The best neighbor you could ever have.
I am not a very pleasant person sometimes. In fact, a good friend of mine fairly routinely describes me as a ‘dark-hearted motherfucker’. That’s pretty accurate, I feel. I am angry, cynical, and have a dim opinion in general about people. I think that people are terrible animals, as I have said many times before, and that there is no such thing as base good in the world – that we must ascend to it, and that we are all capable of doing so. Now I’ve dealt with a great deal of dark things growing up, and there’s no denying that it’s colored me. It shows up in my fiction, my interviews, and what I post online. However, it may surprise you to know that I am not, in fact, a horrible bastard-man that eats children for fuel. In fact, I love people very much, despite of what I might feel about their animal basis. There are two forces of brightness and stability in my life growing up in my life that I can credit this to: my parents, who I am pleased to say are still with me, and Fred Rogers, who is not. Eleven years today, Fred Rogers, host of public television standard Mister Rogers Neighborhood, left the world. I believe that we are greatly impoverished for it.
I was a very smart, very sensitive kid – I say this because, as my wife will probably tell you, all signs of intelligence and emotional vulnerability tend to abandon me at times now that I’m an adult. But I grew up in rural West Virginia in the 1980s, and basically all that intelligence and sensitivity got you back then was the shit beaten out of you on the playground (and on the bus, and on the walk home, and the walk to school the next day) on a daily basis. I was basically terrified of kids my age growing up until junior high. This fear also filled me with a desire to understand adults, with whom I was more agreeably aligned and whose actions I could more easily understand. I spent a lot of time at home and inside watching public television. Sesame Street was wonderful, as were the rest, but nothing made me happier than when I could sit down in front of the television at 7:30 in the morning (and later, as I got older, in the afternoons) when that little trolley sped on through its miniature neighborhood past the little yellow house with its white porch and awnings, the credits would roll, and Mister Rogers would invite me into his home. I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood because he spoke to children about very important and very adult things – dealing with one’s anger, nightmares, divorce, war, and even death (which, it must be said, Sesame Street also did wonderfully) – in an honest and natural way. Fred Rogers said that “children can spot a phony a mile away” and he was absolutely right; there were so many moments when, as a child, I felt that I could not trust the adults that were around me. Mister Rogers, though, I could always trust. As a child, especially when surrounded by adults who constantly fought and were so absolutely monstrous to one another when they thought that children couldn’t see, I needed that kind of center, that open and honest place that I could feel emotionally and intellectually safe. Fred Rogers gave that place to me. He was, in some ways, a grandfather – I never really thought of him as a father figure, my own father had filled that slot very well – that I had always wanted. And no matter what happened, no matter what kind of a beating I’d gotten that day or emotional abuse had been put to me, whatever sadness I could see in the faces of my family members, I would go home and have someone tell me that I had made the day a special one just by being myself. Nothing bad that could happen meant quite so much in the face of that reassurance.
I dearly miss my neighbor, but even though he’s gone, his legacy remains. May many more generations of children and parents experience it, for the benefit of everyone. Fred Rogers taught me about dignity, kindness, patience and mutual respect in ways that nobody else has, or perhaps could – for that alone, I owe him a debt that I can never repay even had he not passed on. It is because of him that I try and help people whenever I can, whether they are aware of it or not – he always said that as a child, his mother told him to “look for the helpers” in times of trouble. It is because of him that I know that while I may fall into the trap of human frailty, I can climb back out and be twice the person I was before I stumbled. In some ways, it’s because of him that I have any faith in the world at all as a grown man. Many of you out there, readers and friends, have young children…and if you never experienced Mister Rogers Neighborhood, I would ask you that you put aside whatever television show your kid is watching now, find it somewhere – even on Youtube if you must – to sit down and experience it right alongside them. There are some who would blame Fred Rogers for starting a culture of excessive doting, or of ‘soft’, over-sensitive children…but I’m telling you, as someone who grew up with a very wounded heart, that this is unequivocal bullshit. In many ways, as a child and as an adult, Fred Rogers saved my life.
So here’s to you, Mister Rogers. And to all of you, who follow me and read my work, a moment of heartfelt sunshine to pierce the gloom. Thank you. For everything.
You are my friend, you are special.
You are my friend, you’re special to me.
You are the only one like you.
Like you, my friend, I like you.
In the daytime, in the nighttime,
Anytime that you feel’s the right time
For a friendship with me, you see,
You are my friend, you’re special to me.
There’s only one in this wonderful world.
You.. are.. special.