And even now, when he is producing only three weeks' worth of new programs a year, he still winds up agonizing— agonizing —about whether to announce his theme as "Little and Big" or "Big and Little" and still makes only two edits per televised minute, because he doesn't want his message to be determined by the cuts and splices in a piece of tape—to become, despite all his fierce coherence, "a message of fragmentation.
He is losing, of course. The revolution he started—a half hour a day, five days a week—it wasn't enough, it didn't spread , and so, forced to fight his battles alone, Mister Rogers is losing, as we all are losing. He is losing to it, to our twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight, to the dizzying cut and the disorienting edit, to the message of fragmentation, to the flicker and pulse and shudder and strobe, to the constant, hivey drone of the electroculture…and yet still he fights, deathly afraid that the medium he chose is consuming the very things he tried to protect: childhood and silence.
Yes, at seventy years old and pounds, Mister Rogers still fights, and indeed, early this year, when television handed him its highest honor, he responded by telling television—gently, of course—to just shut up for once, and television listened. He had already won his third Daytime Emmy, and now he went onstage to accept Emmy's Lifetime Achievement Award, and there, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.
Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are….
Ten seconds of silence. One second, two seconds, three seconds…and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, "May God be with you" to all his vanquished children.
Once upon a time, there was a little boy born blind, and so, defenseless in the world, he suffered the abuses of the defenseless, and when he grew up and became a man, he looked back and realized that he'd had no childhood at all, and that if he were ever to have a childhood, he would have to start having it now, in his forties.
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So the first thing he did was rechristen himself "Joybubbles"; the second thing he did was declare himself five years old forever; and the third thing he did was make a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh, where the University of Pittsburgh's Information Sciences Library keeps a Mister Rogers archive. It has all programs, in both color and black and white, and for two months this past spring, Joybubbles went to the library every day for ten hours and watched the Neighborhood's every episode, plus specials—or, since he is blind, listened to every episode, imagined every episode.
Until one night, Mister Rogers came to him, in what he calls a visitation—"I was dreaming, but I was awake"—and offered to teach him how to pray. What kind of prayer has only three words? The walls of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood are light blue and fleeced with clouds.
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They are tall—as tall as the cinder-block walls they are designed to hide—and they encompass the Neighborhood's entire stage set, from the flimsy yellow house where Mister Rogers comes to visit, to the closet where he finds his sweaters, to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where he goes to dream. The blue walls are the ends of the daylit universe he has made, and yet Mister Rogers can't see them—or at least can't know them—because he was born blind to color.
He doesn't know the color of his walls, and one day, when I caught him looking toward his painted skies, I asked him to tell me what color they are , and he said, "I imagine they're blue , Tom. And yet still he fights, deathly afraid that the medium he chose is consuming the very things he tried to protect: childhood and silence. He has spent thirty-one years imagining and reimagining those walls—the walls that have both penned him in and set him free. You would think it would be easy by now, being Mister Rogers; you would think that one morning he would wake up and think, Okay, all I have to do is be nice for my allotted half hour today, and then I'll just take the rest of the day off….
But no, Mister Rogers is a stubborn man, and so on the day I ask about the color of his sky, he has already gotten up at five-thirty, already prayed for those who have asked for his prayers, already read, already written, already swum, already weighed himself, already sent out cards for the birthdays he never forgets, already called any number of people who depend on him for comfort, already cried when he read the letter of a mother whose child was buried with a picture of Mister Rogers in his casket, already played for twenty minutes with an autistic boy who has come, with his father, all the way from Boise, Idaho, to meet him.
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The boy had never spoken, until one day he said, "X the Owl," which is the name of one of Mister Rogers's puppets, and he had never looked his father in the eye until one day his father had said, "Let's go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe," and now the boy is speaking and reading, and the father has come to thank Mister Rogers for saving his son's life…. And by this time, well, it's nine-thirty in the morning, time for Mister Rogers to take off his jacket and his shoes and put on his sweater and his sneakers and start taping another visit to the Neighborhood.
He writes all his own scripts, but on this day, when he receives a visit from Mrs. McFeely and a springer spaniel, she says that she has to bring the dog "back to his owner," and Mister Rogers makes a face. The cameras stop, and he says, "I don't like the word owner there. It's not a good word. Let's change it to 'bring the dog home. Yes, it should be easy being Mister Rogers, but when four o'clock rolls around, well, Mister Rogers is tired , and so he sneaks over to the piano and starts playing, with dexterous, pale fingers, the music that used to end a s newsreel and that has now become the music he plays to signal to the cast and crew that a day's taping has wrapped.
On this day, however, he is premature by a considerable extent, and so Margy, who has been with Mister Rogers since —because nobody who works for Mister Rogers ever leaves the Neighborhood—comes running over, papers in hand, and says, "Not so fast there, buster. And now Margy comes up behind him and massages his shoulders. Mister Rogers still has a ways to go.
He was a child, once, too, and so one day I asked him if I could go with him back to Latrobe. He thought about it for a second, then said, by way of agreement, "Okay, then—tomorrow, Tom, I'll show you childhood. There was nobody home.
The doors were open, unlocked, because the house was undergoing a renovation of some kind, but the owners were away, and Mister Rogers's boyhood home was empty of everyone but workmen. Bill had driven us there, and now, sitting behind the wheel of his red Grand Cherokee, he was full of remonstrance. If we wanted to go into the house, we should have called first. Fred…" But Mister Rogers was out of the car, with his camera in his hand and his legs moving so fast that the material of his gray suit pants furled and unfurled around both of his skinny legs, like flags exploding in a breeze.
And here, as he made his way through thickets of bewildered workmen—this skinny old man dressed in a gray suit and a bow tie, with his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo, like a dance instructor—there was some kind of wiggly jazz in his legs, and he went flying all around the outside of the house, pointing at windows, saying there was the room where he learned to play the piano, and there was the room where he saw the pie fight on a primitive television, and there was the room where his beloved father died…until finally we reached the front door.
He put his hand on the knob; he cracked it open, but then, with Bill Isler calling caution from the car, he said, "Maybe we shouldn't go in. And all the people who made this house special to me are not here, anyway. They're all in heaven.
And so we went to the graveyard. We were heading there all along, because Mister Rogers loves graveyards, and so as we took the long, straight road out of sad, fading Latrobe, you could still feel the speed in him, the hurry, as he mustered up a sad anticipation, and when we passed through the cemetery gates, he smiled as he said to Bill Isler, "The plot's at the end of the yellow-brick road.
He got out of the car, and, moving as quickly as he had moved to the door of his house, he stepped up a small hill to the door of a large gray mausoleum, a huge structure built for six, with a slightly peaked roof, and bronze doors, and angels living in the stained glass. He peeked in the window, and in the same voice he uses on television, that voice, at once so patient and so eager, he pointed out each crypt, saying "There's my father, and there's my mother, and there, on the left, is my place, and right across will be Joanne And then he was on the move again, happily, quickly, for he would not leave until he showed me all the places of all those who'd loved him into being.
His grandfather, his grandmother, his uncles, his aunts, his father-in-law and mother-in-law, even his family's servants—he went to each grave, and spoke their names, and told their stories, until finally I headed back down to the Jeep and turned back around to see Mister Rogers standing high on a green dell, smiling among the stones. Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn't want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, "The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that's what heaven is, Tom.
We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us—I've just met you, but I'm investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can't help it. The next afternoon, I went to his office in Pittsburgh.
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He was sitting on a couch, under a framed rendering of the Greek word for grace and a biblical phrase written in Hebrew that means "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine. Her name was Deb. She was very pretty. She had a long face and a dark blush to her skin. She had curls in her hair and stars at the centers of her eyes. She was a minister at Fred Rogers's church. She spent much of her time tending to the sick and the dying. Fred Rogers loved her very much, and so, out of nowhere, he smiled and put his hand over hers.
Do you know that about yourself?
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Your prayers are just wonderful. I was sitting in a small chair by the door, and he said, "Tom, would you close the door, please? Would you lead us in prayer? Deb stiffened for a second, and she let out a breath, and her color got deeper. Fred never stopped looking at her or let go of her hand. It's just a meeting of friends," he said. He moved his hand from her wrist to her palm and extended his other hand to me. I took it and then put my hand around her free hand.