I call State Rep. Mike Zabel the other day and he gets back to me pretty quickly.
I ask him, immediately, if he promises to do one thing before we go any further: Do. Not. Spoil. Mare. Of. Easttown. (I’d seen just the first three episodes of the seven-show HBO series ending this Sunday.)
The Delaware County lawmaker agrees not to give anything away about the Delco-based streaming sensation starring Kate Winslet and, in a major supporting role, Delco itself.
We are good to go.
I tell him the reason for my call: What’s the deal with Detective Colin Zabel?
I ask if I had missed the news somewhere about whether the big-deal character who rides shotgun with Oscars royalty Winslet in Mare is named after The Real Delco Zabel(s). When I’d first heard the name on Mare, I did a double take because Zabel is no dime-a-dozen moniker in Delco.
Zabel laughs at the question. This is no public policy grilling by journalist to lawyer/pol. This is a cotton-candy pop-culture binge. A Havertown boy and an Upper Darby girl wondering about an Archbishop Carroll graduate’s affinity for a surname in an uber-gritty Delco whodunit that could very well dethrone Rocky from cinematic worship in at least one of the Philadelphia collar counties.
What on earth was series creator/local boy Brad Ingelsby thinking?
“There are two theories,” Zabel begins with a laugh. He’s in Harrisburg on Pennsylvania state capital business as we talk. “We are the only Zabels in Delco. Have been the only Zabels in Delco since Brad was there.” Ingelsby grew up Delco-adjacent in Berwyn, Chester County.
The Real Zabel, and many others watching the series who know him, apparently have been whittling away at this little mystery for weeks now. It’s become something of a parlor game that extends even to the corridors of the state Capitol.
“The first theory that some people have bandied about is they may have been going through some Delco Times newspaper articles two or three years back, when they were starting to film this, and they may have picked out my last name from there because not only is he Detective Zabel, but he’s Detective Zabel who solved that murder in Upper Darby,” The Real Zabel says.
“I was like, ‘Come on!’” he continues, this time letting his brilliantly suppressed Delco accent slip into fighting form with an “o” that sounds half swallowed. “Upper Darby?’”
Zabel first won his Upper Darby Township legislative district in a highly publicized, anti-Trump 2018 midterms sweep by Democrats like himself of Republicans across suburban Philadelphia.
Theory No. 2 is equally speculative.
“I’m the oldest of six,” Zabel continues. “My brother, who is two years younger than me, he says, ‘Oh yeah, Brad Ingelsby, I used to play basketball with him growing up.’ When I heard that I was like, ‘OK. I know what he did.’ My strong suspicion was he was just pulling names from his childhood experience.”
All through growing up in Havertown, he says, the Zabel kids were never called by their first names. It was always just “Zabel.” The same way that Maryann often becomes “Mare” and Joseph becomes “Joey.” Given the right combo of consonants and vowels, names are eagerly reduced to the equivalent of locker-room towel snaps.
“All of us were called Zabel. It’s almost like your first name.”
We agree that the Delco accents on Mare are great fun. I then ask Zabel how it is possible that he has no discernible Delaware County accent. Where did it go?
He tried hard in college up at Holy Cross in Massachusetts to sand it off his tongue while studying Latin and Greek and performing in the theater. Imagine saying “HEWM” or “wooder” while reciting Shakespeare.
“I consciously, like Eliza Doolittle, worked on getting rid of it. The only time I say wooder now is that Rita’s sells wooder ice. It’ll always be wooder ice.”
He can turn it back on, though, any time.
“If I drink two glasses of wine and watch Mare,” he says, “it brings it back.”
I ask Zabel if he’s reached out to HBO for answers about Zabel. He hasn’t. But he’s contemplated sending a formal letter from a local tourism committee asking if, indeed, the name has roots in real locals.
Meanwhile, he asks if I’ve seen the viral comedic Twitter video about the Philly mom watching Mare.
“It’s spot on,” he says and sends it my way.
The ponytailed woman holds a beer bottle and spouts running commentary about the show.
“Why’s she eatin’ a hewgie without onions?” she says.
I sent along the Zabel query to HBO after hanging up with The Real Zabel. I wanted to know where the name had come from. A spokesperson replied that Ingelsby had chosen the name at random.
Would Mare Sheehan and Colin Zabel take that answer to the bank if running the investigation? Hard to imagine they would.
While in Harrisburg on Monday, the day we talked, Zabel was approached “four or five times by politicians in different parts of the state about Zabel. People bringing it up or asking ... is that a coincidence?”
We may never know. But this mystery is no great crime.