When I was living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and came back sometime later to see what was left, one of the things I found was the November 1998 issue of Esquire magazine. The cover with Mister Rogers on it was faded, and the pages were worn thin from rereading. There may have been a little mold on Mister Rogers’ face. Possibly there was asbestos on his sleeve from the roof shingles that had blown off during the storm. Regardless, I took the magazine with me.
Tom Junod’s “Can You Say … ‘Hero’?” is a celebrity profile, but the celebrity is the man in the gold cardigan who showed you how to tie your shoes. Of course, like any great story, it’s not simply about what it appears to be about. It’s about love and prayer, grace and humility, and the triumph of the human spirit through television. It’s about Junod, a stuffed animal named Old Rabbit that he had when he was a little boy, a rabbit that he lost. It’s about being a child – “You were a child once, too” is the chorus – and what we lose when we grow up and stop watching Mister Rogers.
Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray.
Occasionally, a fragment of the story will resurface in my mind. Mister Rogers, nude in a locker room, “slightly aswing at the fine bobbing nest of himself.” Mister Rogers, visiting his family tomb, “‘And now if you don’t mind,’ he said without a hint of shame or embarrassment, ‘I have to find a place to relieve myself,’ and then off he went, this ecstatic ascetic, to take a proud piss in his corner of heaven.” Mister Rogers, meeting a boy with cerebral palsy, “‘I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?’ On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, ‘I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?’”
For me, the piece is a talisman. It’s a chant, or what you remind yourself of when everything goes wrong, or a mantra about compassion that does not easily translate into any Western language.
The story works because it speaks to you as if you are the child you once were. It refuses to be snarky and dares to move you. Its author subjugates himself to his true master – the subject – in this case, the man we spent our collective childhood rapt before in the blue glow of a screen: “Mister Fucking Rogers.” Most stories move you forward. That’s how stories work: They unspool. Instead, Junod’s paean is a return, a transgressive retreat to a place where, before we fell from innocence, every day was a wonder and tying our shoes was a miracle.
In the end, Junod, Mister Rogers and a woman who is a minister in Mister Rogers’ church come together in Mister Rogers’ office. Holding hands, they bow their heads and pray together. Here, the true story reveals itself, piercing the heart with its revelation. “What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella,” Junod writes. In looking backwards, we see all we’ve lost and feel the weight of that certainty. Having left something behind, we return when we can and take what remains of what was taken from us once upon a time.
Susannah Breslin is an award-winning blogger, freelance journalist and novelist. She writes the Pink Slipped blog for Forbes, and her work has appeared in Details, Harper’s Bazaar, Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Daily Beast, Variety, The LA Weekly and Esquire.com.