“Fred Rogers, 1928–2003.”

Originally printed in The Philadelphia Independent (“TOO BIG TO READ ON THE SUBWAY/BEHOLDEN TO NO ONE”), March 2003

The zipper broke on my red sweater, and I can’t find my other
sneaker. Mr. McFeely’s worried the puppets will all lie there limp
and mute, but I tell you, I’m afraid to go and look. Lady Aberlin
won’t stop crying. The trolley we’ve festooned with black. Who will
explain this to us?

Mister Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer this past Thursday. He was
74, and husband of Joanne, father of two, grandfather of two,
television host, ordained Presbyterian minister, puppeteer, singer,
pianist, teacher, innovator, reader, avid swimmer, writer of small
operas, great friend and neighbor. In the Land of Make Believe, he
was appended into striped tiger and pussycat, king and queen and Lady
Elaine, but in his living room, remained, in sweater and navy-blue
sneakers, enduringly the same, although three decades on air turned
his hair slowly silver. He was, throughout, the very picture of
great-heartedness and, while authorities tend to incarcerate adult
men who entertain other people’s unaccompanied children in the
privacy of their own home, it was generally agreed that in the case
of Mister Rogers we were safer there than elsewhere.

Sesame Street was, to be fair, quite a lot more fun; the fantasy was
never ever cloistered away, and we kids were led to believe that the
neighborhoods of New York were busy with all sorts of goofball
monstrosities. But Fred Rogers made a quieter entertainment out of
gentle reassurance, out of kindness and sincerity, and when he was on
we sat down in front of the television for the pleasure of feeling
loved. “The only person in the whole world just like you” he’d say to
us at the close of each visit, and even if we were just old enough to
think what a friggin’ nerd, in his voice we knew conviction, and
comfort.

Most children’s hosts resemble sports mascots or rodeo clowns, but
Mister Rogers mostly played himself: it would however be hard for us
to underestimate the courage of his ordinariness. He had the face as
he aged of a sweet old gazelle and, like Clark Kent shedding his
glasses, transformed himself for us only in the smallest and most
vivid of ways. There was in fact no put-on at all in his act or his
art, and so we accepted as true all that he told us about friendship,
nature, wheelchairs, harmonicas, antique cars, ribbon factories,
straw, bell or towel factories, Lou Ferrigno in his green make-up,
Navajo art, and where the goldfish went.

Mister Rogers was, perhaps more than anything, a generous and gifted
explainer, and he took as his subjects not just what made us smile
but what made us cry. This curious nerdy man believed that children
should be protected but not fooled and thus his neighborhood, peopled
with real people, was touched sometimes by great difficulty, divorce
and even death. And when something sad or terrible occurred, he sat
down, he did, because he loved and respected us so, and spoke to us. 
It seems to me a horrid and nasty insult that Fred Rogers should die
just as our president defrauds the world into a war. Will reruns be
enough to sustain us, or do we all fail when we end?

Besides we never did know where he came from each day in his rain
coat or his plaid blazer, and now we do not know where he’s gone.
This is some scary shit, I won’t lie, and no matter how many times I
flip the switch the trolley just won’t come. I am inconsolable, but
maybe, perhaps, there is time enough for one song or more.

Now, everybody, all together —

I’ll be back, when the day is new
And I’ll have more ideas for you
And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about
I will — ”
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