Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Growing up in Upper Darby, from Wiffle ball to the Tower

Peter Fey, with a self-portrait from his Temple University days.
Peter Fey, with a self-portrait from his Temple University days.
Peter Fey, with a self-portrait from his Temple University days. Gallery: Town by Town: Upper Darby

Peter Fey, a writer and producer with QVC in West Chester, is the older brother of actress/writer Tina Fey. In this essay, he recalls what it was like growing up in Upper Darby in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

It's a little bit of a contradiction, but Upper Darby always struck me as a small city that was at once idyllic and scary.

When I recall the neighborhood I grew up in - the 200 block of Glencoe Road behind Powell Lane - I think of it now as a series of playing fields. The driveway behind our house provided hours upon hours of street hockey, touch football, half-ball, run-the-bases, and Wiffle ball. I bet there are still a few Wiffle balls on the roofs around 204.

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Out front, there were three steps perfect for step-ball. Launch one all the way across the street and over the fence into Cobbs Creek, and it was a homer. The summer of 1972 found the guys - Fis, Fred, Dave, Jeff, Patrick, Michael - gathering daily to play a new type of game: chess. We'd follow the Spassky-Fischer progress in the Bulletin and play our own matches.

We were always looking to play something. Even if you had only three guys, you'd go into the park and play baseball on a narrow stretch of grass.

In the winter, we'd attack that same stretch from another angle, launching our sleds from the small hill down toward the trickier, faster paths through the trees.

There were no single homes in our part of Upper Darby. This never occurred to me until high school, when I became exposed to the slightly more affluent world of Drexel Hill and the downright tony Drexel Park. I'd walk to school at Cardington-Stonehurst Elementary, built in 1922 as its cornerstone proclaimed, past streets of neat twins and full-grown trees.

From our outer edge of Upper Darby to the bustle of 69th Street seemed a million miles away. Especially since my mom would tell me, "You can go to 69th Street by yourself . . . when you're 30." Why? What was going on there? Something sinister?

Everyone looked forward to the Gimbels window at Christmastime, and I would often park myself in their record department, combing through the 45s. Mom always knew where she could find me.

In later years, my life revolved around three Ludlow Street venues: Metronome Music; the Balcony; and, of course, the Tower Theater, at the corner of Ludlow and 69th. My dad took me there to see Leon Redbone and Leo Kottke. Pretty cool.

One of my fondest memories, though, is showing Don Fey (my father) an electric guitar in the Metronome window - a dual-cutaway, sunburst Ventura (a copy of an Epiphone Casino). It was $100 - a king's ransom. My dad startled me by asking, "Do you want that guitar?" I must've stammered a "yes" because now, 38 years later, I still play it. I only wish, after all these years, that I played it better.

The Balcony was a head shop. I didn't know what that meant, and when I found out, I didn't care. (Well, it did frighten me a little.) Downstairs was all clothing. No appeal there, either. What they had that was of interest to me was a T-shirt press and records. Lots of records. The same place I bought my Lynyrd Skynyrd tee was the same place I discovered imported albums and singles. Thanks, Elvis.

A couple of years later, I actually did get to thank Elvis - Costello - outside the Tower stage entrance. Get there any show day about 3:30 p.m. and you could, more often than not, chat with the bands as they came to sound-check.

Upper Darby was always a bit of a melting pot, although in my early days it was a predominantly Greek melting pot. I'd see little old ladies dressed all in black, engaged in rapid-fire discussions I could not understand. As time passed, there were kids from elsewhere - places like Vietnam and Lebanon.

The high school was populated by students from three middle schools. When your graduating class starts with more than 1,000 people, going to college isn't that big of a change. Having commuted to Temple, it always felt to me more like bonus high school years. That was good in that it didn't intimidate me, and bad in that I felt deprived of the stereotypical college experience.

There were times that truly were violent. I remember sitting on my front porch one evening, slightly perplexed and mildly amused as I listened to Ramona Africa on her P.A. system. Just a half-mile away, her rant reached me loud and clear. I also recall the next morning: Being upright and on my feet before being fully awake, thanks to a barrage of gunfire that terrified me. These were just the warning shots, as it turned out. The police fired them into Cobbs Creek hoping to scare out MOVE members remaining on Osage Avenue. Some of those bullets hit the wall of the cemetery behind Glencoe Road and across Powell Lane.

As I drove home from work, I could see the billowing plume of what was once a neighborhood not far from mine. At the end of that day, there was nothing to laugh about.

Peter Fey