At about 9:37 this morning, Matthew Messina Velasquez finds himself one half of a strange, if typical, conversation about the occupation. "So, what are you guys doing?" a stranger in a Yankees cap asks at Occupy Denver's front desk.
"Protesting what? Are you for Bush?"
From there, the answers grow longer, later expanding to cover the stranger's tax returns and the fact that none of his children remember how to speak Spanish before veering dangerously close to a discussion about "the old days." In between folding blankets, accepting donations and dishing out servings of toothpaste and other goods, this is how Velasquez will spend most of his morning. When it's time for the conversation to end, it's Velasquez's turn: "At least spread the word about the spirit of the place," he reminds the man, who nods.
Today that spirit is wild. In the same hour, one woman asks him how to get back to Oregon ("On a Greyhound," he suggests kindly), another asks for a cigarette ("Ask someone who's smoking"), one man suggests building a fire ("Completely illegal") and another woman reports two crack deals she saw on the corner walking in ("We're trying to come up with beneficial solutions, but this is Broadway and Colfax").
Saturday marked his three-week anniversary with the occupation, but his eventual birth into the movement occurred more finally on the day the police first raided the camp. Velasquez, who knew he would be arrested, was released the following day at 5 p.m., showered, made it to his job as a sushi chef and then decided to give up that job.
"I was just starting to feel confident in my technique. It's not easy to cut up all that fish," he jokes before continuing on a more serious note. "This place is maddening. It's the craziest lunacy, people scraping at the fucking cages, but it's ours."
Now 25, Velasquez opted out of a college experience after a handful of classes because of the financial experience that accompanies it. He had previously been drawn to political activism but had yet to make the jump until he discovered the occupation, the first movement he thinks has a chance of growth and success. Occasionally, Velasquez corrects himself while he's speaking, changing his pronouns from "we" to "I."
"I need to get in the habit of speaking for myself, not the group," he says. "The occupation is a collective, but it's also very personal. When you're eating and talking and going to sleep on the sidewalk with other people, despite all the conditions that aren't in our favor -- if that's all it is and it ends tonight, we've all learned something valuable from this movement."
Velasquez's decision to devote himself to the occupation translates in large part to a series of increasingly ambitious projects, a list that most recently includes a recycling and composting program. But the actual devotion process came easier than expected: The nine-month lease for his Capitol Hill apartment ends in November, at which point he will move whatever belongings he plans to keep to the group's site.
"I have a place to sleep and free food, and I don't need anything else," he says, pulling on his llama-printed beanie. "I've had everything else, and it's time to try something different. If I wake up in the morning tomorrow on the street, I don't owe anyone anything. There's freedom in that."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver clashes with police over the creation of a cardboard structure (PHOTOS)."
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