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Staying occupied: inside the tent city

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By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / October 13, 2011

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At this point in the Occupy Boston protest, no one knows where the movement is going or when and how it will end. But one thing is clear: Its downtown encampment has become the city’s newest tourist attraction.

On a marvelously sunny Sunday afternoon, in a packed Dewey Square, Occupy Boston boasted a “faith and spiritual space’’ tent; a “radical cheerleading squad’’; numerous pro-the-people signs (“If you love America, stop hating Americans’’); and a “people’s mike’’ (one person speaks and the crowd repeats so all can hear).

The gawkers had seen Jon Stewart’s segments on the Occupy movement. They’d watched a New York police officer mace female Occupy Wall Street protesters on a video gone viral. They’d read that in Boston, nurses and students had joined the protest. So even before the Boston Police arrested more than 100 protesters early Tuesday morning, giving the movement additional publicity, many people decided it was time to check out for themselves the scene at Dewey Square, where more than 80 tents have been pitched since Sept. 30.

“It’s something good to do on a Sunday afternoon,’’ said Pat Walsh, 25, a healthcare-network employee from Everett, explaining why he and two pals had stopped by after pounding a few beers at a bar. “It makes it sound like I’m going to the zoo,’’ he added a bit sheepishly.

Hey, at least he wasn’t trying to provoke. That was the aim of the guy striding around in a McCain/Palin T-shirt, the equivalent of wearing a Yankees cap to Fenway.

“I enjoy heckling,’’ said Ron, a young off-duty military man from New Jersey who declined to give his last name. He noted cheerfully that his sartorial provocation had not gone unnoticed. “A guy said he wanted to smash my face against the pavement.’’

T-shirt aside, the vibe across from South Station was Zen - at least before the arrests earlier this week. There were people playing music in groups, discussing economic inequality, sitting in the lotus position, meditating. Some were working - in the logistics tent, or the medical tent, or the two food tents, which serves dishes like squash soup or oatmeal that have been made by volunteers and dropped off. They also offer no-cooking-required delicacies - Oreos, Fluffernutter sandwiches, apples, and canned beans. Lots of beans.

The Occupy Boston dress code is best described as casual, although a Tufts grad student had gone to the trouble of applying lipstick and putting on a lovely skirt, top, and shoes. “I know it makes an impression on society,’’ said Romina Green, 30, of Medford.

The protesters are a mix of students, the unemployed, the underemployed, and the working, who sometimes shower at a friend’s, or at nearby homeless shelters, before heading to jobs or interviews. Some spend a single night and then go home. Others have been camping out for more than a week.

A recent count put the number of nighttime residents at 220, said Eric Martin, a PhD student in physics at Harvard, and member of Occupy Boston’s logistics team. The population swells to as many as 1,000 during the day, he said, and can get even larger if there’s a big march.

As for the onlookers, most were supporters. On Sunday, along Atlantic Avenue, some passing motorists cheered and honked as enthusiastically as soccer fans whose country had just won the World Cup.

“I kind of feel like I’m in a fish bowl: ‘look at that weird person protesting,’ ’’ said Monica Kaufman, 37, of Dudley, as she sat in a chair on Atlantic Avenue, supporting a sign and also doing homework for a writing class.

A friend had dropped her off at the protest, and she got right to work. “I’m multitasking,’’ said Kaufman, uttering the word in perhaps the one place in the city where it actually seemed alien. To walk through the camp is to encounter people focused solely on their mission (whatever, precisely, it is) and to hear conversations that are so earnest and on-message they must have been scripted - except that as critics have noted, the Occupy movements seem to have no script, or precise demands.

Slight self-consciousness aside, Kaufman, a teacher looking for work, said joining the movement made her feel empowered. “So many people complain about politics,’’ she said, “but it’s better to do something.’’

And, better to sleep in your own tent, which she’d been planning to do, but space at Dewey Park was tight. “I think I might have to sleep with strange people,’’ she said grimacing a bit. “It’s a little out of my comfort zone.’’

A few steps away, there was an entire tent devoted just to making signs. There, Cody Taylor, 24, a metal fabricator from Hudson, was also slightly out of his comfort zone. He was writing a sign when a fellow protester corrected his spelling. “Your’’ should have been “you’re,’’ as in “Do you know how much you’re worth?’’

“I’ve been spoiled by spell check,’’ he said. “You don’t learn how to spell like you used to.’’

If every group has its currency, at a protest, it’s the right sign.

That’s why Lenora Jackson, 18, a college student visiting from LA, was flipping through one of the encampment’s sign boxes, looking for one that conveyed her sentiments. No, not “save our post offices’’ or “disobey your television.’’

She liked “How can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps if we don’t have boots?’’ “I might take that sign and hang it up in my room,’’ she said.

In New York, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are reportedly getting on the nerves of their downtown neighbors, who complain that the chanting and drumming is waking toddlers, and also local business owners, whose bathrooms are under siege. The owner of Panini and Company Cafe installed a $200 lock on her restaurant’s bathroom door after her sink broke and fell to the floor. “I’m looked at as the enemy of the people,’’ she told The New York Times.

In Boston, the protesters say they’re mainly using facilities at South Station, and, as of press time, there had been no problems, according to Julia Tanen, a South Station spokeswoman. But Occupy Boston doesn’t compare favorably to Occupy Wall Street in all ways, one supporter said.

“In New York, the food was better,’’ said Bob Broadhurst, 54, a union electrician from Littleton, N.H., who stopped by Dewey Square on his way back from Occupy Wall Street (where he was arrested as he and hundreds of other protesters attempted to cross the Brooklyn Bridge). Occupy Wall Street gets a lot of free food from restaurants, he said, although perhaps too much pizza. At Occupy Boston, Daniel Kontoff, an unemployed global activist from Brighton who’s coordinating food, said he’s working to get local restaurants to donate, so perhaps excess pizza will become a problem. For the moment, though, the issue at the food tent is too many apples.

On Tuesday, in the wake of the arrests, a spokeswoman for Mayor Tom Menino e-mailed, “We will continue to work with the organizers of Occupy Boston and will allow them to remain where they are as long as they do not jeopardize the safety of our city.’’

A prolonged occupation would be good news for at least two protesters who were enjoying a side benefit to the budding anti-greed movement.

“She likes to spend the night in my tent,’’ said David Lehnert, 18, an intern at the State House who’s been camping out from the beginning, as his girlfriend, Alison Arico, 18, a freshman at Northeastern University, giggled.

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.