16 July 2018

No More Mr. Nice Guy

by Steve Hockensmith

Being a slim-ish (off and on) white dude (always) with a mild disposition (usually) and a closet full of cardigans, I've been compared to Mr. Rogers more than once over the years. Even in my early twenties, when I picked up the cardigan habit thanks to a frayed maroon sweater inherited from my grandfather, I didn't take this as an insult. My mom likes to tell the story of my older brother's reaction to the first episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a 3-year-old -- he turned to her at the end and said, "He's a nice man" -- and I always felt the same way about the guy after I came along. He was a nice man, and Princess Leia and I are simpatico on them.

As an American dude, though, I didn't always get the feeling I was supposed to like nice men. Nice guys finish last, remember, and the guys who came in first, the culture sometimes seemed to say, where macho hard-asses. Your football players, your professional wrestlers, your no-nonsense businessmen, your posturing politicians, your tough-talking pundits, your action heroes, your Mike Hammers, your Batmans.

All the same, I tried to Han Solo it.

And like Han, I can't always pull it off. For him, being "nice men" is tough because he's actually a lovable scoundrel (and, let us not forget, a scruffy-looking nerf herder). For me it can be tricky because even though I have Fred Rogers in my heart I have Larry David in my head. As much as I try to do the right thing, like the anti-hero of Curb Your Enthusiasm I often put myself on that road good intentions are known for because I'm paranoid I've done something very, very wrong. At least once a month I find myself giving some exchange on Facebook or Twitter the patented Larry David Look because I can't quite tell if I was rude, someone was rude to me or everything's hunky dory.

And sometimes it's not paranoia. As a writer, I agonize over every word. But that's not an option when you're dealing with people who aren't figments of your imagination. In the real world, everything that pops out of your mouth is a first draft you had to write on the fly. Many, many, many times I've wished I could go back and edit something I said -- give it a polish so it's not so, you know, stupid -- but c'est la vie. Or c'est my la vie anyway. Hopefully yours doesn't feel so fraught.

What would Mr. Rogers have to say about all these neuroses? "It's alright," probably. "I like you just the way you are." Or maybe "Meow meow chill out, man, meow meow" (if he had his Daniel Tiger puppet with him). He'd keep it positive, in other words. No matter what.

I think that's why Mr. Rogers is having a bit of a cultural moment. There's a new documentary about him, for one thing, but even before that came along I was seeing him pop up in my Facebook feed at least once a day. If it wasn't the clip of him testifying before Congress it was a meme about him suing the KKK or meeting Koko the gorilla (a big fan -- literally). Forget Joe DiMaggio. Where have you gone, Fred Rogers? Our nation is turning its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.

Like painter/zen master/squirrel enthusiast Bob Ross, who had his own moment a couple years ago, Mr. Rogers represents a gentleness, kindness and all-around goodness that seems so rare these days -- so diametrically opposed to the current zeitgeist -- it's practically revolutionary. And "Viva la revolucion!" I say. I know the moment will pass, but in my own small, flawed way, I hope I can help it last just a little bit longer.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go finish my latest book about theft, blackmail and murder.


  1. Thanks for the story about suing the KKK. That was a new one to me.

  2. Oh, Steve - I know your pain. As I responded once in an Al-Anon meeting, when we were talking about the "committee" in our heads, I said, "Committees are organized - I just have a bunch of monkeys. And I don't know what they're gonna say."
    Meanwhile, I miss Mr. Rogers. I miss The Waltons. Hell, I even miss Mayberry. Now, I too, must go back to a dark tale of arson, adultery, and murder...

  3. Yeah, that KKK story is pretty great, Rob. Just goes to show: "Nice" doesn't have to mean "passive" or "ineffectual."

    Thanks for reminding me of the Waltons and Andy Griffith, Eve. Two more examples of old school nice. Another, in its own way, would be Superman. When I was a kid I thought he was Super-Boring, but now I'm really fond of the guy. The classic Superman, anyway. I think it says a lot about the age we live in that the last few DC movies have turned him into a brooding Super-Jerk. That's just what's expected these days. Everything's gotta be edgy. For god's sake, the last time I was at the movie theater I saw a preview for a "dark reinterpretation" (the voice-over announcer literally said that) of The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker?!? (I didn't dream it, BTW: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nutcracker_and_the_Four_Realms) At this point, staying "nice" feels like an act of rebellion.

  4. My sister worked at WQED in Pittsburgh down the hall from where Mr. Rogers taped his show & knew him fairly well in the early 1980s. She said that in real life he was _exactly_ like his TV character. Fun fact: the actor Michael Keaton, at that time worked as a production assistant on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

  5. Thanks for sharing that, Elizabeth! I've read the same thing elsewhere -- that Rogers' demeanor in real life was super-close to his on-screen persona -- but it's lovely to get a confirmation. Imagine how heartbroken we'd all be if your sister had been, like, "Oh, that Fred...don't get me started. What a mean-spirited S.O.B.!"

  6. When a girlfriend was a kid, she a neighbor of Fred Rogers in– I want to say Squirrel Hill– in Pittsburgh. She echoes what Elizabeth says, he really was a nice man, somewhat shy and modest to the extreme, mowing his own lawn, buying his own groceries. He simply wanted to be a good neighbor.

    She claims Mr Rogers kept no desk in his WQED station office. Apparently he felt a desk wasn’t conducive to his concept of accessible business practices. Sad to say, a self-serving, self-righteous Congress has dismantled his public broadcasting legacy.

  7. I drove through his real-life neighborhood once in the late '80s. It was very nice, as I recall, but there was no trolley.

    It's not just his public broadcasting legacy that's being dismantled, alas. The niceness is pretty much gone, too, though it survives in pockets. Then again, niceness is always rare and precious, I suppose. Our culture's nastiness is front and center at the moment, but it's always been there. As crime writers, maybe it's partially our job to remind people of that...even though most of the time I'd rather get on the trolley for the Land of Make Believe and not come back.

  8. Great post. I loved Mr Rogers as a child and I saw the documentary and cried along with everyone else. He was a great man who battled his own feelings of inadequacy, often in public, and that is bravery on par with stepping into the ring with someone you know is better than you, in my book. Watching him speak through Daniel Tiger is some of the most cathartic activity I can think of. So brave, and teaching children it is okay to be afraid and how to overcome it without platitudes, is enduring and great work for humanity.

  9. Wow, man -- that's a much better tribute to the guy than mine! What takes more courage: posturing and blustering to prove you're tough or putting a cat puppet on your hand and talking about insecurity? You're right: definitely the latter.

    You were a kind, quiet, cardigan-rocking bad-ass, Mr. Rogers!


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