In the first “Star Wars” (or the fourth, depending upon how you look at it, although it will always be the first to me), Obi-Wan Kenobi falters and grabs at something to hold himself up. When asked what’s wrong, he says, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force. As if a million souls cried out in torment and were silenced at once.” As moviegoers knew, the evil Empire has just obliterated Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan.
There are a lot of famous lines from the “Star Wars” saga, but that one has stayed with me since the very first time I saw the movie on the big screen in the summer of 1977.
Alec Guinness’ utterance came back to me on a cold December morning 30 years later as I was walking the perimeter of an area I’d once known as a workplace. Most people today know it best as “Ground Zero,” but during the summer of 1981, the 72nd floor of one of the Twin Towers (north, south? I can’t remember) was where I could be found several days a week in the offices of the state counterpart of the city agency of New York I was interning with. I would walk over from our Worth Street offices and spend segments of the day attending meetings there as part of my three-month internship.
My train arrived from the Bronx into the WTC station in the mornings, and I grabbed coffee and the newspaper at one of the stores and kiosks in the underground city that existed between the subway station and the lobby of the towers. You could shop, eat or drink without ever coming outside onto Chambers or Liberty Street, and the air-conditioned retail area was a refuge from the summer heat at lunchtime.
The elevator system at the WTC was complex, and it took this then-college student some time to figure it out. There were no direct elevators to the floor I needed to be on. Large elevator banks all went to different areas of the building. Depending upon how high you needed to be, you would take an express to the closest floor and then a local up or down accordingly.
The towers were constructed during my childhood, and we had all heard the stories that the buildings swayed in the wind. I was a little frightened to discover it was true. On a particularly stormy day, the view of the blackened, lightning-filled sky was amazing, and the gentle movement of the building was palpable. Long-time occupants chuckled at my lack of enthusiasm at the sensation.
If I left the WTC in the early evening, I would often walk over toward 1 Police Plaza to catch an uptown city bus to 34th Street and First Avenue. The summer of my internship was also the summer my dad spent in NYU Medical Center. From May until September, my mom and I alternated nights visiting him. Leaving the shadow of the towers behind me and emerging into the brighter summer sunshine of midtown is a memory that remains to this day.
I never went up to the Observation Deck. That was for tourists, not for native New Yorkers. Never ate or drank at Windows on the World. My only relationship with the WTC after that summer was coming out of the subway to go to my mother’s office at Liberty Street or heading into the subway late at night as my friends and I left Harry’s at Hanover Square, a favorite Wall Street watering hole when we were in our 20s.
After 9/11, I found it impossible to return to New York, even for an annual visit. The thought of flying into the city and not seeing the towers, the idea of coming up out of a subway tunnel in midtown Manhattan and not turning automatically to see where the WTC was located in order to get my sense of north-south direction straight was impossible to bear.
But my dad’s death in 2007 and his subsequent memorial service back in the Bronx forced the issue. We drove through New Jersey and over the Tappan Zee in darkness, and I did not see the changed skyline. The day after his funeral, though, I geared myself up and got on the train. It was time.
When my husband and kids and I emerged at Police Plaza, the difference in the shadows was the first thing I noticed. Gone was the darkness that the WTC had cast over much of the area at different times of the day.
The air was bitingly cold, the sunshine bright. We skirted the edges of what was at that time a large, square hole in the ground. The debris was gone, and cranes and construction equipment filled the area, as did vendors hawking 9/11 shirts, snowglobes, posters and just about anything else on which you you could plaster the image of the towers.
Our kids didn’t have the sense of emptiness, of vastness, that Gary and I did. Unless you had experienced the towers, their absence was just an idea, a photographic image of “now you see it, now you don’t.” It wasn’t until you stood at the site and felt the enormity of what was gone, saw the gaping wound in the cityscape, that you really knew what a BFD these buildings had been. A little ugly, yes, they were. But they had become part of the inescapable landscape of the city, of New Yorkers’ everyday lives. They were a compass of sorts for all of us.
But at the site now best known as Ground Zero, even on a sunny, cold day in December, there was a great disturbance in the Force, as the fictitious Obi-Wan noted.
My family did not feel it. Maybe it’s the Irish, the fey, in me. Or maybe it’s my imagination. But to me, the very air at the site is charged. The oxygen cells, the ions — there is something there. Thousands of voices cried out and were silenced in mere seconds at this place. Life forces halted abruptly. Thousands of souls parted unwillingly from bodies. Such a massive loss of life does not happen without some kind of psychic, spiritual reverberation. It’s in the dust that still clings to area buildings and street grates. It’s in the soil of the patches of grass and trees found in lower Manhattan. It’s in the air all around. It’s both organic and cosmic.
I’ve heard people talk about the feelings they’ve experienced visiting Pearl Harbor or Civil War battlegrounds. At some of those sites I’ve felt a great somberness. But Ground Zero is charged with something different.
My theory is that the material that separates this life and the next is a little thinner down there, perhaps tattered and filled with tiny holes. If you could just reach through the gossamer veil, you would see them all, hear their voices. There are souls hovering over Ground Zero. No other words describe it.
I won’t be going back to the site; at least, I don’t plan to. Tommy, my childhood pal, and the others lost that day, are memorialized in all our hearts, not in the inscribed stones that ring the reflecting pools. I won’t be watching the endless television programs this weekend aired by stations that profit from showing the horrific images over and over again. I can close my eyes and see the burning, shattered buildings at any time.
But on many clear, sunny days when the sky is a brilliant blue, I say a prayer for all of those souls and the families they did not come home to that September night.