It’s a beautiful day in the passenger seat

Mar 5, 2003 at 12:00 am

Last Thursday morning, my 13-year-old daughter, who listens to the radio as she’s getting ready for school, padded into my room, put a hand on my shoulder and shook me awake.

“Dad,” she said. “I just heard. Mr. Rogers died.”

It wasn’t that she had some special affinity born of watching the kiddie-show host when she was younger. For some reason, neither of my kids ever did much hanging out in Mr. Rogers’ television neighborhood. They were more into the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

No, what prompted my daughter to deliver that particular piece of news was a story I’d told her just two evenings earlier.

Most nights, as I’m tucking her into bed, Tess will ask me to tell her a story. Usually I offer up some snippet of adventure that occurred during less-encumbered days, when all I needed was my backpack and a few dollars in my pocket to head off for places unknown. My store of material is starting to wear a little thin. But there are still a few nuggets remaining, and so, last Tuesday, I reached into my bag of tales and pulled out one she’d not heard before, about Mr. Rogers.

For a time, while attending the University of Pittsburgh, I lived in a section of the city called Point Breeze. It was an interesting area. My street was filled with row houses, cramped, with postage stamp-sized back yards that offered little room to play for the children of blue-collar, Iron City beer-drinking folk. But more upscale streets, with sprawling houses and broad, tree-shaded lawns surrounded us. Just a few blocks away, a former estate owned by a member of the aristocratic Mellon family had been turned into a public park. Somewhere in that pastiche of working- and upper-class lived the venerable Fred Rogers, whose show originated in the studios of Pittsburgh’s public television station.

So, yeah, I lived in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

I was 22 at the time, and had never owned a car. Didn’t need to, really. Most times the Pittsburgh Department of Public Transportation met my needs just fine.

On the day of my story, I was running a hair late, but stopped nonetheless for a moment, fishing in my pocket for some loose change to buy a morning paper. As I stood there, counting out the nickels to drop into the slot, my bus rolled past. I chased it. If the traffic light at the corner turned red I’d be OK. But it stayed green, the bus sped on, and I was going to be late for work. Again. Not a good thing.

“Shit,” I said to myself. Then another part of my brain kicked in and I counseled myself not to worry, that everything happened for a reason. Still another voice inside me piped up and told me to get real.

“The only reason you missed that bus is because you stopped to get that paper,” said the voice of the rational. “Quit reading cosmic importance into every little thing.”

You know, that voice of reason, was hard to argue with. It’s difficult to believe that magic exists, especially in a world so often filled with tragedy. I was ready to concede the argument to my rational self. I also had to get to work.

I went to the curb and stuck out my thumb. Within a minute or two a sedan pulled over. I open the front passenger door, climb in and see Mr. Rogers behind the wheel. This man, who had spent his life encouraging children to open up their imaginations and indulge in the fantastic, had come to my rescue.

I laughed to myself, and vowed never again to doubt that there’s more to this life than meets the cold eye of logic. I can’t explain it, but I can believe in it, and carry this certainty with me as an act of faith.

Mr. Rogers, who was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, was every bit the gentle soul in person that he was on TV. He asked me if I had any hobbies, and what I planned to do with my life.

“I plan on having lots of adventures,” I said, not telling him about the schizophrenic confrontation I’d been having with myself a few minutes earlier.

“That sounds like an excellent plan,” he said, bestowing his blessings with the kindest of smiles.

And then the ride was over.

Twenty-five years later, on the eve of his death, I told this story to my daughter.

“Maybe things really do happen for a reason,” she said.

This world is going to miss you, Mr. Rogers.

Thanks for the lift.

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]