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Matthew Gross' life changed at the Empire State Building

A deranged stranger shot him and killed a friend. His days now are very different, but he's finding his way.

January 24, 2011|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times

In the mid-1990s, Matthew Gross was the charismatic and creative frontman for the Bushpilots, a rock band that was playing to critical reviews in New York City and being scouted for a record contract. He wrote all the band's songs and seemed to go everywhere with a clutch of women in tow.

Today he says he is lucky if he can remember the words to three of the hundreds of songs he wrote back then. He has written no more than three songs since that phase of his life ended and a new one began.

He doesn't drink or go to clubs anymore because he's on seizure medications. He finds dating difficult, since he still fights the urge — not always successfully — to say things that would be better left unsaid in such circumstances.

But Gross, who in February 1997 was shot through the head while visiting the Empire State Building's observation deck, says he is happy with the life he's rebuilt. A disturbed stranger killed his best friend and ended his rise to rock stardom. Both are facts that can still elicit tears.

But his family and many friends have stood by him, he says, and he has a job that makes him proud. He tends to the supplies for kids and schools at the Community Food Bank New Jersey, in Hillside, N.J. He shows up for work every day, ready to stock incoming items, keep things clean and chase out the occasional snake, mouse or bird that wanders into his realm.

Gross, now 41, has watched the flurry of daily reports on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' progress. He says he finds it hard to imagine how someone who's survived a penetrating brain injury could forge ahead with a high-powered, high-pressure political career — sitting through committee hearings, making laws, running for reelection.

"There's just no way," says Gross, who lives in a supportive group house in Haledon, N.J., with three other brain-injured men and a cat he finds annoying. "You are a different person, and you have to accept the fact that you're a different person."

That's not necessarily hard, because some of the things you used to do just don't have the same appeal, adds Gross, who was 27 when he was shot. But you can't argue with a bullet through the brain. If you've lived, he says, "you just have to reconstruct your life."

Daniel Gross, Matthew's 43-year-old brother, says Matthew's intelligence and charm have clearly helped him to make a life in the wake of his injury. But those same qualities have also made him acutely aware that on the day he was shot, the trajectory of his life changed forever.

Because of damage sustained to his brain's frontal lobes, Matthew Gross has blurted out thoughts that sometimes shock strangers, who see a man apparently perfectly well and wonder why he would say such a thing. ("I would talk about my sex life with old ladies on the street," he says. "My tact is the hardest thing to get back.")

Daniel Gross says the fact that Matthew's injury isn't obvious makes his struggle all the more valiant. An off-color comment to a waitress might prompt her to look at Matthew funny. At such moments, Daniel says, he feels more inspired than embarrassed.

"I think: If you only knew how hard he works and how far he's come."

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