In many ways, he represented the quintessential
New Yorker. In 1978, he moved into his two-room studio on MacDougal
St., "a dump," as a young, struggling musician. Though
a successful artist - he's also played with the Sex Pistols,
Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger - he still lives in the modest walk-up,
with the shower in a closet in the living room. But on Sept.
11 he briefly abandoned his drum set, compelled to help in a
long and grueling rescue effort.
Later he would say the event transformed
him - into a real New Yorker.
From the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker
Sts. he watched a ball of fire erupt from the World Trade Center's
south tower, and continued to watch in disbelief as the giant
fell, and still his eyes were glued to the sky as the north
tower pancaked, in an eery, almost graceful manner, 110 stories
to the ground.
"I was in shock. It was insane.
Then I stood there and I had this void. Later on, I saw the
south tower drop...and I'm watching this, and I just dropped
down on my knees and started crying," said Gerson.
That night he went to the Salvation Army
headquarters on W. 14th St., hoping to help in the rescue effort
some way. He was told no volunteers were needed, but Gerson
wouldn't take no for an answer.
"I said, 'tough. I'm here,' and
I just pushed this guy aside and helped some guy that was unloading
supplies. I said 'I'm not just going to stand here.' "
He went back the next day, and found
himself on a van, seated next to Kathleen Turner, and headed
down to "ground zero."
He returned again the next day, and the
next day, and the next. By day three, he "wanted a shovel."
The scene was a "war zone," he said, the atmosphere
"chaos." Understanding of the difficulties, but tired
of waiting around, he decided to take the initiative and walk
onto the rescue effort himself.
"I just walked into the supply area
and got dressed in all the gear you would need for a recovery
and search and I just grabbed a shovel and started walking south...
I just went," said Gerson. "It was chaos down there.
I was looking for a crew to work with."
He walked into a crew of steelworkers
and dockbuilders, an elite crew of metal workers and welders,
several of them Ecuadoran immigrants living in New York City.
He would spend the next 10 days cutting steel I-beams and delicately
removing debris in a bucket brigade. Nevermind that he didn't
know how use a blow torch, or that he knew virtually nothing
about steel or excavation.
"I just started working with this
crew and never left. I worked that day for about 22 hours. A
foreman came over and said, 'you can leave, your shift is over,'
and I said, 'no this is my time.' He gave me a pat on the back
and walked away. We were on a search and rescue operation. My
attitude was I'm on a search and rescue. In my mind, in my heart,
I wasn't ready to accept that the majority of the missing were
gone. I came back the next day. I didn't even sleep that night."
Gerson soon befriended Charlie Rouff,
a dockbuilder who took the drummer under his wing. They worked
well together. Gerson would follow him for most of the next
week, cleaning off steel with a shovel so Rouff could burn through
it with a torch. Riding in a bucket attached to a giant crane,
he had an awesome aerial view of the mountainous pile of debris,
a terrible mess of twisted metal and smoldering rubble.
"When I said I wanted a shovel in
my hands, I got it. We went right into the belly of the beast.
I stayed right with Charlie. He took me under his wing, and
that's how I stayed," said Gerson, who was later invited
to join the dockbuilders union, Local 1456, which he will probably
do. "I was basically learning as I was going. I was a real
He worked nearly 144 hours in "a
week and change," and still has blisters on his feet from
the work. The will of all remained strong, and he called everyone
a hero, from the Red Cross volunteers and E.M.T.s to the teenagers
from Kansas City who massaged his tired feet during breaks.
Even friends far from ground zero helped out. One did his laundry.
Another fed Alexander the Great, his cat.
He's uncomfortable, however, with being
called a hero himself.
"I'm not a hero. I'm a drummer.
That's what I do. But I'm a human being first, and I'm an American,
a New Yorker. I just did what came natural to me. I would do
it again," said Gerson.
Although the prospect of finding survivors
dwindled as the days passed, it did not affect the resilience
and determination of Gerson and other volunteers.
"Everybody down there was motivated.
Morale dropped as we realize that we hadn't found anyone. We
were finding remains. As it was diminishing, morale had definitely
dropped, but it didn't slow the effort."
Now that he is no longer, as he put it,
"in the belly of the beast," Gerson has had a chance
to process the experience, and although he still is not sure
he understands the ramifications of it all, he's certain he'll
never be the same again. Mundane things like a flat tire that
used to bother him now seem "minuscule." He's more
patient, and he's a tenant activist turned - gasp - Giuliani
"I think Giuliani is amazing. I
love him," he said, adding that if the Mayor were to finagle
a way onto the ballot despite term limits, he'd vote for him.
"Giuliani is really, truly...," he paused, "I
love the guy."
Coping with the terror has been difficult.
Although not a packrat, he's been unable to throw away a letter
announcing the funeral of the wife of an acquaintance, a World
Trade Center employee who was killed in the attacks.
He left the interview to meet a friend's
therapist for a little assistance.
"I saw some pretty horrible stuff
down there. I can't even describe it," said Gerson. "I
haven't had a decent night's sleep since [Sept. 11]. I just
keep tossing and turning. I'm emotionally, physically and spiritually
©The Villager 2001