Letter From America: Rob Long

A few years ago, I had trouble with one of my neighbors. It began over such things as trash-can placement, fence maintenance and misdirected mail. It escalated into larger, more complicated disagreements--like whether the alley behind our houses is a good place for homeless people to set up camp. She: "Sure, fine." Me: "Get the hose."

Funny, but at such moments an image from childhood would often pop into my head--that of a sweet-tempered man flickering on our black-and-white television screen. His name was Fred Rogers--Mister Rogers, to us--and each episode of his quiet, thoughtful show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," began with a simple song that is now etched into the brains of most Americans under 50. "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood/It's a beautiful day for a neighbor/Would you be mine?"

Each episode would open the same way: Mr. Rogers would enter a spare living-room set wearing a jacket and tie. As he warbled his happy anthem, in his distinctive watery voice, he'd change out of his nice dress shoes into a pair of sneakers. Off would come the jacket, on would go a nice cardigan sweater. In other words, he'd change into his "play clothes," just as we kids did. The thrust of Mr. Rogers's philosophy was that talking things out was the only true path to conflict resolution (he used different words, of course) and that we should never be ashamed of our feelings.

So that's what I had in mind, one day, after a tense week of cold-war glares across the fence, when I tapped into my inner Mr. Rogers and knocked on my neighbor's door.

She opened it, just a crack.

"Hi," I began. "You know, I think we've gotten off on the wrong foot. I appreciate your compassion for the homeless. But, well, you see, maybe we could get the lovely couple that lives in the box my refrigerator came in to, oh, I don't know, not defecate quite so close to my kitchen window..."

And on it went. I shared my feelings. She shared back. I promised not to toss my wine bottles into her recycling bin. She promised to stop making omelets for the homeless encampment. I promised to squinch my car closer to the curb so she could have room to park. We forged some kind of peaceful relationship. We weren't friends, but we weren't antagonists, either. We got along, as Mr. Rogers would say.

I remembered all of this because last week Fred Rogers died, at 74, of cancer. His show had been nationally broadcast since 1968--perhaps the only decent and lasting cultural artifact of that foolish and self-indulgent year. It was so much a part of my generation that it was hard not to get all silly and sentimental about it. Hard not to think about getting older. Hard not to think about what a quiet, low-key genius this man was, who held the attention of children over a 40-year career without purple dinosaurs, music-video editing, merchandise tie-ins or pseudo-hip condescension.

Every now and then, Mr. Rogers would leave the studio and take the show on a field trip to some interesting place--a dairy farm, say, or a shoe-repair store. He'd ask the farmer or cobbler basic questions, the kind a 4-year-old asks: why things smell and feel the way they do, what's your favorite color--and then he'd just let the camera roll, minutes and minutes of milking or cobbling or lawn-mowing or whatever. It was so peaceful, and so respectful.

OK. Mr. Rogers was also a little creepy. As my generation got older, we started to wonder about this guy, this gentle older man in the zip-up cardigan and the Sperry sneakers. "What's his deal?" we asked ourselves, as if a person interested in the interior life of children, a person dedicated to the education of preschoolers, needed a deal. We know what Barney's deal is: he wants to sell crappy toys. But Mr. Rogers wasn't selling anything. He fixed the camera lens with a direct, wide-eyed gaze and he never looked away. He fell so deeply into conversation with his trains and puppets, so effortlessly surrendered to make-believe.

There were pedophilia jokes, of course, and lots of imitations of his famous, somewhat effeminate voice. But they never seemed to diminish him, or our childhood memories of him. What was his deal? Mr. Rogers was probably the only person ever to regularly appear on television who isn't deep down, basically, a jerk. No wonder we thought he was weird.

Now that we've lost him, it's hard not to reflect on what appalling garbage most children's television really is. The cheap sentimentality that oozes from shows like "Barney" and "Sesame Street" is impossible to wash off, all hugs and kisses and "I love you's." As if children are really taken in by a huge garish puppet claiming to love them all the way to Toys "R" Us.

Mr. Rogers didn't say all that much about love. He talked about sharing, friends and timeless childhood fears--of the dark, of the unknown, of change. Come to think of it, I'm still afraid of those things. Maybe that's why I'll miss him.