I was actually born in Delaware County, PA (unofficial motto—“Claiming to be part of Philadelphia since 1789”) about 600 feet from the Philadelphia municipal line, so it’s not much of an exaggeration to say I was born there. When I was a lad of 8, my parents decided to move to the country. The country spot they chose was known as Lenni, named after the Lenni-Lenape Indians, a proud tribe of Native Americans. Like many others of their kind, unfortunately, they were not proud enough to keep themselves from utterly vanishing from the earth. In the case of Lenni, however, they were replaced by a tribe equally proud. The area became industrialized around the turn of the last century when several textile mills were built along the main waterway of Lenni, the Chester Creek. The working class of Philly was still far away then, there being only country roads that meandered through pastures and thickets connecting here and the big town, and they also probably wanted higher wages than the mill owners wanted to pay. The carpet makers decided to import experienced textile workers from the South to weave their rugs for them.
Their descendants still live there today. About half the population shares three surnames. You can’t drive through the place without seeing a couple Confederate flags flying. Guns, drinking, and driving fast cars and motorcycles are still admired skills locally. The residents refer to themselves as “millbillies” proudly, although other locals use the term derisively. It’s just like Deliverance sometimes, except you can get here on the bus. But like the Indians, they are in danger of vanishing.
There was a lot of open land here when I was a kid. It’s mostly gone now, given over to Philly’s remorseless suburban expansion. None of the people that bought the new homes are millbillies. They are standard suburban Philadelphians. They think they live in a place called Aston, which is the actual municipality in which most of Lenni is located. Aston is a very ordinary place, with very ordinary rules and regulations, which Lenni obeys only fitfully, if at all. For example, Aston forbids its residents from shooting guns out of their bedroom windows. This is also frowned upon in Lenni, except on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, when it is regarded as a happy supplement to the fireworks smuggled up from North Carolina for the occasion.
Drinking and driving is punishable in Aston, whereas in Lenni it is regarded as inevitable. A person who is drinking at one of Lenni’s two taverns or, on Sunday, the VFW hall, and wishes to drive home or to one of the other locations to drink some more is free to do so no matter how inebriated he or she is, provided that person stays within the accepted borders of Lenni. Even the Aston cops, on which Lenni relies for its law enforcement needs, seem oddly to respect this principle. If you bring unavoidable police attention to your unfit driving state by crashing into a tree or creek and get busted anyway, as long as it is a Lenni tree or creek, you will at least have the sympathy of your neighbors.
If that driver foolishly decides to dart into Aston for a bag of cheese doodles at the Wawa after pounding shots and beers all evening, he or she is on their own as far as being forced to do the Breathalyzer Two-Step, and no slack will be cut him or her in the court of public opinion.
Open fires are allowed in Aston only every other Saturday. In Lenni you build can build a bonfire big enough to be visible from space any time you want. Aston forbids its residents from keeping chickens. Lenni’s sneakier citizens keep them anyway. Aston has strict recycling laws. Lenni-ites regard themselves as environmentally conscious if they refrain from throwing their empties in the creek.
Lenni has its peculiar cultural values. Lenni’s women go barefoot in the summer. Men can do the same, or wear any kind of footgear except flip-flops. If you wear flip-flops you’re a fag. This reflexive, unthinking homophobia is the standard form of insult in Lenni. If you’re not from there, you’re a fag. If you’re a fan of the Giants or the Redskins instead of the Eagles, you’re a fag. If you’re drinking at O’Flaherty’s, were Astonians drink and Lenni-ites most assuredly do not, even though it’s only about a half-mile away from Lenni’s favorite watering hole, you are drinking at O’Faggerty’s.
All this happens cheek by jowl. Whether you are an Astonian or a Lenni-ite depends on the house you live in (built before 1965, Lenni, after, Aston) and your attitude, although all that is adjustable. My ancestral home is old (Lenni) while the house next door is part of a sub-development built in the seventies (Aston). The guy next door, however, leaves a couple extra cars to rust in his yard, which makes him Lenni. And if some yuppie buys one of the old brick duplexes down by the creek and starts gentrifying it, he's never going to be Lenni. He will remain always a fag. But they all live peacefully together, in spite of profound mutual contempt, as neighbors all over the world often do.
Whether I’m Lenni or not is open to debate. Having lived in Hawaii, I wear flip-flops, because in Hawaii they are the state shoe, and I've spent more of my adult life in California, which is regarded around these parts as a fag state, than anywhere else, and I drink anywhere I feel like when I’m back there.
But I’m from there. Make no mistake about that.