Five Minutes Before the Miracle

David Rickerby has spent the last seven months sleeping on a park bench in Denmark. For money he collects cans and bottles from the street.

They say it was the coldest winter in 19 years.


Saturday April 22, 2006

“I’m doing this because it’s the best option for me right now, there’s nothing else, there’s no other choice, the only other choice, what’s that? Going back to England?” David makes a disgusted expression, “Not in this lifetime.”

I’ve joined him on his rounds, an eight kilometre meander around the centre of Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark.

He is English, forty years old, somewhat short-tempered and weary but not as unkempt in appearance as you might imagine yourself becoming in such circumstances.

He has friends in the city that he has stayed with in the past, but after a time, even kindness and favours can fall foul of ill-tempered flatmates, unsympathetic lovers and small apartments.

“You’ll get sometimes Tuborg or Carlsberg – some will have pant on them some won’t. Why there’s a difference? I’m assuming because some come from Germany, some don’t. So you always have to check, although I’m surprised at that one, Tuborg Classic, can’t remember the last time I saw that; Harboe – forget it; Slots, forget it. It’s always good to check; that one,” – he points a leather gloved finger at an empty can I’ve just picked up from beside a car – “Nothing it must be either new or from out of town cos I don’t remember seeing it before.”

‘Pant’ is a small deposit paid on most bottles and cans, (for sake of argument let’s say 10kr is more or less equal to £1), usually 1kr for beer and cans, 1,50 for plastic soda bottles and 3,00 for the larger soda bottles. Although fortunately for some, not all of these find their way back into the automated machines in most supermarkets.

“Those Cocio bottles, if those things had pant on them… same with wine bottles, some places will give you 25 øre (one quarter of a kr) for them, but you get a whole bag of them and, well, they’re heavy.”

I spot a bottle in the shadows by an open apartment gate and head to get it.

“Christ you’re good at this,” mutters David to himself. I pick it up, it’s half full so I pour out the beer onto the pavement.

“Always best to pour it down the side of the road or the gutter,” he tells me, “I mean I’ve done that before and people will tell you off, you’ll see a lot of bottles on the street, broken ones, but if you’re collecting them you’re almost expected to behave yourself while you’re doing it.”

It can be a dangerous occupation too, as David goes on to tell me. Some weeks back, an old man was assaulted while ‘panting’. He spotted some bottles outside a bar and, after pouring out the remnants, found out the drinkers hadn’t actually finished with them.

“They beat the shit out of him.”

Although standoffish at first, It surprises me to find David more affable than irritable, and still with a sense of humour.

“Three things I come across on a regular basis on the streets are gloves, combs and packets of tissues, don’t ask me why,” David pauses and grins, “underwear too.”

We come across a fair bit of broken glass on the route, I ask David if it annoys him when people break their bottles.

“It’s really just drunk people who drop them, it doesn’t actually as much as people who crush the cans, that’s just deliberate. You know the plastic ones (In Denmark, beer is also available in plastic ‘bottles’), you’ll find that people damage them in some way; to them it’s just a fucking game. But I would estimate on a good night I’m losing about 20kr, sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. I mean the amount of times where I’ve picked up a bag and there’s been one intact and the rest have been broken or-“, David breaks off when he spots two bottles a few metres down the street, “hang on look there’s one there, oh two.I wasn’t actually expecting it to be… well okay, it can vary from street to street but one thing I find is that this street is not normally this good so early in the evening.”

I mention how the weather’s approved recently.

“It’s a Saturday night – weather doesn’t actually make that much of a difference, not of an evening. I don’t really see much fluctuation.”

We pass the huge cathedral that overlooks the main square and walk down Skolegade, a short narrow road lined with bars, restaurants and fast food joints.

It’s coming up to eight o’clock and it’s still daylight, David tells me the peak time is around ten.

“During the day’s pretty bad for me, but that’s generally because a lot of other people are out as well. By this stage they would have got enough to basically buy their own booze – you might see them out late at night, but at this stage, in the early evening, you’re not going to really see that much. There might not be a lot out here, but it’s pretty much down to me to get it, I go in the perfect times, so it’s just me, I’m not fighting over them.

David tells me how he once saw somebody collecting bottles on a moped; I wonder how many others are doing this.

“I can probably spot, and this isn’t full time, at least eight others that I know of.

“There’s Bent, Bent’s an alcoholic, most of the people who are going to be doing this are alcoholics; and the Vietnamese woman, probably keeping a family back in Hanoi, she’s impressive, ‘Hanoi Jane’ I call her. If she’s around keep your hand on the bottle cos if you turn your back it’s gone, she’ll take it and poor it out. She’s 5”2’ for Christ’s sake and in her 60’s at least, no one’s gonna say anything, but me…” David shrugs, “That’s in Central Aarhus, but they’re not always out every day. I actually go out further than most.”

We’ve been walking around for twenty minutes and David tells me he’s got 17 kr worth, on a good night he’ll be looking at around 40-45kr per round. I ask him his living costs.

“They vary from day to day, I mean, this is a Saturday night remember, so usually I might only make 50kr a day both rounds, but I can get by on that and frequently do but say you’ve got a holiday, and everywhere is shut, then the only places open are cafes bars and cinemas, like Easter, that was 5 days holiday, the weather was shit so there was nobody out here but I had a whole day to kill, the library was closed, my friends were all visiting family or out of town, what am I gonna do? Hang out in a cafe, shoot pool and drink beer, and there’s only so long you can make a pint last. So I was down a lot after Easter, and I haven’t pulled it back, I’m probably down about 300kr.

“But sometimes you’ve got to do for yourself, even if you know it’s gonna cost money, just to feel like a human being, so I wanted to see a film even though it cost me 70kr, just to sit in a cinema and watch a film like every other member of the human race – one of the things when you live like this, you occasionally forget you’re a member.

I ask David if he’s ever tempted to steal.

“No,” he tells me, flat-out, “Two reasons: One, I’m trying to set myself up here – a criminal record doesn’t really help with that, I have enough problems finding work as it is, and secondly, it’s too fucking petty, I suppose it’s not so much ethics as it is professional pride, I mean I’m not boosting a pack of bacon out of Super Best. If I could, say, find a way into their storeroom, that might be different… that would be different. I’m not gonna get busted for petty thieving, as long as this keeps me going. If I start spending more than I’m earning and I’m not going to make it to a time when I can get a job then yeah, all bets are off.”

David tells me he served time a while back in England for bank robbery, I question him on the possibility of a return to that life.

“Not yet, I’m not ready for it yet, I’m not financially or psychologically ready for it. Stealing when you’re poor is a guaranteed prison sentence, stealing when you’re rich is a maybe. I’ll deal with maybes I won’t deal with certainties.

“I’ll take chances, I’m not hitting the cell block, which is what’ll happen if I do it now, you get too desperate, too reckless, you don’t pay attention. I need patience, I need time, and I need resources.”

Later, off the record, David will tell me how unsure he is of those previous comments, how he doesn’t want to be made out to be a desperate man looking for the slightest excuse to return to crime. He says it was just spur of the moment rubbish.

He’s says he’s asked a friend to take his next big pay-check away from him, buy him a ticket, and put him on a plane.

David stops at an overflowing bin and pulls out a crushed can. I ask him how far he’ll usually go into rubbish.

“I just look at the top, I’m not riffling through them. Some of the guys have got sticks, they’ll prod and if it hits something they’ll… but no, if it’s on the top or I can see the neck of it I’ll take it out.”

I mention the gloves he’s wearing and add that at least he’s being hygienic.

“Yeah, I mean if there’s anything broken in there I’m not gonna get cut or anything. I mean, it depends on your motivation.”

David does his best to straighten out the can.

“As long as the machine can read the barcode it’ll take it, not always, but generally.”

I point out a plastic bottle on the road.

Nestea, no.” he tells me, “those kinds of plastic ones, water bottles, no. Fanta cans, no – bottles, yes. I don’t understand it any more than you.”

He pauses and looks at me, “But maybe your money comes from the shit other people leave behind, but I’m not begging, I’m not stealing, I am working, and I’m entitled to spend it any way I choose.”

Walking into the main train station, David notices two guards: “Watch yourself, you’ve got screws, keep your head down.”

The station is also a thoroughfare to Bruuns Gallery, a large two floor shopping centre.

“A lot of people that come here aren’t shopping, they’re just with people who are shopping, they’ll sit down, they’ll have a drink while they wait.”

After his reaction to the station security, I ask if there is anything illegal about this.

“I don’t think so, the station’s probably got by-laws about people who aren’t here catching a train or meeting somebody. One thing I’ve noticed in the country in general, and most certainly with this, is when they get you, there’ll be a law somewhere that they can pull you on, even if it wasn’t necessarily designed for you, there’s definitely a rule against begging and at a push they could take this as begging.”

We reach a bin outside an Oriental style cafe and David beckons me to look inside, I peer in and smile back then say it’s up to him.

“No ‘up to me’ about it,” he tells me, “as you can see, all wrapped up,” and starts pulling out foot long baguettes, ‘freshly made today’ stamped across the fancy label, “I’m gonna need a new bag.”

They’ve been thrown out in the public trash instead of the cafe’s own, I ask him if he thinks they’ve been put here on purpose so people in his situation can help themselves.

“It’s something I’ve thought about; I mean they’re not all in a bag tied up, I might only get that much once maybe twice a week if I’m lucky.

Maybe he sees something in my expression but he explains, “Half eaten kebabs, people throwing away their pizzas, bags of chips, no. Health reasons as much as anything, hepatitis is not really an advancement in my lifestyle, but those, they’re wrapped up, they’re fresh today, it’s not like I had to pick through the bottom of a bin for them so yeah, they’re okay, I’ve eaten them before, they’re fine. But anything open, no, for one thing it’s too skanky for my taste, although there’s plenty of people who’ll do it and I won’t deny that on one or two occasions I’ve seen someone throw half a pizza away in a box and I’ve had that, but as a general rule, no.”

“Everyone finds their own level of what they’re willing to do, and what drives them, me, it’s just getting by until I can find something better. this is not a lifestyle, this is not a career choice or vocation, this is something I can live with until I can find something better, something that I really want to do.”

We leave the shopping centre and walk up towards St Pauls Church, we’ve been walking for 40 minutes now and David says we’re about a third of the way through his full-route.

“There have been times where I’ve had to break off halfway through, go stash the bottles in my hideaway, then carry on back cos there’ve been so many. Two carrier bags is probably my limit, probably about 40, 45kr, you might get more in there but a full bags at least 20kr.”

We stop for a break and I ask what he does with the bottles after the supermarkets close.

“Well newsagents only take very specific ones, and I get a lot of bits and pieces, so normally what I’ll do is stash them until I can take them all back in one go, I’ve found a good place, but I have lost bottles in the past, but not recently.”

I ask if the stash is where he sleeps.

“Well I don’t sleep with my stash, what I’ll do is go in, stash it and sleep elsewhere. It’s just that if I’m disturbed, hassled by the police or get, say, more aggressive problems, this way if I do lose it they’re not necessarily going to connect it to me because I’m not sleeping next to it, then I’m not wandering the street at three in the morning carrying a load of bags. I mean I go when it’s dark and no one around – I don’t want to be seen going in to it and coming out from it, it’s not anywhere that anyone would go to, it’s not on the way to anywhere, it’s not like walking into the park and shoving it under a couple of bushes, but it is a bit open in the day time, so I wait until it gets a bit dark.”

The majority of supermarkets in Denmark only are only open for one Sunday of the month so David will have to stockpile his bags over two nights.

“If I go out again tonight, then go out tomorrow, I might have, like, four or five bags there come Monday.”

We stand and I help David get his bag on his back. He tells me he’s got all his impractical, unnecessary or just simply heavy belongings stashed at a friends house, but to all intents and purposes, his life is on his back.

“Basically, if I say, had to leave or everything else got burnt or lost or I couldn’t gain access to it, everything I need I carry. I try to keep everything down to a bare minimum, but of course the longer I’m carrying it the heavier it weighs, it’s not that heavy, 15 – 20 kilos, it’s just an annoyance, it’s the bulk of it more than anything. Come the end of the evening I’m carrying a lot of weight.”

We zigzag between the bins on a long open car-park where there was a fruit and vegetable market today. It looks like they were selling a lot or German Coca Cola as there’s no pant on the cans David finds. The sun has pretty much set now and there’s beginning to get a chill in the air.

We walk further on, back towards the centre, but without sign of anything.

“That’s sometimes the way it is,” says David, “it’s just a case of going out there, once twice, sometimes three times, as long as you’ve the energy and the inclination. Some days I’ve been out like, three times, some days just the once, sometimes you just can’t be arsed doing it. Earlier in the week I spent two hours out here – 8kr. I didn’t bother going out again that day, kind of sucked my energy and enthusiasm for it, didn’t even get enough to pay for the cup of coffee I bought cos I was out in the cold.”

I ask David about acts of charity from the public.

“It’s happened,” he says, “I’ve been called over and had people give me their bottles, I’ve had people give me money, but 98% of the attitude is complete indifference – they don’t see you, I’m not loud, drunk or anything like that.

“(They’re) mildly curious but no one really gives a shit. If I did, well I don’t, but if I did pick up the bottles next to someone or had to move through a crowd to get to something, then sometimes, especially with the younger ones, guys especially, they’ll get a bit sneering and insulting. That’s one of the reasons I stopped doing that, some can do it, I can’t. I don’t interact with people at the best of times so I don’t really get any negative feedback off them either.

“I’m not a local character, I’m not part of the scene, I’m just somebody trying to get by before he can find work.”

David stares into the middle distance and thinks for a moment when I ask him how long he’s been doing this, “Fuck… October.”

Aside from rare “little breaks” with friends, he has been sleeping most nights in a covered shelter in the Botanical Gardens. It’s as peaceful as you can expect in the centre of a city of 300,000 people.

It’s now late April, I say the weather must have got worse before it got better.

“Yeah, October was ok, then you got to November, December, January, February; that was shit, that was cold, I was wet. There wasn’t a great deal of bottles, I wasn’t making any money – I was just spending a little less of what I had. Last couple of weeks has been a lot better though”

By now David has found more than either of us can carry, so he cuts his rounds short and we walk to the Botanical Gardens. A small way through and we reach his bench.

“Problem is it’s not very comfortable, but you are off the floor, the other place is actually the other side of Den Gamle By (a beautiful open air museum in the south of the gardens comprised of 50 historic market-town houses saved from demolition and re-erected as ‘The Old Town’).

“If you want to see it I’ll show you, but it’s just basically under a big fucking tree.”

“Late at night you get drunks walking by that might want a piss, but they very rarely actually physically disturb you, you might hear them talking but nothing has happened for a while now. It’s that time of year, and people who would usually use this as a place of business of a winter, know that during the summer there’s more people about and it’s not as discreet. You’ll get pissed people sitting on the bench, but I just stay in my sleeping bag, I don’t say anything or do anything.

“I’ve had a couple of people come up and start talking, wondering what I’m doing. I told them to fuck off I’m sleeping.” David lights a cigarette and continues,” most of the time they’re curious more than anything – this was before I had my hair cut; big shaggy hairy guy sleeping on a park bench, you know, leave him alone.”

It’s snowed a lot this winter, I ask him how he kept warm.

“I’ve known it down to minus eight, that I know of, but I’m sure it’s gone colder than that. You just zip up your sleeping bag and wear every piece of clothing that you can and still be able to get into it, three or four layers, sometimes five. gloves hat, even had a scarf once. try and stay out of the wind but that’s not always possible.

“Yeah, there’s been times when…” David trails off then continues, “because it’s fairly open so you got the wind and the snow and the snow isn’t over there,” he gestures five metres away to where the shelter ends, “sometimes it’s up to here,” and he makes a line a metre from the bench, “and it’s fairly deep, yeah, of course you get wet walking in it, then you’re fucking cold.

“Sometimes it does amaze me that I got through the winter without having something seriously wrong with me. It wasn’t like I was looking after myself in any other aspect of my life.”

I meet David’s stare and he adds with a grin and more than just a suggestion of irony in his tone, “But it’s the price I pay for my dreams, my Danish dream.”

I ask David why he thinks he’s finding it so hard to find work.

“It’s a good question,” he says, leaning forward, “let’s go to what I’ve considered. I’m not the most fluent of Danish speakers, well I speak it but not to any degree of fluency but as most of this job is non communicative, my accent’s shit. Secondly, there are some skills I don’t posses, i.e. I don’t have a driving licence. Thirdly, I’m 40 years of age and I’ve never had a job in my entire life that lasted more than a few months – this is not encouraging for long term permanent work, might be okay for a seasonal job, but you try and show them your somewhat spotty employment record to an employer. Also, a lot of it is I’ve never been particularly good at kissing arse and selling myself, as one employer told me, I’m not a people person. I was never very good at it and I’m absolutely shit at it now, but unfortunately first impressions count when you’re trying to get a job and I don’t make a particularly good one.”

“The Danish, no matter what the job is, they don’t understand, they’ve got no idea about people like me, if you’re living like this, you’re a bum, and they assume you’re getting some form of welfare, which isn’t true, they might not sneer at you but they won’t offer you anything with an open hand either.

So how come you’re not entitled to welfare?

“Even though I pay my taxes, when I do work, and I pay full rate – I’m not a permanent resident because I don’t have a residence permit. For that I need a permanent job. I’m taxed and treated as though I’m living here, but I’m not entitled to any benefit of that, because I’m not living here officially.”

“I had a couple of weeks working in a warehouse in November, but the agencies seem to have lost my number and forgotten who I am even though I’ve rung them repeatedly. I received no complaints about my work, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’m on some kind of black list. It’s hard to work out why something isn’t happening when no one’s actually telling you: ‘Well you haven’t got the job but it would help if you want to get work if you did this or that or whatever,’ – you don’t get that, in fact you’d be lucky to get a reply.

“I’ve been to Fyn and Sjælland (the two island masses that comprise the rest of Denmark) for farm work, but no luck. This country, once you’ve broken through, is a great place, but until that it’s fucking hard. So why do I do it? That question I can’t answer”

The majority of western foreigners you meet in Denmark, at least in bars, are ‘sexual refugees’, usually male, that have come or have stayed because they’ve met someone.

“Yeah, they ride in on someone else’s ticket: she does all the hard work. But starting from bottom on your own in Denmark is extremely hard because it’s exceptionally rare, nobody does it. Everyone else, if they’re not here for a woman, it’s because they’ve been sent here by their company so accommodation is already taken care of, all the hassles like learning the language become an irrelevance. If they do come here with a woman and have to learn the language, they’ve always got a roof over their heads. they’re not gonna starve or end up on the streets, they’re not gonna be doing what I’m doing.”

I say something about there being more inclination to learn if it’s the ’language of love‘.

David smiles sardonically, then nods, “Language of love.”

His life in Denmark seems to be something of a grey area. I ask him if he feels if that the foreigners that do come here, non-Europeans in particular, fleeing here in fear or coming because they have family or friends in the country, will get more help than him?

“Yeah, and a lot of the refugees complain but, okay, they might be living in a refugee centre but at least they’ve got a roof over the head, they’re getting fed. They’re getting help so whether they accept or reject the help is irrelevant to me, I could work but they won’t let me; I can’t get any. A lot of the newcomers should stop moaning, it’s better than getting shot at in whatever third world toilet they came from, and they don’t sleep out there on the streets with me, because there’s no reason for them to be there.”

There are a couple of homeless shelters around Aarhus, but David refuses to use them.

“I’m not an alcoholic or a druggy. I don’t want to get involved with that scene. I don’t want to spend my life hanging out with junkies and drunks, it’s hard enough as it is.

“I’m just waiting on the seasonal work, that should be within, hopefully a couple of weeks but probably no more than a month, then it’s back to peas, berries, whatever, ripping some fucking crop out of the ground for some fat farmer”

It’s late now, and David is zipping himself into his sleeping bag. He lights his last cigarette of the night and as I shake his hand to part, I ask if he thinks he’ll have to do this again.

“No, I can just about raise the energy to do it once; Again? No, not even in my most depressed moments. No, this is the last year for me, this season will give me enough to get me going in whichever direction I want to go, and this isn’t the direction I want to go in again.

“If whatever else I do doesn’t work out,” and David laughs flatly, “I’m not gonna be around for next year – my accommodation and employment will be taken care of.”

As I walk away, back to my comfortable, secure world, I look back on David but can only see the glowing ember of his cigarette.

“But as they say in AA,” I hear him say, “don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”

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