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September 1993, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It's a shimmering Indian summer Sunday afternoon and I'm walking alone across the Schenley Park Bridge, above what readers of Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh will recognize as the Cloud Factory. I've just left a writers' conference at the University of Pittsburgh where literary lions like Tobias Wolfe and Joyce Carol Oates have held forth, and I'm headed for WRCT at Carnegie Mellon University to talk about it on a friend's radio magazine. I'm one year out of Pitt, taking tickets for minimum wage at a science museum, scribbling book and record reviews for a soon-to-be-defunct weekly, and wondering just what I thought I was going to do with a creative writing degree. I'm also wondering what I'm going to say about the conference that won't sound bitter and self-denying when I become aware of a human presence walking behind me, a little too close for comfort on the empty skywalk. I turn with a practiced defensive scowl and it melts from my face.
"Mr. Rogers?!" I bleat.
"Well, hello!" Yes, he's wearing a cardigan, and there's a halo above his head.
"What are you doing here?" I ask, because obviously, he's supposed to be in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, not on the bridge I found myself on every time I dropped acid over the previous five years. Turns out he'd just left the conference too, and the first thing he wants to know is what I think of it. What I think of it? I don't know what to think of it, but even if I did I'm not telling him. I'm not gonna say another stupid thing to Mr. Rogers. So I tell him what I'm up to and I ask him what he thinks.
"It's wonderful," he says. "So many writers, but each one has something different and special to say."
Of course he'd say that. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, but his message of unconditional self-acceptance got corny around the time Eddie Murphy started doing him, and was eventually eclipsed by the back monkey of Catholic guilt, and then a worldview shaped more by Black Flag, the Crucifucks, David Lynch, and the Gulf War. It takes a chance meeting on a sunny empty bridge to bring it all back.
I'm relaxed now. We're chatting easily, and I walk with him across the bridge to his car—a gray compact with a few rust spots—we shake hands and he scoots off. I rush up to the station and instead of talking about the conference I yammer on about how awesome it is to meet Mr. Rogers: It. Is. Awesome! And if you don't think so you should meet him.
Two days later a package arrives at the station. Return address: WQED-TV. Inside, a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood sweatshirt and a handwritten note:
How good it was to meet you on the bridge! It didn't dawn on me that it would mean so much to you, but when I listened to your report I was touched that you cared as you did. As the autumn begins I thought you might like the enclosed to keep you warm—as you have warmed my heart by your enthusiastic kind words.
He listened and it warmed his heart. That keeps on giving. I hang it right next to my Dolinsky.
Rogers was generous with notes such as these, as you'll see if you check out the screening of Mr. Rogers & Me at 3 PM Sunday at the Siskel Center. Benjamin Wagner, a vice president at MTV, enjoyed a few brushes with Rogers when they summered next door to each other on Nantucket, and his recollections form the introduction of this 2010 eulogy, a road trip in which the video maker asks media types, activists, and religious figures (Tim Russert, Linda Ellerbee, Davy Rothbart) how Rogers's message of simplicity, self-love, and neighborliness inspired their own work and worldview.
Roll your eyes if you want—he liked you just the way you are.