I couldn’t take my eyes off Rusty dancing alone next to the little silver boom box, surrounded by beer bottles and cigarette butts. He swayed and shifted under a few bare trees at the top of a rocky beach in Collins Cove.
It was Saturday afternoon in Salem, almost a year ago – January 5, 2019. A light, misty rain fell, with an intermittent wind that slapped my wet pantlegs onto my skin, promising a dank and lasting cold long after I returned indoors.
A few feet behind Rusty, a chain link fence enclosed a set of imposing, white National Grid tanks. Beyond that, the shore continued and bent out of sight. A walkway lead to a park, houses, pizza joints. Across the cove, more tanks and houses lined the shore, windows and roofs scrunched together.
There was evidence of human life all around, but the only person I could see was him.
It wasn’t the kind of day anyone would choose to be out. I had been in town for a workshop and needed to move my legs. He, too, had felt cooped up, he said, and walked the short distance from his parents’ house, craving fresh air and music.
Before approaching him, I paced, glancing as I walked, not wanting to be too obvious, assessing his threat level. While we talked, I recorded our conversation, but it was lost. I don’t remember much of what he said. He was willing to engage, though, and what matters to me now is the moment that passed between us.
Rusty was about my height, a hair shorter, middle-aged. His eyes were piercing blue and red-rimmed. His skin was worn and ruddy, his mouth crowded with stained teeth, a little slur in his speech. After we parted, I wondered how things would go for him in the future. I believe there’s always hope, if a person is alive. Or is there? How easy is it for me to say that, from the comfort of where I stand, with all I’ve been given? And yet, I always return to the horrifying comfort that I cannot control much of what happens in a anyone’s life – that miracles and tragedies occur equally, every day. They could occur for him, and for me.
Rusty was jovial enough, not miserable, not overly optimistic. He felt wronged by a recent employer who had laid him off. He believed in God, even after suffering a nervous breakdown. He said he had gotten in trouble with his employer for talking about God.
He remembered swimming and fishing in Collin’s Cove, but said it is now too contaminated to do so. He had seen a pipe running underwater near the shore, pushing out toxins.
Listening to Rusty’s regrets made me feel like saying farewell and moving on, hoping and praying in abstraction. There was so much that neither of us could fix. I had approached him though, because he was the only other human around at that moment. This made him shine. There was something fascinating about a person who was willing to dance in the rain on a day like today.
Even if he got hammered while doing it.
Even if he wished for so much to be different.
I could relate to Rusty’s instinct to dance, to forget, to reminisce, to dream. To listen to the part of him that wanted to move and be out in the world. To go, for a moment, with that simple desire, to make this ritual a temporary reason for being.
For me, it’s hard to fight every day. It’s hard not to get lost in dreams, or sleep, or distractions that feel righteous and purposeful at the time but end up coming to nothing. It’s hard not to hope that things could be better without scrutinizing what I could do to make them so.
Rusty appeared to be seeking a moment of joy, in what looked to me, that day, like one of the loneliest places on Earth, on what, to me, was one of the saddest days of the year – holiday celebrations over, families back to their hurried routines.
I had to meet that stranger who had chosen to dance on a day like this.