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On our way to Mr. Rogers' neighborhood!

Today, we will drive from Derby City to the Steel City, to hear our Pittsburgh area writers read at the White Whale Bookstore in what was (and always will be) Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. In remembrance, I am posting this old essay . . .

Once upon a time, in a neighborhood faraway, I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Actually, I watched my pre-school daughter watch Mr. Rogers. No one can be that nice, I thought. The man exposed my hidden cynic, the one I had muffled as a social worker and as the mother of two small children.

Liz kept her appointment with the Neighborhood each weekday afternoon, back-in-the-day when we had to watch shows as they aired. She would settle in for 30-minutes while I caught up on kitchen duties, phone calls, laundry, breath. Rogers would speak to my pre-school daughter about love and friendship and feelings and haircuts and fish and crayons.

With an elegant redundancy, Mr. Rogers walked through the door to cheerfully change from a navy blazer and man-shoes, into a zippered cardigan and sneakers. Day upon day, he did all of this while singing a happy snappy invitation to his juvenile audience, and the parents who lingered nearby. In Fred’s world, it was always a beautiful day, a beautiful day for a neighbor just like me.

Liz loved the plodding rhythm of The Neighborhood, the homemade quality of the set, and those silly hand puppets. She did not love Sesame Street, the way her older sister and I did. “It’s too busy,” she said. Her comment might have provoked self-awareness about the effect of my own busy-ness. It did not.

Unlike Liz’s mother, Fred took his time. No one can be thatcalm, I thought. I wondered how my rambunctious daughter, who exhausted me with her physical antics, could be spellbound by the saccharine sweetness of the man who told her she was unique, loveable and desirable as a member of the community. How could my child be entertained by a toy trolley and hand puppets that looked like they’d been liberated from a 1960’s era toybox?

Fred Rogers was clearly the man behind the curtain. He wrote the script, the songs, and was the voice behind most of the puppets in the Land of Make Believe. He modulated his voice high or low, with tone and inflection befitting the character. Back in the day, I would stop my busywork to hear the quirky characters—narcissist King Friday the 13th, who flung foolish proclamations into the neighborhood and the cranky Lady Elaine Fairchild whose role, it seemed, was equal opportunity shaming. She was a wonderful counterpoint to all that sweetness. She refused to ignore King Friday’s foolishness. I preferred Friday’s and Elaine’s flaws to the deeply reflective, self-effacing Daniel Strip-ed Tiger. “Get over yourself, Daniel,” I would have mumbled, had the expression been in common usage in 1993.

Is Mr. Rogersfor real? I thought, harkening back to a 1970’s cliché of disdain. Mr. Rogers seemed genuinely interested in simple things. No one can be that easily entertained, I thought.

It is 2018. My daughter and I emerge from a movie theater, squinting into the sunshine of the summer evening. We stop in the parking lot to discuss how calm we feel. I feel peacful in a way that good meditation or Xanax might achieve.

The theater had been full on a weekday evening. Three generations, shoulder-to-shoulder, shared laughter and tears. The woman next to me sniffled at the same moments as I did—at Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and at footage of the Challenger disaster. What surprised me is that Mr. Rogers talked to his audiences after such tragic events. He defined and discussed the word “assassination” with his preschool audience.

“I loved it when he fed the fish,” my daughter says. I vaguely recall the fish-feeding routine. Neither of us recalls the episode in which Rogers lifts a dead fish out of the tank, to discuss death. In a video, he retrieves the stiff body from the aquarium floor, places it into salted water and waits to see if it will resurrect, before wrapping it gently in a paper towel and burying it in a patch of neighborhood ‘soil.’

The movie corrects my cynicism about Fred Rogers. The man was for real. He was thatnice, and calm, and satisfied with the simple things. Without lecture or dogma, he conveyed the greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself. He evangelized self-respect, curiosity and kindness.

Rogers was also bold, even “subversive.” As in the footage from 1969 when Fred disrobes his sneakered feet to dangle them, naked, in a baby pool with Black Officer Clemmons, at a time when swimming pools were still segregated. And in one holy foot-washing moment, the Black and White feet are side to side. Having only one towel, Mr. Rogers pats dry Officer Clemmons’ feet.

The documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a phenomenon, coming at a time when Americans crave kindness. It has received a 99% rating from critics, and 97% ratings from audiences, on Why such success for a documentary about a really nice guy?

We crave kindness. We now have King Friday the 13thleading our country into rude behavior; he is a narcissist showman making foolish proclamations that divides our neighborhood. He does not seem to care who he offends and has no Lady Elaine Fairchild to set things right. I can only hope the citizens who grew up with Mr. Rogers, between 1967 and 2000, internalized his invitation to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Mr. Rogers is deceased. Daniel Striped-Tiger is grizzled and gray, his stripes a shadow of their former selves; Daniel is tucked in a museum cabinet in Pittsburgh. I am still cynical and near-elderly. But I now value, more than ever, kindness and empathy, curiosity, satisfaction with simple pleasures, and love of the world. As Fred said, “Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not” (Dartmouth College commencement speech, 2002).

Kimberly Crum, Shape & Flow Writing Instruction, Louisville, Kentucky

Thanks to one of our poets Sheri L. Wright for this photo!

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