The Darwinian laws of high school cliques would say this never should have happened: Former Upper Darby High quarterback Greg Lingo meeting Former-And-Still-Supergeek-Me at a West Chester Pike bar the other morning.
But there we were, inside Cawley’s Irish Pub. A landmark of Delaware County’s Irish drinking culture that for years I had passed on a yellow school bus and wondered, Who goes into that place? It smelled of smoke and weak beer. Greg had been coming here since fourth grade when he and his best friend, Sean Cawley, would help Sean’s father count change. We headed to a room of empty tables and began to talk: Greg in his Main-Line-developer blazer and tieless shirt; me in journalist denim.
I looked at Greg’s face. I could faintly recall this: a skinny, 6-foot-3 creature two years behind me in school whose head would bop high above the masses in the halls in between classes at Upper Darby High.
I wanted to know: Why has Greg written and bankrolled a movie about our shared stomping grounds, called Crabs in a Bucket? There’s no reason, really, that this son of a onetime repo man should bother himself with the old ’hood like that. Greg had gotten through Cornell and Villanova, has a big house in Wayne, and is now a big developer-builder out of Media with projects across the region.
There’s something about Upper Darby. It gets under your skin. It assaults you by refusing to coddle you —then it stays with you for life.
“I call the town ‘Darby Heights’ instead of Upper Darby,” he said. That’s the fictional name he uses in the film, a comedic look back at life in the blue-collar, West Philadelphia border suburb in the ’70s and ’80s. Like me, Greg grew up near trolley tracks that roared day and night as they extended west toward Media. Like me, he remembered an upbringing that was more bruising than blue-blooded.
“I always thought it was funny," Greg said, "that it was ‘Upper’ anything.”
You’ve got to have a sense of humor to make sense of the glorious chaos of growing up in this place.
Greg and I attended the same schools: Bywood, Highland Park, Beverly Hills, and the high school that today at some 4,000 kids is way higher than 2,400 in our day.
Greg is one of three brothers. He knew my younger sister, Diane. They were in the same class.
As we talked, for the first time ever, I realized Greg and I, while inhabiting different social universes, were bound by a common thread.
We had been, like many other kids in town, free agents who were either going to find our way in life or not. And mostly, on our own.
Greg walked a mile to elementary school. I got bullied at the bus stop. His best friends were kids in Catholic Youth football at St. Laurence grade school, some of whose dads owned the Irish bars on West Chester Pike where men and, eventually, younger men learned to escape life, build community, devour the Philadelphia Eagles, and sometimes nurse unhealthy attachments to alcohol.
We remembered how we rode our bikes for hours. I blew stop signs at high speed in his neighborhood. A teacher of mine once whacked a classmate with a yardstick in class. Greg remembered being greeted with an undiplomatic challenge by a principal who wrongly assumed he would be trouble on Day One.
Sometimes it sucked here. But you sucked it up.
“The way we grew up in this town,” I said, “if you look at the way kids are being raised today, it was so – quote – wrong.”
“It’s the opposite,” said Greg. (His two oldest daughters are in college after attending Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square. He would know.)
So why, then, did Greg bother with a movie script? He’s a busy guy — he runs Rockwell Custom and is backing a huge proposed development, among others, along French Creek in downtown Phoenixville.
He swore, years ago, that he’d never look back once leaving Upper Darby for Cornell. But that did not stick.
Early lessons in business taught him how even flawed childhood bonds can be the most valuable asset you cherish as you age. One guy he befriended as an adult stole from him; another swindled him out of a piece of land he had hoped to buy himself.
“I was going into it from the mind-set of these friends that I grew up with, where we would never do that to each other,” he said. “I realized that what made me who I am was this neighborhood and Upper Darby.”
In the film, actor Jeremy Piven portrays a composite of Greg. We meet him as a bratty rich guy. By the end, he’s discovered that his buddies, the old neighborhood, are life’s true gold.
“He has this kind of realization that as much as he wanted to leave, that’s where he belongs," Greg explained.
That’s Upper Darby. Jock, nerd, or anyone in between, it makes you. Then it makes you run. Then, as you get older, it makes you think.