Chris and I spent nearly two sweltering, sun-stroked hours on the front steps of The Smithsonian's American History Museum yesterday, randomly stopping strangers and engaging them.
"'Scuse me folks. My name is Benjamin Wagner, and this is my brother, Christofer. We're making a documentary about Mister Rogers..."
Some scurried by, sheepishly whispering, "No thank you" (as if we were selling something) or "We're in a hurry" (who goes to a museum in a hurry?). Most, though, stopped, smiled, and chatted a while.
A punky, blue-haired woman from Nashville, Tennessee remembered Picture Picture. A six-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia liked the puppets. A grandmother from Darien, Connecticut trusted his parenting-by-proxy implicitly. A young community activist from New York City sang "It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood."
One sentiment was unanimous: Mister Rogers was a kind, moral man. His legacy, too, was consistently represented in our straw poll by the vox populi: Mister Rogers honored that which is unique in all of us.
Still, an hour into our reportage, I begged Chris to stop shooting.
"Do we have enough?" I asked. "This is really difficult. I'm a terrible reporter."
"Just one more," he'd repeat over and over.
When the string of abstainees grew long, and I felt defeated, he encouraged me.
"It's not you, man. People get afraid."
"It's so awkward," I said, "Apparently Mister Rogers knew I needed to work on my social phobia on top of everything else."
I've said it before: this film is a journey, and an exploration, not just of Mister Rogers, but of our culture, and ourselves. Invariably -- as the on-camera reporter voice behind the voice over -- it is also about me. It is an assignment he gave me. I can't help but think he knew what he was doing in sending me out to tell this story. He knew it would be difficult for me, full of twists, turns, and trials.
The sweater itself, hanging in a glass box alongside Howdy Doody, Betty Boop, and Oscar The Grouch, was something of a let down. I'd imagined I'd feel loss, or reverence, or nostalgia, or all of that together. Whether it was because I'd seen his cardigan hanging in his Madaket home, or because knowing the man himself rendered the object -- so vacant in his absence -- mute and lifeless, or just because I felt odd with the camera on me, I felt nothing. If anything, I felt annoyed that his entire legacy had been reduced to a dusty red sweater in a lightless, lifeless museum.
A little boy -- perhaps eleven-years-old -- approached the display with his mother as I stood there looking wistful for the camera.
"Is that Mister Rogers' sweater?" she asked nobody in particular.
"It is," I answered, surprising even myself with the sound of my voice. "His mother knitted him a new one every Christmas."
I wanted to go on, to tell them more, but the kid was restless. They shuffled off towards Fonzie's jacket and left me alone a moment more with my thoughts.