Written by Jon Baker and Matt Baker (no relation)
In my life, I have met so many unique people. From a world record holding chainsaw juggler, to the inventor of the deep-fried Twinkie, to the man who inspired the song “Spoonman.” I’m not just talking about people who show up on my Facebook and Twitter pages, but people who have actually played a role in my life, people I have been honored to call my friends, the type of people that I would help on the drop of a dime. This is a story about the legend of Jon Baker.
Part 1 – The Jon Con
My old friend Jon Baker (no relation) and I were in a band together called the Interstate Hikers. Not the worst of names for a band, but it certainly illustrates the fact that we had no idea what we were doing. Interstate Hikers? Sounds like a special on 60 Minutes. “Tonight on 60 Minutes: Interstate Hikers—green transportation or a band of homeless vagabonds looking to rob you?” Although our name was not great, it was certainly better then the music we played.
Since the four of us liked drugs, starting a band seemed natural. What we lacked in music ability we made up for in aptitude for conjuring up ways of getting money to spend on drugs. From pooling our lunch allowances and picking up recyclable cans on the roadside to hawking our parents’ stuff, nothing was sacred in our quest for eternal hallucination.
During one such hallucination, it became perfectly clear that we needed to spend less time making money to get high and more time actually getting high. That’s when Jon came up with the idea of a perfect con.
Usually, our ideas for the infamous get-rich-quick scheme involved an old lady, pantyhose and a potato gun, but Jon’s plan had what all of our previous ideas lacked: brains behind it. Here’s how it worked: Jon printed out a pieces of paper with future dates on them. A person would give Jon any amount of money they desired, and they would receive the dated piece of paper with his signature guarantee. If that person presented the signed note to Jon on the date indicated, he would give them four times the amount they originally invested. He called this con the Back of the Alley Banker.
Since we had been stuck in low-end cons that would produce maybe $20 at a time, naturally we were beaming with excitement when Jon showed the band his giant wad of cash. He held it in his hands like it was some sort of a fragile magic lamp; one that would grant him the wish he had always dreamed of. We stood in silence, eyes wide and staring, like it was the first boobs we had ever seen, dreaming of a future filled with hallucinations and enough drugs to kill a small horse. However, Jon ignored his bandmates’ pleading cries to spend the money on beer, drugs and giant crates of Costco muffins; instead, he elected to spend it on something he had always dreamed of doing: building an underground room.
Unbeknownst to me, this plan was 3 years in the waiting. Jon had been charting, drawing schematics, and crafting his plan since he was 14. His mom never gave him permission to build the underground room, and so, at the age of 17, Jon’s defiance level was at an all-time high. With his mom leaving for a month on a work retreat, Jon attempted to seize his dream, which in Latin is called carpe dreamin. If given a month home alone, most 17-year-olds would spend that time watching re-runs of Looney Tunes naked and trying to figure out how to get laid. That is what made Jon so unique; he was to spend the next 4 weeks of freedom digging a giant hole in his mom’s backyard.
We all doubted his bizarre plan, but in the summer of ’99, the construction began. Operations were running as smooth as a sanded-down baby’s bottom, and by the end of the first week, Jon had dug a hole the size of a midget standing on top of a MINI Cooper. Word of his project reached the kids in the neighborhood and they quickly gave him the nickname, “The Ground General.”
At the end of the first week, Jon ran into his first setback. He realized one small detail of his master plan for an underground matrix had been glossed over: where to put the dirt he had unearthed? Not one to panick, he decided to put it where most people would put the dirt from their underground rooms: in between his and his neighbor’s fences. Operations were back on, as Jon began piling mounds of dirt in the empty space between the fences. A second problem quickly arose and that was that the solution to the first problem was not that great. The mound of dirt had begun to cause the fences to bulge like Kirstie Alley eating an Oreo. His neighbors noticed and threatened to call the police if Jon did not do something about it.
Jon was at now at a crossroads. He had nowhere to put the soil, and there was no way he was going to give up on his dream due to some small logistic. So he kept digging. Soon, what looked like two side-by-side models of Mt. Vesuvius were visible over the top of the fence. And still he kept digging. The plan was to tell his mom that the dirt was from some landscaping he had done while she was away. Not the best plan, but knowing Jon, we all knew he would somehow make it work.
Seriously behind schedule, Jon began to work day in and day out, busting his ass to finish the room before his mom got home. With only a week left before her return, the project was only half finished and new problems kept arising; the biggest being that the dirt walls kept caving in, forcing Jon to dig out wheelbarrows full of dirt on a daily basis. Jon was working harder then a Mexican donkey to dig his hole, which far surpassed his careful renderings and had grown to the size of a short yellow school bus. In this gaping hole, with only 2 days until his mom’s inevitable return, Jon began to build the room. Using the money he conned (about $200), he bought the wood and went to work on framing an enclosed box.
The night before his mother was scheduled to return, Jon finished his pièce de résistance, a structure that would change the meaning of the term man cave forever and would cement his name in the neighborhood folklore. Jon deserved it. This was not just your run-of-the-mill underground room. It had everything you would want in a bedroom, let alone an underground bedroom. Jon had dug a trench from the house to his new hideout, which allowed him to run extension cords to power his TV, phone and lights. He threw in a bench, a bookshelf, a futon and a Plexiglas window that looked out into the soil.
From the outside, there was no way to tell there was a room below the surface. Jon had neatly re-laid the original sod. The only way to enter the room was through a flat hatch door that was covered with some dead shrubs. It was like a pot grower’s wet dream. A hideout that would make Anne Frank say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The only thing that indicated something remotely suspicious were the gargantuan piles of dirt that looked like an unfinished dirt sculpture of Dolly Parton. Surely his mom would buy the landscaping story. Right?
I asked Jon to explain to me what happened when his mom came home and he wrote this:
“At first it was my intention to keep the underground room a secret. That plan briefly worked. When my mom came home, she immediately noticed the comically sized primitive pyramids of dirt that were once the intestines of the underground room. She asked, “Where in the world did all the dirt come from?” I replied, “Well, I’ve been doing some weeding.” For whatever reason she left it at that. However, the next day she brought it up again, pointing out the absurdity in my reply. “Well, Ma,” I said, “Do you really want to know?” “Yes,” she replied, “Ok, follow me,” I said and I led her to where the trap door to the room was. I asked her if she noticed anything strange. “Well, it looks as if you’ve Rototilled the ground or something.” I kicked aside the brush, revealing to her for the first time the door that would lead her into a new understanding of her only child. “Now do you notice anything strange?” This was met by only silence. “Here lift the handle,” I suggested. It wasn’t until 3 days later that she approached me and said, “You know, Jonathan, it’s actually quite impressive what you did. I wish you hadn’t done it behind my back, but I’m impressed.”
Jon lived in the underground room for 3 months, until the winter rains arrived and the room’s only structural flaw was revealed: the flat roof necessitated an interior gutter system to allow the inhabitants to live comfortably. But by then, Jon, now 18, could finally move out without a co-sign on a lease, rendering the underground room’s main purpose obsolete. Water filling the room daily, Jon decided to abandon his baby to live in something more conventional: something above ground.
Jon’s room remained in his mom’s backyard and the contentious dirt piles remained lodged between the two fences. Over the next 2 ½ years, neglected, the underground room accumulated a horror film’s worth of snakes, slugs and spiders, eventually deteriorating into a miniature swimming pool of cess, until the day Jon’s mother unilaterally condemned it. Jon returned and, over a couple of visits, refilled the hole with the same dirt he had dug out so many summers before. Why, I wondered, didn’t he just spend the money on drugs?
When I think about Jon’s room now, I imagine a scene 200 years in the future. I visualize the face of a man as he accidentally digs up this underground fortress. I envision the excitement he will encounter as he uncovers the treasure that will make him rich and give historians of his day crucial information about the people who inhabited the land so many years before. Camera crews arrive, speculating about what could be inside: aliens, a king’s tomb, maybe artifacts of the ’90s. The whole world watches on live TV in anticipation. Then, I picture the disappointment on everyone’s faces as they open the hatch and begin the gridded excavation, only to find an abandoned 9x9x9 room with nothing in it but a High Times magazine and a Plexiglas window looking out into the dirt.
The scene will cause the kind of laugh that happens only years after a joke’s inception, like an Andy Kaufman skit.
Now I understand why Jon didn’t spend the $200 from his con on drugs that would wear off in 300 hours and instead spent it on something he knew would be hilarious for centuries: the underground room