Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of very few shows I watched as a child. I liked it better than Sesame Street or cartoons and I always felt a little sheepish about that. I thought I should know that those other shows were “cooler” but something about the kind man who had a trolley in his living room, talked to puppets, and sang songs left a stronger impression on me.
I liked the field trips he would take us on through his picture frame. I still can’t use a crayon without thinking of the crayon factory visit. I liked figuring out the moral conundrums of the Neighborhood of Make-believe along with Good King Friday. Lady Elaine Fairchilde always scared and fascinated me – truly a strong and complex female character on television.
But I think the part of the show that I liked the best was when Mr. Rogers had guests stop by to play music or talk about art or big things that were happening in the world. When I was a little, having people over for dinner was one of the most exciting things. I loved meeting new people and listening to grown-ups talk at the table and I would get a similar thrill watching Mr. Rogers have his neighbors stop by.
Mr. Rogers interest in his guests, his honest questions, and his obviously kind curiosity gave me permission to be similarly curious and ask questions of adults and people from different backgrounds from mine. Even now, I am still learning to ask the simple yet profound questions that were the essence of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I saw the new Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last weekend and the part of his story that hit me the hardest was his insecurity about whether his work was making a difference in the world. He wondered if anyone understood the big work his show was doing or if everyone just saw it as a sweet kids show. When he was asked to do a PSA after 9/11, he asked if anyone would even care what he had to say. Little did he know that that PSA would be quoted and replayed after every national and international tragedy since then.
I happened to watch this documentary on the day Anthony Bourdain died which meant I ended up drawing connections between their work that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Anthony Bourdain’s shows also exhibited that kind of curiosity and inquisitiveness that draws people in and makes them feel more familiar than other or strange. The way Bourdain embraced other cultures through their food with open arms made the world feel close and accessible.
Anthony Bourdain’s shows made a Vietnamese noodle shop feel like it was part of my neighborhood as much as the BBQ joint in South Carolina. He allowed himself to be a learner and a teacher in each of these interactions and over the course of his career exhibited a greater humility, intentionally moving away from some of the brashness of his early career.
I have no idea what Mr. Rogers or Mr. Bourdain thought of the legacy of their work at the end of their lives. I hope they were proud of what they accomplished. I hope they know they inspired many to be good neighbors through asking questions and inviting others into our lives through food and hospitality. I know their work helped me be less afraid of asking questions and being curious of others. Their work gave me permission to keep seeking to know my “neighbors” and live in a wider neighborhood.