A few weeks ago, as the house woke up from the aftermath of the previous night’s mad grilling action, there was quite a queue for the shower. Leo emerged from the bathroom, his mighty dreads wrapped up on a towel, and I stood in the hall in my pj’s, still bleary from all that cooking. Elise and Ken were sitting on the bed, talking, and Leo and I, for some reason, started singing.
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” I started.
“A beautiful day for a neighbor,” he responded.
“Would you be mine?” we sang in unison, “won’t you be mine?”
And we belted out the theme to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” with all the gusto we could muster at that hour. We weren’t half bad, and it certainly was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. The sky was clear, the birds were singing, and Wahoo’s was only nine blocks away.
It never fails to blow my mind whenever I think about all the little bits and pieces of culture that have sunk into my brain and will remain there until I die. I’m pretty sure my last words will be something from Schoolhouse Rock (preferably the chorus to “Three is a Magic Number,” but, knowing the way irony works with me, I’ll probably start singing something from Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips. Jebus), and it only takes a few notes
of a jingle to get me singing along. Our generation communicates by referential language: we don’t speak of something directly; we quote something that refers to our subject. I won’t go and say, “My, it’s a pretty day outside.” I’ll start belting out Mr. Rogers.
I had Mr. Rogers records when I was a kid. I had a puppet that I called Daniel Tiger. I laughed when Eddie Murphy did Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, though part of me thought it was mean. I swing between my generation’s cynicism (everything from my childhood is to be mocked and abandoned) and nostalgia (everything from my childhood is wonderful and sacred). I sing about the Land of Make-Believe.
And today I feel a little sad, because Mr. Rogers died this morning. And I understand why my friend Peter gets so worked up whenever anyone puts down Fred Rogers and his legacy. The more I think about his life and his work, I start to think: why can’t we get along? Is it really that hard? Is it that tough to want to be a good neighbor, on your street, in your city, in your world? Everyone does his thing, everyone has his job, everyone enjoys what he does. Today we’re going to the music store, and later we’re going over to the bakery. The mailman is here with letters from your friend in another town. You know the people on your street, and you love your neighborhood.
I’ve been guilty of being a bad neighbor. I don’t always say hello to the people who live on either side of me. I got worked up plenty last weekend when the old lady next door threatened to call the cops because she didn’t like my grilling in the back yard. Whose fault is that? Whose problem is that? Can I do something to make sure that I can still use my grill and not get smoke in her apartment? What would Mr. Rogers do?
What would Mr. Rogers do if he were president? What would he do if he were in the UN? What would Mr. Rogers do if his neighbor were the most inconsiderate, rude bastard in the world? Would he lose his temper? Would he engage in a fence war? Would he start hurling garbage into his bad neighbor’s yard, sic his dog on him?
I don’t think so. No matter what anyone says about television personas, no matter how much they love to tear down their heroes, I keep thinking that no one will mess with Mr. Rogers because there’s nothing bad to say. What would Mr. Rogers do? He’d probably invite his bad neighbor over for tea and cookies, time and time again until the bad neighbor changed and became a good neighbor out of guilt and shame, or the bad neighbor would finally up and die from living in his own filth.
Is it that tough to be like Mr. Rogers? It can be. It takes faith and trust, two things that always seem like they’re in short supply. It takes patience, something that we Americans aren’t famous for. But overall, I think it just takes a desire to want a better neighborhood, a better city, a better country, a better world. One where everyone has the chance to grow and strive and evolve, one where the bullies won’t win because they’ll be outnumbered. Yes, I’m a bloody-minded fool for wanting such a thing as my country stands on the brink of doing something really, really stupid, launching a war with short-term gains that will have ugly long-term consequences. What would the better neighbor do? We’d let the UN do its thing, turn our attention towards North Korea, encourage the Islamic
Reformation going on in Iran, work with Europe to clean up the environmental messes in Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa, China, work to encourage democracy in the rest of the world, and realize that being a truly strong nation means you don’t have to show your strength. A good neighbor invites the bad neighbor over for tea and cookies; he doesn’t burn down the bad neighbor’s house and salt his earth.
I preach. I babble. I don’t follow my own example. But I want a better neighborhood. And I thank Fred Rogers for teaching me that.