I lived in Mister Rogers' neighborhood.
No, I mean I really did. When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, the Rogers family lived just around the corner, in a big brick house with a sloping lawn.
Settling down each afternoon to watch Mister Rogers' eponymous television show, my brother Peter and I would wait for him to ask his famous musical question, "Won't you be my neighbor?" and we would yell back at the set, laughing uproariously, "But we ARE your neighbors!"
My family also went to the same church as the Rogers family, and when we were little, Peter and I would go upstairs during services to the playroom where every few weeks we restless children were joined by Mister Rogers. He would appear in the doorway without fanfare, slip into the room and start reading a book aloud, or talking earnestly with a five-year-old about a new puppy or little brother, or just sit at one of the miniature tables, his long legs tucked up toward his chest, smiling down at us as we played.
At Halloween, Mister and Mrs. Rogers gave out amazing candy (full-size, full-sugar candy bars! No bite-size Hershey bars here. And no ultra-healthy apples or pears.) Mrs. Rogers tended to the trick-or-treaters, but I have a suspicion that Mister Rogers, while perhaps wary of hijacking the costumed childrens' limelight, was always nearby.
When I was about 12, the Rogers family moved out to the suburbs, and another family took over the big brick house. Selfishly, I was pleased by the timing: If they had to leave, now was the time. The Rogers' departure coincided neatly with the end of my childhood, and while I really missed knowing Mister Rogers was just down the street, I was really too old (or at least I pretended to be) to watch the show anymore. I started high school, went on dates, and we still saw Mister Rogers at church, where he would smile at us.
I was always vaguely aware of my neighbor's celebrity, but, as is the case with so many remarkable childhood circumstances, the full impact of Mister Rogers' reflected glory didn't hit me until I left home for college. It never ceased to amaze new acquaintances: I grew up just one block from the television legend. Everyone had questions. Did he really wear cardigans at home? (I don't think so). Did he sing "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" when he answered the door? (Nope). Could I get an autograph for someone? (Oooh. I'd rather not).
And while children inevitably gravitated toward him, it was Mister Rogers' effect on grownups that's especially astounding. A few years ago, when I brought my then 25-year-old boyfriend home for Christmas, we went to church on the Christmas Eve, and looking around at the candle-lit sanctuary, he suddenly poked his index finger into my side. "Ow!" I stage-whispered. "What're you doing?" "Look," he said, pointing behind the pew to a man seated two rows ahead. "It's Mister Rogers!" His glee was unmistakable, and after the service, he did his best imitation of nonchalance, trying to get a better look. I'm pretty sure Mister Rogers caught on to the scrutiny, but he just kept smiling and shaking hands.
Two years ago, when Mister Rogers hung up his cardigan for the last time (the 72-year-old taped the final installment of his show in 2000, and it will air next week), a palpable sense of sadness permeates PBS. His death this week has compounded that feeling of loss.
And although the show will continue ad infinitum thanks to the glory of reruns, there is indeed a horrible finality to the end of "Neighborhood." It's the end of an era, and in a way, the true end of childhood for many of us who grew up seeing ourselves through Mister Rogers' gentle and compassionate eyes.
The most remarkable thing about Mister Rogers was not that he loved children, although that was apparent to anyone who observed him even for a moment. It's that he respected children, not just for their ability to amuse or inspire, but for their intellect, their inherent sense of right, and their penchant for honesty. For 33 years, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" provoked laughter, wild feats of imagination and a sense of uniqueness in the children who were fortunate enough to spend 30 minutes in Mister Rogers' televised presence. And as for the children who actually spent time with the real person it's only now that many of us are starting to realize how lucky we really are.