In which the
singer-songwriter recalls the events of 9/11.
BY RUTH GERSON
It went backwards for me. Aside from some minor blips, my
adulthood got protected and tame, while most of the memories from the first
half of my life are fucked-up. That said, the most fucked up thing I’ve ever
seen, was during a relatively calm, soft part of my life, when I was completely
divorced from the violence I grew up around.
I was married, thirty-six weeks pregnant with my first
daughter, living in a 650 sq. ft. East village condo on 9th and B, in New York and watching
the second tower of the world trade center crumble down outside my window.
My ex-husband was with me at the time. Most of my memories
of being married to him are vague and undefined, like a book you know you read,
but your vision of the plot and characters have blurred to make you wonder if
you only dreamed you read it. You take with you one piece, a picture that you
keep with you forever.
Almost ready to give birth, I was often sleeping in by the
second week of September. Josh was sitting on the bed looking out the window
and I woke up to the sound of the first explosion. He stood, he looked, and
went down to his knees, “What have they done?” His shirt became soaked with
sweat and he was crying.
When you’re in a couple, if one of you spins out, the other
rushes into caretaker mode. I assured him it must have been an accident. If
somebody was gonna do something, they’d do it later in the day and that we were
not in danger.
“Most people can’t be in the office yet. Look, It’s not even
9 o’clock. Are there even
offices up there?” I lived in NYC my whole life. I had been up in the WTC twice
on school trips. You don’t do those things when you live there. I had no idea
who was in there, what was up there.
Josh flipped on the news. I watched the window. The second
plane flew directly into the building. “That’s not a fucking accident.” I
repeated over, and went to fill the tub with water.
I hadn’t yet seen Josh in the state he was in. I wasn’t sure
how to help him.
“Come on, we’ll walk you to work, the trains will be shut.”
I thought, This will be taken care of. Go on about your business. There’s
nothing to see here. I had been trained.
As we started walking, I knew it would be difficult to make
it up to 55th and Madison
and back with what seemed now to look like a resist-a-ball hanging off my
chest, and with a weight more like a medicine ball. We didn’t get very far
though. By the time we were on Avenue A and 12th, we heard a guy, “They got the
Pentagon.” Josh leaned against a chain-link fence and grabbed on. “That’s it.
This is it?”
Many people imagined the whole city would be blown-up that
day, for a minute, for several hours, that we were trapped on an island and we
wouldn’t get off.
I suggested we go sit in Tompkins Square
Park. We were there for a
minute and the air above us filled with the sound of military planes. I did not
grow up with that sound in NY. I’d never heard them. Loud as shit. I decided to
bring us back upstairs.
I returned to the window. “Where’s the building?” I kept looking to see if it would peek out
from behind the smoke, “Josh, where’s the building? Where’s the building? I
think the fucking building is gone!”
He said it was behind the smoke. I said, “It is not behind
the fucking smoke. I am seeing the smoke move and it is not behind the smoke.”
We had missed the first tower fall while we were out; so had
everyone else outside and in the lobby of our apartment building. Josh moved
into caretaker mode now, as I was leaving it. He brought me a piece of toast
with peanut butter. “You better eat.” I held the toast, my body was pounding, I
must have been crying, I don’t remember. Of everything I had ever seen, the
empty space where the building was before we had gone outside was the most
fucked up. Until, staring at the smoke, thinking the building might come back,
watching the news, looking out the window, the second tower began to collapse
and I saw it fall. My head turned back and forth between the television screen
and the window. I knew there must be a lot of people in there. And people on
Anyone who grew up in New
York wanted to go down. My brother Glenn went right
away. I looked down at my stomach. I couldn’t go. I couldn’t do anything.
I left the house with a shopping cart and went to the store.
It was empty. I bought water, cans of beans, corn, some bread, rice, raisins, I
think I got some Pop-Tarts. As I was walking out, a hundred people were coming
The streets were filled now. People were making eye contact,
saying hello to each other, acknowledging that they saw you there. No one was
invisible. Some looked at me, head-tilted, sympathetically – oh, good time to
have a baby, huh?
I brought the food upstairs and then we went out and
wandered. On Second Avenue,
when was it? It was the most un-fucked up thing I ever saw. Firetruck after firetruck, rolling down,
firetrucks from other towns driving in. Lines of people, standing on the block,
watching and waving. They were going to walk right into it. They were going to
pull people out.
I was glad I kept cash at the time. No credit cards were
being accepted and no ATMs were working. I used to keep all my gig money in a
coffee can in the freezer, wrapped in tin foil, buried in coffee. I had
thousands of dollars in my pockets. I kept it on me. We slept in the apartment.
The next morning the air was thick and amber. I realized I didn’t know what was
in that shit, and I better get my belly out of it. We walked up avenue B to the
L train, which was running. I put my shirt over my face to avoid breathing in
A man stopped, seeing my round stomach, and took his face
mask off and gave it to me, pulling his own shirt up around his nose. We
switched at Union Square
and got onto the 6 uptown, we’d still have to cross over Central
Park, but by the time we were uptown, and came out of the station,
the air there was getting brown, too.
I felt wrong for abandoning the city, but responsible for
the small person inside of me. We went back into the subway and headed for 34th St. Walked to
Penn Station, got on the LIRR. As we pulled away from the city, and it drifted
off into the distance, you could see all ash, the brown bubble around lower Manhattan. There were so
many people there trying to help others, and we were leaving.
The San Francisco
Chronicle called Gerson an “underground
songwriting master” with the release of her original solo album This Can’t
Be My Life last July, and her most recent
release, Deceived (5/17/2011), an album of
traditional, country and folk songs about the “bad things that happen to ‘bad
girls'” has been hailed by critics as “a triumph.” Proceeds from Deceived go to family violence prevention and
domestic violence organizations. For more information visit www.RuthGerson.com
Meanwhile, go here to
read more 9/11 stories from the BLURT staff and contributors.
(Photo: Lisa Mazzucco)
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