When the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was released in January I went to see it, not because I actually watched the original series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001, but because I hadn’t seen it.
As the child of a military officer, a lot of my time was spent overseas, only dipping in and out of US popular culture from time to time. I’d missed Batman, Star Trek and The Addams Family. During stateside interludes, I tried to pick up on what the other kids were talking about, understand the characters splashed across their lunchboxes and thermos bottles, but it seemed futile—like jumping into a story midstream.
While I tried to appreciate sweet, kind, gentle Mr. Rogers, in all fairness, he seemed a bit alien to me, a turnoff even, compared to the robust, marching men I knew. Contrasted with my neighborhood, where I awoke to Reveille, had dinner to the sound of Retreat and hopped into bed at Taps, Mr. Rogers’ lived on an entirely different planet.
In my neighborhood, the houses were identical, laid out in tight order. They may have been built in different sizes and locations based on rank and branch of service, but deep down, none of that mattered—at the right signal, bugle call or siren, every person became part of a well-rehearsed machine—intense, critical and of value. A house was just a house; furniture just furniture and clothes…well, just a uniform. Functioning as a whole for the protection of all was the vital bit, and of course so was appreciating the local culture, which served as a sort of framework around the “neighborhood”—the Base—clearly delineated by high, electrically charged fences, sentries and sniffer dogs.
Stateside the lines blurred; I was always “off-Base.” Without chain-linked fences and checkpoints, my neighborhood, could go on indefinitely. Regular distances from house, to school, to church, to swimming pool, began to serve as a sort of a yardstick for defining neighborhood. Later on, traveling to foreign countries for school, work and marriage, my definition of community changed again, but I always retained that early understanding of neighborhood as being tightly defined and narrowly restricted by high fences and defenses.
So to Coronavirus…
Covid-19 has blown a hole clean through any dividing lines that once separated neighbors, neighborhoods—on my road, in my town, country, continent and the world. Barriers began to fall in December when Wuhan fell victim to the new virus. Then Thailand, then the USA, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Spain…. one by one, all tumbling like dominoes. The pandemic became official; emergencies national. One-third of humanity locked down, including the UK, where we still voluntarily self-isolate. Financial markets whipsawed, the Prime Minister grew ill and the Queen made a “wartime” broadcast.
Now I venture out, one hour a day, from home, from self-isolation, into my neighborhood. Have I actually lived here for a decade? My near neighbor I discover is a rock guitarist, ready to entertain, keeping a safe six-foot distance; someone down the lane puffs marijuana. A five-minute walk away, I find a lazy and luxuriant towpath, tracing the line of a canal, I learn is part of a whole series of canals that thread through England like “heart strings,” or the chordae tendineae that my son is busy revising for his online biology exam. A meadow filled with bluebells fans out at the bottom of the garden, where my husband has parked a bench. Every morning sounds like Sunday. I discover ducklings and a resident heron. The Cairns walk without leads. A bicycle stored away for years is dusted off. A Chinese friend sends face masks, and others from half way around the world offer antibacterial hand spray.
So this old, brave new world, bought at a very high price, is both intimate and universal. Who didn’t know? We are all in “it” together.
So enjoy, as Mr. Roger’s might say, “a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”