How Mr. Rogers Taught Me I’m Not a Kid Anymore

On entering the fall season of life

An illustration of two faces back-to-back.

illustration by lars leetaru

Do you ever wonder if you’re still in the late summer of your life, or if the leaves are turning and you’re headed straight into foliage season?

At a gas station on Hennepin Avenue, I hand the cashier a $20 bill and wait for my change. He’s young, with dreadlocks and a winsome smile, caught between the unselfconsciousness of childhood and the fierce invincibility of hitting your twenties.

After a few seconds, his eyes flick up with a perplexed half-smile. “Something else?”

“Oh, just my change.” It’s about twenty cents.

“Oh, sorry.” He hits a button on the register. “Here you go.”

“Do most people not wait for their change?” I’m half-joking.

He surveys my face. Not unlike, perhaps, surveying a Roman temple before the fall of the ancient empire. I’m caught between the last flowering gasp of youth and the deafening freight train of middle age, pounding down the track.

He leans forward conspiratorially. “Mostly old people want their change.”

“Are you calling me old?” I ask, in what I hope is a youthfully lighthearted tone. The dark circles under my eyes are testimony to my preschool-aged son’s recent enthusiasm for singing “Frère Jacques” at 3 a.m.—not unlike having a rowdy college roommate with a penchant for nocturnal drinking songs. Please don’t answer.

He shakes his head with a beatific smile. This kid’s mother deserves a medal.

“Nah,” he explains. “It’s just that, you know, most younger people don’t want their coins.”

Trying to save face, I say, “Maybe they’re just being nice. After all, this is Minnesota!”

His face is puzzled. “I think they just don’t use cash.”

Later that afternoon, I’m sipping a post-meeting coffee at a hip downtown Minneapolis restaurant. The server plunks down a cocktail menu, not realizing that for me, “happy hour” now signifies a prehistoric ritual.

These days, at the so-called cocktail hour, I’m often at the playground, informing a parent that his toddler is eating sand, or explaining Darwinian principles to my son, who doesn’t understand that standing at the bottom of the slide unwittingly promotes natural selection.

I scan the menu with interest. I can still enjoy weekday afternoon drinks—vicariously. Among them, there’s one with a price that makes my eyes pop, cartoon-style.

“Just out of curiosity, is that cocktail missing a decimal point?” I ask the server. Her face is inscrutable.

“Meaning, does this drink cost $5.02,” I ask, and add, with what I hope is a whimsical, ha-ha smile, “or $502?”

“Yes,” she replies. “It costs $502.”

“Oh.” Five hundred and two? Does it come with a used iPad and the keys to a 2001 Chevy?

Noticing my thinly veiled incredulity, she softens. “Well, it does come with sparkling water.”

That evening, I arrive home and ponder the obvious facts. I’m asking for my change, and I can’t grasp the $502 cocktail concept. I’m not sure when middle age begins, however I hear it’s not so much a number as a state of mind.

I flip on the TV. PBS is showing a Mr. Rogers retrospective. He seems younger than I remember. Actually, if you ignore the mustard cardigan, he is charmingly debonair.

The evidence is suddenly clear: Youth’s end doesn’t arrive with a birthday, but with a moment. This moment, courtesy of Fred Rogers, that handsome devil, must evidently be mine.

On second thought, that vintage mustard cardigan really isn’t half-bad, is it?