Christmas in the cold |

Christmas in the cold

Eben Harrell
John Cordas sits on the streets of Aspen recently. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

Like the world in which he moves, John Cordas’ life is shadowy. Fifty-six years old, sleeping between Dumpsters in an alley, a former minister and graduate of an elite seminary school – the life of this homeless man is almost too extraordinary to be believed.He’s been panhandling in Aspen now for nearly a month. Most of the time, the most you’ll hear from him is a plea for some spare change. When you spend a cold December living rough in the Rockies, you conserve your words and energy.But find a warm spot in the sun, buy him a slice of pizza or a cup of coffee, and Cordas will hold court. Is his life story all true? Who knows? But for those who see him panhandling around town and wonder what his life must be like, here is the answer, in his own words.A lot of people have begun to notice you around town. Can you tell me about yourself?I was born and raised in Trenton, N.J., the son of a laborer who helped construct the Brooklyn Bridge. After high school I was drafted into Vietnam. When I got back, I decided to become a minister. It’s amazing how much you find God when you’re in a foxhole with lead flying at you. So I went to Princeton, the seminary school there. I was there in the ’70s. You go to bars in Princeton and they don’t talk about football, they talk about Plasma Physics. It’s some place. After I left I went to the Trenton Christian Center and worked as a pastor. Now I’m back in the foxhole, I guess, living between Dumpsters in the alleys around town. I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor.How long have you been homeless?

I came to Aspen to work and find a place to stay about a month ago. I was working out at the Mountain Temp at the Airport Business Center. I got a job working on Prince Bandar’s daughter’s house. But I was assaulted. This guy I came to town with was on drugs or something and one night beat me up really bad. I don’t do drugs. I’m a straight alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine man myself. I can hardly move my arms now because of that bastard. A laborer is only as good as his body. I can’t work right now.It must be tough to be homeless here in the winter.This pizza is the first thing I’ve had to eat in a day and a half. I couldn’t do it without my sleeping bag. Sleeping outside here without it would be suicide. During the day it’s not so bad, when I find a spot in the sun. I spent a winter being homeless in Colorado Springs. It’s much colder here.How do you get by?I panhandle. This is a good town to do it. I usually make around 40 bucks a day, but that’s because the cops are on to me. If they would leave me alone I could make a lot more. I once had a man give me 200 bucks. That fed me for two weeks. I went straight to the J-Bar and ordered myself a burger. But now I’m on the McDonald’s $1 value menu. It’s all I can afford.Are you in trouble with the police?No, they know me. They understand my situation. They are courteous, but they don’t let me panhandle. And it’s cat and mouse to stay out of their way. I make this town look bad. People come here on vacation to spend lots of money, they don’t want some homeless guy asking them for money. I told them they should arrest me, but they won’t do it. At least I’d have a warm place to stay and some coffee. You know at the prison in Aspen they order you meals from local restaurants. They tell me, “John, we don’t want to arrest you.” I say, “Why not?”Do you have a plan?

I found out there’s a charity called Victims of Violent Crime that meets the third week of every month in Glenwood. So I’ve got to write them a letter and I might be able to get some compensation for lost wages. If I can get some money in my pocket, I’ll head straight to Bullhead City, Nev. But I ain’t leaving until after the holidays. I’m here for Christmas, that’s for sure.If it’s so cold, why do you want to stay?I’ve dreamt about this place for years. I used to have a poster of Aspen on my wall at work in New Jersey. Look around you. This is God’s country.Do you have any kids?I’ve got a daughter with a Ph.D. from NYU in finance and a son who works for a building company in New Jersey. My wife cheated on me with a rock star manager, so I got out of there.Where’s the best place to be homeless?

Right now it’s Florida. They’ve only had four hurricanes. There are managers of construction companies walking into Red Cross shelters and pulling homeless guys out to work. If you’re white and speak English, you’ll find work. I’d go, but I can’t work because of my nerve damage.How would you get to Florida?I’ve hitched across this country four and a half times. Stay out of the cities. And head south before you go east. It’s warmer down there. If you’re a drinking man, such as myself, Louisiana is the place to go. They serve alcohol 24-7 there. You want to stay out of Alabama though, because you’re a Yankee, and they’ll tell you so. I had a friend who made a sign “Dad died, need a ride.” But I don’t lie like that. You want to find an independent trucker. They’ll feed you and pay for you to shower the whole way. They don’t want you stinky.What are you going to do on Christmas?Try to stay warm. You know, kids come up to me and see my beard and they say “look, it’s Santa.” That’s something I could do with my injury. Someone could hire me to play Santa. And after Christmas?Bullhead City, Nev. It’s 76 degrees during the day there. I’ll find work, if my neck heals up.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is


See more