A man with scraggly blond hair going white, a neat beard, peered through wrought-iron bars surrounding the courtyard of the London apartment we rented. I stayed there because the building stood where the original Globe theater stood. A plaque marked the spot in the courtyard. The man’s shoulders hunched and a strangled sound came from his throat. I didn’t want to approach him. But since he might be sick or something, I went up to the gate. “Saekakasper,” he choked. He pointed at the circular plaque. He said, as nearly as I could make out, “I cam trouchle oona tim gliegow.”
“I don’t speak…” But what language was this? “I’m sorry. I only speak English,” I said. I looked closer. The man was crying.
“Een ful, een ful,” he said,” tears streaming freely. He pointed to the plaque again. “Shekkassper,” he choked.
Now I got it. Shakespeare. This poor man, from Lithuania or Outer Neptune or somewhere, was a Shakespeare freak. Like me. “Do you want to come in?” I said in that stupid, hyper-enunciated way: Dew yew want? Tew? Come? In?”
He nodded and bobbed and I opened the gate. As he stepped through he put his palm over his chest. “Frien, frien,” he said, smiling through his tears. I figured it meant, friend. He went to the plaque, knelt, took a tracing tablet and charcoal pencil from his backpack. He sat back on his heels for a few moments, in a kind of reverie, then bent over and began tracing the lettering. The gate locks from behind so I left him alone.
Later I wandered into the excavation site of the old Rose theater, got to chatting with the actor who worked part-time managing the site. I told her about the man who cried and traced the lettering that marked the Globe. She said, “How lovely it must have been for him to reach the exact spot.”
I understood what that meant. Only blocks away was the beautifully recreated Globe Theater, modeled after the original in every way (except for the modern, welcome addition of bathrooms). It’s a gorgeous experience to go there, to let yourself fall back in time to the 1500s, to envision Shakespeare and Burbage and Will Kemp milling about, reading lines, changing them maybe, laughing, talking, casually making the history of a language and culture. It happened in a place quite like this rebuilt globe. But down the street, under the tile in our VRBO courtyard, was the Exact Spot. To be in the Exact Spot means something.
I know someone who in her twenties reached Red Square in Moscow. Awed, she slowly rotated 360 degrees, looked down at the cobblestones, could almost hear Napoleon’s horses clatter over them, saw The Place of Skulls (a podium used by Czars), turned further to iconic St Basils Cathedral (where rumor said Ivan the Terrible had the architect’s eyes gouged out so the masterpiece could not be repeated), saw the Spasskaya Tower gate where sleek black limos waited in a purring line, the Necropolis (gravesites for Soviet heroes) and Lenin’s Tomb. She said she experienced a deep stillness, almost a personal memory of people and events. She had studied Russian had the kind of imagination that comprehended the immediacy of the past.
Last fall I stood in the Exact Spot in the Bronson Alcott living room in Concord, Massacheut, the room where Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and others gathered before the funeral of Elizabeth Alcott. All these great Americans here, in one small room. It turned out they lived near each other too; Emerson’s house was down the road, Waldon Pond very close, Thoreau’s cabin still standing. This entire area, including the bridge from where “the shot heard round the world” was fired, has been beautifully, carefully preserved, the surroundings uncorrupted. Said a woman at the book store: “We protect everything here. Nobody “develops” this land. This is our history.”
In Concord, like parts of London, preservationists fight destruction, City Hall, apathy, and the incessant clamor for newer and bigger. Who are these people who won’t let developers bulldoze a humble cabin by a pond, or an old church, or a neighborhood? I think they’re visionaries. They’re futurists. They have a consciousness that grasps the seamlessness of time and understands what must be handed on, unmarred. They think ahead. They know that to value and preserve the past, to protect the present, gifts the future. They know that it’s not enough to be a good citizen—you have to be a good ancestor too. To preserve historic places, to enshrine the Exact Spots, and to maintain their authenticity, is a progressive, generous bequeathment. It’s the handing down of real wealth.
I wish some preservationist visionaries had fought to re-build the Globe on its Exact Spot. I wish Sacramentans had saved the Alhambra. I hope the visionaries amongst us now will protect our old tree-lined neighborhoods. Every great city I have seen is great because of its neighborhoods, and because of the way it values, protects and presents its history.
When I left the Southwick part of London I stopped in to say good-bye to the caretaker at the Rose theater site. She told me the man who cried had come by, and was happy to see the artifacts being dredged up and preserved. He talked about Elizabethan times. “He called it the golden era,” she said, “and he thought they should dig up everything, and make everything a shrine.”
“You understood him? You speak that language?”
“It was English.” She laughed. “He was from Edinburgh.”
So. The tongue I thought came from another planet was merely a Scottish brogue. I felt a tad provincial to not be able to recognize a dialect in my own language. Nevertheless, I did recognize that the enraptured man and preservationists have much in common–vision. Both know and appreciate cultural history. Both are thrilled when they find themselves in the Exact Spot. The world is filled with marvels they want to defend, and they want to pass on the wealth. They want to be good ancestors.