He attracts so much attention as he walks down Strøget in Aarhus that tourists stop to take pictures of him.
He is a tall man with a salt and pepper beard, and he is wearing a skirt and a pink woolly hat while pushing a pram decorated with fairy lights. It’s his “baby”. It’s his home. He is heading to a wedding dress shop. He explains that a wedding dress is the only thing that will get him to celebrate Christmas this year.
After 17 years of living on the streets, this tall man has come to be known locally as ‘The Pirate’. His real name, however, is Erik Jensen.
The soon-to-be 63-year-old Hus Forbi vendor is not the sort of person to go overboard on Christmas decorations. But living on the streets means that he can’t escape the decorations put up by everybody else. “We pull out all the stops on New Year’s Eve,” says The Pirate. He has planned a Christmas Eve with beer and a bit of strong tobacco, accompanied by his portable music system that’s always in the pram.
The Pirate sure does like his music.
“I’m probably also known for walking around town playing loud techno. It does something to me. It creates order in my mind and it’s the best way for me to start the day,” says the seasoned free spirit. The Pirate has found a very special place where he spends the first couple of hours of each day. “It’s a place with very good acoustics. So I sit there with some beer, a bit of strong tobacco and lots of loud techno. Afterwards I’m ready to take on whatever the day brings,” says The Pirate, aka Erik, who also likes to be called Erika at times.
“She is by far the best one to navigate me round the streets,” he tells me. This is how it’s been for about three years: with the development of his Erika persona came an interest in skirts and women’s clothes shops. “The only gear I’m interested in is women’s gear,” The Pirate says with a characteristic warm smile and a hidden reference to the fact that hard drugs are absolutely not for him.
However, his interest in women’s clothing is not always easy to hide.
“Some of the shops are dress dictators. Girls only, so I’m not allowed in. There are some of those in Aarhus too,” he explains. So does that mean that the dress dictators could prevent him from celebrating Christmas if he can’t get hold of the wedding dress? That’s unlikely. “I’m not going to celebrate Christmas. I don’t think there’s any point me having Christmas when I’m all alone. I can’t be bothered.”
The Pirate tells me that he’s from Nørrebro in Copenhagen. He’s talking about Christmas with Hus Forbi on a Friday morning over a cup of coffee at the community centre in Jægergårdsgade in Aarhus. It’s one of the meeting places for the quirky characters in Europe’s Capital of Culture 2017. And it’s here that Aarhus’s Hus Forbi vendors buy their magazines.
The Pirate spent his childhood and adolescence in Nørrebro, where he was forced into a psychiatric hospital at the age of 16.
“They filled me with pills, so they knew where they had me,” he says. “I did job training for two days at the age of 18 and then I retired. I’ve never had a real job,” he admits and lights up a bummed cigarette. “It was blowing a gale down at the harbour where I slept last night so I’ve not slept very well or for very long. But I had a nice evening and had some beers well into the night – but no fags. I enjoyed drinking beer and decorating my baby, my mobile home, the pram, with 220 lights – but I need to put more on.”
Then and now
Later in life, before he began to live on the streets, there was a registry office wedding and a 17-year marriage “with stepkids and one of my own.”
He tried to celebrate Christmas back then, as most people do in Denmark. But the marriage ended in 2000, so he hit the road and carried on walking. Today, he only has contact with his elderly mum.
“The last time I celebrated Christmas was with my old mum some years back,” The Pirate says.
He adds, rather sadly that, during his first three months of living on the streets in 2000, the only thing he could think about was suicide. “But then I started selling Hus Forbi, and I’ve been doing that ever since – as well as looking after my ugly baby in the pram. But I’ve not had to sell as many newspapers here in Aarhus because people are extremely friendly and helpful,” he explains.
The Pirate also explains that he is not homeless in the classic sense. “I have a small one-bedroom flat on the island of Bornholm that costs 1,500 Danish Krone a month. I lived in it for a couple of months before I pretty much fled to Aarhus. Water ran down the walls and it was full of mould, which the municipality knew very well,” he says.
The mould in the flat has been cleared up now. “But not in the rest of the old house,” The Pirate clarifies. “So the mould will come back, and I’d rather die on the streets than be surrounded by mould.”
Waiting for the light rail
“I went to Aarhus because the tram was supposed to be reopened by the 26th of September,” says The Pirate, referring to the city’s new tram system.
Aarhusians were ready for the big party, almost like a bonus Christmas Eve celebration, to mark the opening of the light rail system in Europe’s Capital of Culture. The bakers had baked almost 5,000 pieces of kransekage (a classic Danish pastry made with marzipan) and the famous author and cycling commentator, Jørgen Leth, who had written about his hometown of Aarhus and recorded the names of the light rail stations for the new trains, was supposed to be on the first journey.
In the end, the traffic authorities could not provide security clearance for the reopening to go ahead. Now the light rail operates without passengers and The Pirate has to steer his pram around the streets with the ugly baby as his passenger.
“I’ve been here for three months for no reason, because the tram isn’t open to the public yet!” he says. “I was on the last tram in Aarhus in 1972, and I want to be on the first one this year when it opens. So until then, my plan is to stay in Aarhus until that happens.
“I have a grill, a place at Dokk1 here in Aarhus, where I often sit and smoke and drink a beer while looking at the trams on their test runs. But I just want a bloody train to come to me.”
A good person
The Pirate can tell that Aarhusians are getting to know him.
“Behave nicely, get a good reputation and friendly people are more likely to help,” he tells me. “And there are actually friendly people everywhere. I always try to behave nicely, and people here in Aarhus know The Pirate now and can see that I’m a good person. So I’ve had a network of lovely people popping up around me here in the city in just a few months.”
The Pirate doesn’t rule out the possibility that he may need to go indoors and stay in a hostel. And unlike others who are getting ready for their Christmas dinners, he actually plans to cut down on the alcohol. “It’s been a bit too much for me with beer and that kind of stuff for a couple of months now, so maybe I’ll sober up at DanChurchSocial’s hostel, Tre Ege (Three Oaks) before returning to Bornholm. I’ll decide once I’ve been on that tram I came here for,” he says, in a determined fashion.
Happy for other people’s Christmas spirit
Time will tell whether he will spend Christmas at Tre Ege, but as things stand at the moment, Christmas is not really The Pirate’s cup of tea.
“I don’t want to hijack anyone else’s Christmas either,” he admits. “People are kind enough to invite me to spend Christmas with them, or give me money so I can celebrate my own Christmas”.
He doesn’t think that life on the streets is exactly full of Christmas cheer either. It has actually become more violent. “The streets have become violent, it is more raw. Probably because these days there are too many of us. That’s partially why I’m close to dropping anchor and spending the rest of my days in my flat.
“The other thing is that I will most certainly drink myself to death if I don’t get off the streets – or I’ll have an accident with the pram or something like that. But that’s a long way off yet. I have to get through my birthday first, which is in mid-December – and then hopefully get on the first light rail tram in Aarhus in many, many years. And I’m telling you – Christmas is not going to matter one bit. And that is exactly how The Pirate wants it!”
Regardless, The Pirate wants everyone else to have a good Christmas, and he appreciates it when others wants to share the Christmas spirit with him.
“I’m so grateful for the help I get from people – whether or not it’s a tremendous amount during the Christmas month and not so much the other 11 months of the year. It’s nice of people to be as helpful as people truly are. That’s my experience anyway. Maybe it’s also got something to do with how you behave when you live on the streets,” he concludes.
Translated by Fiona Tod