerator filled with food discarded by various businesses around Denver or found in dumpsters. "You can dumpster any kind of produce," says Joshua. "Furniture, clothes, beer, bike parts, lumber — anything, really. If the food smells bad, don't eat it — but people who dumpster typically have stronger stomachs than most people."

Stronger stomachs, and stronger wills. "When I say 'radical community,' I'm talking about people who are enjoying their lives, people who are only doing what they want with their time," he explains. "Mainstream society hooks people with the belief that you're not successful unless you own a house and a car, supporting a family on your own. People are encouraged to not live as a community. It's selfish. And it's weird that not being selfish is a radical idea.... 'Weird' people are drawn to this community because they're free to be who they want to be."

As Joshua describes the culture he's now submersed in, young people wearing patched jeans and homemade tattoos file in and out of the space, carrying boxes of food, music equipment and large paintings. A pay-what-you-can show will be starting in a few hours, when a few touring bands will hopefully collect enough gas money to get to the next city, and Joshua's venue will glean a few bucks from serving food to help pay the rent and keep the lights on. He has an informal lease agreement with the landlord, which keeps Joshua's name out of any database where he could be tracked down by creditors.

"I grew up watching my parents struggle, being miserable," Joshua recalls. "My dad was a manager in a warehouse, and also worked with computers for ten years. He hated it. But he had bills. He had his mortgage, car insurance, cable bill. He had the idea that you need all these things for a happy family and to feel successful. He's been unemployed for four years, and it seems like he was less happy when he had a job, just being exhausted all the time, not wanting to go to work. He never went to college — so I went to college thinking I could avoid all that."

Growing up in the Seattle area in the late '70s and '80s, Joshua displayed a strong interest in mathematics at a young age. "I saw math as puzzles or games, and I really enjoyed it," he says. "I loved the process, figuring out little tricks for arithmetic. I could just do it faster and easier than most people around me. I've also always been ADD, and math was one of the only things I could really focus on." Impressing his teachers from elementary through high school with his adeptness with numbers, Joshua was encouraged to pursue higher education in the field of math.

Coming from several generations of laborers, Joshua would not only be the first in his family to attend college, but he would do so in a field at the top of the academic ladder. After watching his father's constant struggles with unexpected layoffs from low-wage jobs he hated, Joshua assumed a college degree would lead to a career filled with respect, security and creative fulfillment. So before he graduated from Evergreen State College in Washington, he took the GRE math test — scoring in the 89th percentile globally — and then enrolled in CU-Boulder's graduate program in mathematics. He was at the head of his class, and his professors had high hopes for a student with so much passion and ability.

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Josiah Hesse