As a toddler, my response to seeing him on television was to change the channel, or whine until my mother did. When I got a little older, I listened periodically to an LP of his songs, but I always skipped past "You're Growing." It was so slow, so boring. I didn't need Mister Rogers to tell me I was growing - it was obvious.
I never understood why, when the show came on or when I turned it off, my mom would get this far-off look in her eyes and would seem as if she might cry at the very thought of Mister Rogers. To me, he was a kind and gentle man, but who needed to watch a kind and gentle man on television when there were bikes to ride, woods to explore, and Cabbage Patch Kids to discuss? Kindness and goodness were worthy ideals, but they seemed so self-evident that I felt impatient with the idea of spending time dwelling on them.
But darned if Mister Rogers wasn't right-I was growing. A few years ago, newly married, my husband and I decided we wanted to live in a real neighborhood. You know, the kind of area that people from Boston and Brooklyn refer to as the "naybuhood."
When we moved to Arlington, I often thought of Mister Rogers-and the Sesame Street counterpart, "People in Your Neighborhood"-as I settled into the rhythm of neighborhood life. On a good day, it can take me a half hour to walk three blocks. Wonder what's new in Yelena's shop? Stu in the cell phone store is always ready for a chat. Sure, Roberta can notarize that document for me. And Dr. Nick the chiropractor will adjust my neck when I'm tense. It made me feel like Dorothy, like I never have to look any further than my own backyard for my heart's desire. Or cross-stitch thread. Or automotive glass.
But unlike Mister Rogers, who very easily straddled the line between "friend" and "neighbor," with his locals, I often feel strange chatting with the people in my neighborhood. I feel odd because they act as if I were a friend, but really what I am to many of them is a customer. I pay them in exchange for goods and services. That's what a business is. I have to work hard to get over that awkward moment when I go from asking how someone's baby is doing to asking, do these come in any other colors?
It's more than just social life that seemed simpler about Mister Rogers' neighborhood. Officer Clemmons, the police officer, was so friendly and approachable in the Neighborhood. He even burst into song from time to time. Officer Hetherman, in my neighborhood, is also a comforting and amenable presence, but he's only appeared in my living room when I was dealing with a threat from a contractor-who also, incidentally, lives in the neighborhood.
And on my street, which is full of "young people" like us sprinkled among the loyal neighborhood old-timers, sometimes even darker forces lurk. Joe, who may be in the early stages of Alzheimer's, once told me "not to get him started" when I told him I was Jewish.
Mister Rogers taught that whoever is around you is your neighbor, but is the contractor whose huge truck I still watch for warily during my afternoon walks my neighbor? Is anti-Semitic Joe my neighbor? A tight-knit neighborhood is a recipe for connection, but what if I don't want to be connected to certain people or feelings?
A real neighborhood is about more than just knowing your mail carrier's name, it's about understanding both the good and the bad about your little corner of the world. Mister Rogers appreciated and calmly taught that-even though it seemed that there was much more good than bad in his Neighborhood.
And I suppose the same is true of mine. Just like on Mister Rogers' show, there are daily lessons that I can gather from just outside my front door, and if I concentrate hard enough, I can see the simplicity and the purity of them. The fact that many of those lessons about how to be kind to each other are not as self-evident as they seemed to me when I was a child is enough to choke me up a little bit. But hey, I'm growing. We all are.