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December 28, 2011
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Without a home in a new town

ASPEN - John Baker doesn't exactly fit the stereotype of someone who just moved to Aspen looking for opportunity. He's not young. He doesn't ski. He definitely is not a man of wealth, though he does pride himself on his taste. Baker rolled into Aspen earlier this month armed with one degree in accounting from a small Illinois liberal-arts college and another degree in culinary arts from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) in Grand Junction. He's also a musician and published author - and is the uncle of one of rap's rising stars, Machine Gun Kelly. He once set out on a mission to golf across America. He made it about 200 miles and didn't get out of California before he realized it wasn't going to happen. "I had a problem explaining to the police what I was doing on the interstate," he said.Realizing that gimmicks like that wouldn't provide a revenue stream, the former substitute teacher went to culinary school in 2010. But so far Baker has faced difficult times breaking into the restaurant business. "I'll wash dishes," he said. "I'll do anything. I realize nobody's going to put a silver platter in front of me."Baker has a lot of company. Pitkin County had a jobless rate of 9.8 percent in November, with 1,041 people unemployed out of a civilian labor force of 10,611, according to the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment. Still, Baker spends his days in Aspen dropping off resumes and reading cookbooks at the library. He often walks along the Roaring Fork River, as well. Baker, who turns 53 on Friday, is homeless. He spends his nights at the homeless shelter provided by St. Mary Catholic Church in downtown Aspen. He had $35 in cash as of Tuesday and came here with $100 on Dec. 12.He says he doesn't have a substance-abuse problem, and his mind works just fine. "I'm not a booze-swilling, pot-smoking person," he said. "I don't even have a traffic ticket, for Christ's sakes."He never was rich, but Baker said he used to live comfortably. But ever since his girlfriend in Telluride kicked him out of her house in 2009, Baker, who once owned a second home in North Dakota, has been living a nomadic life he never expected. Here he is, though, with $10,000 in outstanding credit-card bills, knowing full well that he got into this mess at the worst possible time - when the country's economy is in tatters. "The timing for being homeless couldn't be much worse with this economy," he said.His parents are dead. He stays in frequent contact with his twin brother and sister. And he has watched his nephew rake in millions.Baker could be living somewhere warmer than Aspen and less expensive. He chose Aspen, he said, because of its influence and wealth and the warm reputation of its homeless shelter."There is a strategy to it," he said over a cup of coffee at the Library at the Hotel Jerome. "I came here to bust out resumes."A self-published author, Baker wrote "The Bad News Culinary Students from Grand Junction, Colorado." It's a 41-page tale filled with self-effacing lines and F-bombs, starting with his girlfriend giving him the boot and ending with him meeting a lovely lawyer, a woman with whom he still stays in touch, he says. (In fact, he hopes she'll pay his cellphone bill later this month if he can't.)The book - Baker calls it a novella - is about 90 percent true, he says. Sales have been slow, but Baker, who admits he's a dreamer, hasn't given up on the right person reading it and propelling it to something big.But for now, Baker doesn't have much - his material possessions consist of his backpack and guitar, and his overnight neighbors are as broke as he is.Baker said he was well aware of the legal problems some members of Aspen's homeless contingent have had. He has followed, with curiosity and intrigue, the Aspen Daily News coverage of Jimmy Baldwin, the troublesome transient who was given a one-way ticket to North Dakota last week. No sooner had Baldwin arrived in the state to find a job in the oil patch than he was arrested and accused of urinating outside two strip clubs in the town of Williston, the Bismarck Tribune reported."I'm not asking them [the homeless shelter] for a bus ride out," Baker laughed.He said he doesn't mingle much with the other transients who use the homeless shelter. "I don't have much in common with them," he said. "I'm not saying I'm better than them, but I don't have much to say to them. You've got your nice people, your miscreants and troublemakers."Indeed, this isn't the life Baker chose, but it's the one he is living. Because of his plight, Baker said he needs to be careful. Pounding a bottle of rotgut vodka at a park is not his style, he says, and can only draw the kind of attention he doesn't want."I try not to be too visible," he says. "I live in an underground world. To me it's a little scary."Baker's stay at Aspen's homeless shelter is his second stop in this underground world. Baker also had a brief stint at one in Santa Barbara, Calif. Telluride, where he has spent many years, is not that accommodating toward transients, Baker said. Baker said he wants to stay in Aspen and he's not ready to give up just yet."I would like to live in Aspen," he said. "I would like to be here awhile and get to the place where I can write, work and rent a place."rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 28, 2011 06:28AM Published Dec 28, 2011 12:12AM Copyright 2011 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.