I kind of had a crush on Mister Rogers growing up.
Maybe it was the snazzy cardigan, or his shoes or the way he could change into his sweater and sneakers without missing a beat in his song. Maybe it was his soft voice or his fishies, which never saw the swirly-twirly suck of toilet doom. Maybe it was his coveted traffic light.
Part of growing up in Pittsburgh has always included, and should always include – forever and ever, amen – the kind world of Mister Rogers. Sure, the rest of the country could watch Mister Rogers, but we knew he was coming to us from Pittsburgh. He was in our city, caring about us and close to us.
I grew up with four sisters. Five girls. One bathroom. I'll pause for a moment so you can think of my father, who never lost his mind. Much.
Five girls ages 3 to 9 meant fights over everything. Toy possession. Personal-space, encroachment – "I'm not touching youuuu." "Mom, she's not touching me! MAKE HER STOP." I'll pause for a moment so you can think of my mother, who never lost her mind. Except for the time she threw the toy cash register down the stairs, breaking it into a dozen pieces. "Now, it's NOBODY'S toy!"
Which television shows we could watch as a group was another testy subject. With three semi-clear channels and one really fuzzy one, there weren't many choices. "Sesame Street" was out because the two youngest had epic freak-outs when The Count appeared – menacingly counting lollipops while cymbals crashed to the beat of his evil "One! Two! Three!"
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was one of the few times you could find five rambunctious girls capable of bringing any obnoxious boy to tears lined up on the couch silently mouthing, "I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood … with you!"
Mister Rogers was good for us. He could lay a guilt trip on us like no other person. One little talk to us about sharing, caring and being a good person and suddenly we five would warily eye the scattered remains of the cash register at the foot of the stairs and sink a little lower into the couch.
Mister Rogers could tell us things no one else seemed to know anything about. "Dad, how do they make crayons?" "Well, girls, they melt down a rainbow is what they do." "How do they get the rainbow, though?" "Girls, would you like some ICE CREAM?!"
Picture Picture showed us how crayons were really made. Is there a child in Pittsburgh who didn't feel tingly with glee when Mister Rogers revealed thousands of brand-new crayons rolling off the assembly line? It was as if he was letting us in on a secret. Kids, here's how they make the joy!
Mister Rogers was the holy grail of famous people. Forget Kermie and Piggy. If you met Mister Rogers, Mr. McFeely or even Purple Panda, you were instantly more popular in school.
Mister Rogers didn't need newfangled technology, bouncing numbers with eyebrows, a backpack with a magic map or an annoyingly cheerful furry red guy who insisted on referring to himself in the third person. Mister Rogers only needed his house, his shoes, his sweater, his trolley and, most important, his imagination.
That same imagination must have had an off day when it dreamed up the scariest puppet in all the Kingdom of Puppetry – Lady Elaine Fairchilde. She of the eyes that viciously suck your soul out. She of the super-scary chanting, "Boomerang, toomerang, soomerang!"
As we sat on the couch learning how they really make construction paper – "Daddy! They do not slice up rainbow-colored trees!" – we knew that Mister Rogers loved us. He made us want to behave better than we'd been behaving.
And we would. We'd wave goodbye to him, hop down off the couch and, I swear, it would take a good 40 minutes before the shrieking began anew. "Mom, she's looking at me … on purpose!"
I discovered that my favorite muffin at my favorite doughnut place has three times more fat than its doughnuts – doughnuts I have eschewed because of said fat. I could eat a Whopper and still eat less fat than is contained in a single muffin. I could eat three doughnuts. Four tacos. I could eat two bowls of ice cream drizzled with chocolate and nuts. Muffins are crafty evil-doers.
My niece is not quite 2 yet. She will grab her mother's iPhone, turn it on, open up apps, scroll up and down, spell words, solve puzzles, land airplanes, whack moles, and she'll do it all without the assistance of an adult. Hand that same iPhone to my mother and she'll ask, "Hey, how do I turn this doohickey on?" Kids are smart little techies.