My Sesame Street

MANILA - I was born in the same year Sesame Street premiered on television, and I had always wanted to go to that street where the air was sweet and everything was a-okay.

It was a magical yellow bus that appeared every mid-morning at our doorstep to take me to a nurturing and fun place with its inner city charm, its messy graffiti, brownstone and rubbish bins; a place where a drug dealer, a pimp or a murderous cop was not a person in the neighbourhood.

My own neighbourhood was a place politicians would rather ignore until a few months before the elections. It lined a polluted river that cut through shanties east of Baclaran before dumping its payload of garbage into Manila Bay. From time to time, a corpse would pop out of the waters, creating a mild spectacle.

Most of the houses there were nothing more than cardboards, plywoods and tin sewn together by nails, chicken wires and adhesive tapes, covered with galvanised steel held in place by cement blocks, used tires and other heavy debris.

Misery was never in short supply in that place. One time, rats nibbled to death a baby left alone in a hamper because the sitter was too tired to take notice. All sorts of reprobates from all walks of life inhabited its shacks.

To survive, you either had to lay as low as you could - be invisible, if that was at all possible - or be in a gang. Parents were always trying to claw their way out of that place by piling up debts so that they could send at least one child through high school.

Sesame Street - which celebrated its 45th anniversary on Monday (Nov 10, 2014) - was my free ticket out of that dreadful place, never mind if the ride lasted for just an hour each day, five days a week.

It was my rabbit's hole, a portal into a world populated by a 7-ft tall yellow bird with the mindset of a curious child who somehow couldn't arrange a rendezvous between his neighbours and his six-ton elephant friend, and multi-coloured monsters who lived inside a trash can, binged on cookies or waited on tables for muppets who could set off a thunderstorm when they counted or mimicked any sound imaginable.

You could walk the alleys of Sesame Street at any time of the day without worrying that you could get mugged or ridiculed just because your skin was darker, or you spoke, walked or looked funny, or simply because you were poor.

Above all, Sesame Street was a school that was not quite a school. In ways that were sometimes sneaky, often funny, and always entertaining, it provided preschoolers with skills that would turbocharge them through kindergarten.

"C" was for "cookie", and "letter B" was sung to the tune of Let It Be, and Sesame Street was the only venue where Stevie Wonder grooved for two minutes with the paltry lyrics "123, Sesame Street. Lot's of fun on Sesame Street", and where Darth Vader himself recited the alphabet with Shakespearean fervour.

The show was a colonial import, but it was a sylph in a sea of unease, like the Bee Gees or Abba, at least in the B.E. (Before Elmo) years. In a way, it took the edge off the cynicism that was slicing through the fabric of our lives that at the time was being overwhelmed by a government we despised, an economy that did not make sense, and a culture that heavily advertised the mantra: Greed is good.

As it educated, it championed diversity and tolerance, and in an oblique and perhaps unintended way, it was an advocate of gay rights. It persistently brought to our attention issues that we would otherwise have kept under the rug, like Aids, abortion, children with Down Syndrome, and even the Intifada or uprising.

The issues weren't always broad and political. In 1982, when actor Will Lee passed on, his character, Mr Hooper, wasn't simply written off in the show. His death, and Big Bird's stages of confusion, denial and acceptance over it, became a part of the plot, and was meant to help children cope with the pain of losing a loved one.

Through the counting, reading and grooving, Sesame Street showed us that there was indeed a better world out there, and that it was possible for us to transform our own little corner of the world into an amalgamation of Sesame Streets, that it was not at all impossible to overthrow a 20-year-old dictatorship, and start all over.

Sesame Street provided the didactic template that subsequent children's shows would use with more mesmerising effect, from the dumbed-down expeditions of Dora the Explorer to the pop culture-referencing, values-breaking adventures of Phinneas and Ferb.

After over four decades and overwhelming competition from cable TV offering 24-hour preschool fluffs like Playhouse Disney and Nick Jr, however, the show has lost much of its sheen and grit, and the currents of today's social activism, the demands of political correctness, and the exigencies of commerce have tempered its in-your-face pedagogy, turning the raw and edgy into a colour-fantasy parade. (Cookie Monster is no longer cookie-exclusive, Oscar the Grouch is now on Prozac, and Mr Snuffleupagus is no longer a schizophrenic manifestation.)

It is no longer my magical, yellow bus, with its grime and black fumes. It has been repainted with a rainbow of pastels accented by a menagerie of flowers, birds, butterflies, stars and an inconspicuous logo of McDonald's. Protective window bars and seat-belts have been installed, and it no longer runs on diesel but on eco-friendly compressed natural gas.

I did try to wean my children when they were toddlers into watching Sesame Street and taking the same magical trip that has been the broad Lego brick holding up my present constitution, but in a slug-fest with the Teletubbies, Big Bird 2.0 just kept hitting the deck.

Still, Sesame Street remains an agent of change, but it is a change that has become personal and introspective. My magical, yellow bus of sweeping transformation is now comfort food for the soul. For relevance, we now turn to Jersey Shore and Rated K.