I’m not sure why — perhaps as a Valentine’s gift to all of us or to make up for the guy who yesterday wrote that men who play with LEGOs are not real men — but last night Esquire made one of the best profiles it (or anyone else) has ever published, Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Mr. Rogers, available online. If this brutal, extended winter has you feeling down and cranky I suggest you give it a read. Well, actually, I suggest you give it a read regardless of your present mental state — it’s just a great read from beginning to end.
My personal favorite piece of the story: Junod describes meeting Mr. Rogers in person for the first time…
THE FIRST TIME I CALLED MISTER ROGERS on the telephone, I woke him up from his nap. He takes a nap every day in the late afternoon—just as he wakes up every morning at five-thirty to read and study and write and pray for the legions who have requested his prayers; just as he goes to bed at nine-thirty at night and sleeps eight hours without interruption. On this afternoon, the end of a hot, yellow day in New York City, he was very tired, and when I asked if I could go to his apartment and see him, he paused for a moment and said shyly, “Well, Tom, I’m in my bathrobe, if you don’t mind.” I told him I didn’t mind, and when, five minutes later, I took the elevator to his floor, well, sure enough, there was Mister Rogers, silver-haired, standing in the golden door at the end of the hallway and wearing eyeglasses and suede moccasins with rawhide laces and a flimsy old blue-and-yellow bathrobe that revealed whatever part of his skinny white calves his dark-blue dress socks didn’t hide. “Welcome, Tom,” he said with a slight bow, and bade me follow him inside, where he lay down—no, stretched out, as though he had known me all his life—on a couch upholstered with gold velveteen. He rested his head on a small pillow and kept his eyes closed while he explained that he had bought the apartment thirty years before for $11,000 and kept it for whenever he came to New York on business for the Neighborhood. I sat in an old armchair and looked around. The place was drab and dim, with the smell of stalled air and a stain of daguerreotype sunlight on its closed, slatted blinds, and Mister Rogers looked so at home in its gloomy familiarity that I thought he was going to fall back asleep when suddenly the phone rang, startling him. “Oh, hello, my dear,” he said when he picked it up, and then he said that he had a visitor, someone who wanted to learn more about the Neighborhood. “Would you like to speak to him?” he asked, and then handed me the phone. “It’s Joanne,” he said. I took the phone and spoke to a woman—his wife, the mother of his two sons—whose voice was hearty and almost whooping in its forthrightness and who spoke to me as though she had known me for a long time and was making the effort to keep up the acquaintance. When I handed him back the phone, he said, “Bye, my dear,” and hung up and curled on the couch like a cat, with his bare calves swirled underneath him and one of his hands gripping his ankle, so that he looked as languorous as an odalisque. There was an energy to him, however, a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy, and though I tried to ask him questions about himself, he always turned the questions back on me, and when I finally got him to talk about the puppets that were the comfort of his lonely boyhood, he looked at me, his gray-blue eyes at once mild and steady, and asked, “What about you, Tom? Did you have any special friends growing up?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Maybe a puppet, or a special toy, or maybe just a stuffed animal you loved very much. Did you have a special friend like that, Tom?”
“Yes, Mister Rogers.”
“Did your special friend have a name, Tom?”
“Yes, Mister Rogers. His name was Old Rabbit.”
“Old Rabbit. Oh, and I’ll bet the two of you were together since he was a very young rabbit. Would you like to tell me about Old Rabbit, Tom?”
And it was just about then, when I was spilling the beans about my special friend, that Mister Rogers rose from his corner of the couch and stood suddenly in front of me with a small black camera in hand. “Can I take your picture, Tom?” he asked. “I’d like to take your picture. I like to take pictures of all my new friends, so that I can show them to Joanne….” And then, in the dark room, there was a wallop of white light, and Mister Rogers disappeared behind it.
And it just goes on and on in much the same way from there. Read it all when you have time, especially if you’re binging on House of Cards this weekend. You’ll probably need an infusion of something like this to restore your faith in humanity after an overload of Frank Underwood.