Paper Man

Legendary former Daily News columnist Pete Dexter has a new book out. His legacy will surely precede his upcoming visit to Philly.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Mar. 7, 2007

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He wrote a screen adaptation of Trout for Showtime, which got Hollywood's attention, and then penned scripts for Rush, a drug addict love story, and the classic film noir Mulholland Falls. His novels since Trout have received mixed reviews.

The now-out-of-print Brotherly Love was set right here in Philadelphia. The still-in-print Deadwood is the not-so-hidden classic in his backlist, a kickass funny and mercilessly profane novel, which Dexter will gladly tell you was stolen from him by HBO. But the Dexter we know best here in Philly is getting his first real public exposure with Paper Trails. And in Seattle he proved just as hilarious at riffing as he was at reading.

During a Q&A session, a woman asked how many times he'd been married.

"Twice," he answered, clearly disappointing her, "but I'll tell you a story about how I knew the first one was over."

And with that Pete Dexter began talking about the time he wrestled a bear.

See, Dexter was writing about a man who wrestled bears. This man thought that in order to write about it, he ought to do it. So Dexter, after suffering under the bear for a while ("You can't believe how strong a bear is," he said), sort of fell in love with the animal and its handlers, and brought them all home.

His wife was asleep. But in what his brother might call a "flight of whimsy," he ushered the bear into his wife's bedroom. Then he left the room and closed the door.

"She came out a few minutes later," he said, "and she was just silent. And I thought, 'You know, that's about as good as I get in a relationship, putting a bear in the bedroom, and if she doesn't enjoy this, I'm not sure this is going to work.'"

Last he heard, his first wife had married a guy who holds up "SLOW" signs at construction sites. "I understand she's very happy," said Dexter. "So it all worked out."

Afterward, as the crowd departed, a woman brought him a windup flashlight she'd just bought elsewhere in the store. "You deserve a present," she said, demonstrating how the flashlight works by winding it furiously.

Another man, in the course of getting his book signed, told Dexter he used to live in Philadelphia. "I saw you in Dirty Frank's," he said, "after the incident, after you stopped drinking. You didn't look very happy. You were just kind of sitting and listening, and you didn't stay very long. I wondered how hard it was for you to get material for your columns then."

"Well," says Dexter, "I did miss out on a lot of fun."

A separate peace: Philadelphians still talk about the night Dexter got whupped, but the author says he's long since moved on.
Ask Pete Dexter what he remembers about Philadelphia, and he doesn't bring up the beating. Instead the question leads to a list of People He Cannot Repay. His stepfather. Gil Spencer, the Daily News editor who made him a columnist. A man named Mickey Rosati Sr. And Tex Cobb, for what he did that night. So yes, maybe even a conversation about the People He Cannot Repay leads back to that night. But the endless recycling of this story probably also serves to distract people from what made Pete Dexter so special in the first place.

"I think Pete Dexter might be the greatest newspaper columnist of all time, anywhere, in any century," says Steve Lopez, a former columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who now writes a column for the Los Angeles Times. "He was so damn good that it was really demoralizing to work in the same town as him. I was intimidated by it because I'd read something he'd written, and it would be so good I'd think, 'Why should I bother?'"

And yet Dexter admits he's lucky he ever got the opportunity to write a column. He trashed company cars, charged his editors like a knight with a spear and drank his way through the city. As his friend Dan Geringer wrote in the Daily News last week, he was "always bleeding from his ears, gums, recent scabs."

In the mid-'70s, when Dexter was still a reporter, the Daily News learned that an Episcopalian priest in Eddystone was using his pulpit to form a cult. According to then-managing editor Zack Stalberg, Dexter and investigative reporter Hoag Levins were given several weeks to work on the story. Finally, when the time came to write a draft, Dexter produced his notes, which were written--all of them--on the back of a single envelope.

Against a lot of people's wishes, editor Gil Spencer recognized Dexter's obvious skill as a writer and made him a columnist. History proved it the right call.

On a memorable hotel: "My friend Fred and I walked into the room they gave us, and there was a body lying on one of the beds. The eyes and mouth were open, and there was dried blood on the teeth. We were younger and harder then, and Fred went over to the other bed and lay down. 'I think I'll take this one,' he said."

On a shooting: "When the shots started coming out of the third-story window at Mother Elie's rooming house early Monday night, most of the block figured it was old Curley again, and folks were sorry to hear that he was going to die."

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1. Ryan Hobbs said... on Dec 31, 2011 at 05:11PM

“Sounds to me like Pete Dexter got what he had coming. Takes some pretty raw nerve to publish a story about a dead kid that you don't know, saying he was stoned all the time (questionable), and then being so stupid as to go into a tough neighborhood to tell his probably still grieving brother to his face that you're not going to retract the things you said about his deceased kin. Um... hello? So he gets roughed up. Go figure. Then he comes back to same said rough neighborhood with an entourage of tough guys, including a professional prize fighter to... (wait for it)... "talk"? LMFAO!! So, local guy goes and gets his local friends and local bats and crowbars and tunes up this idiot (Pete Dexter). I'd have done the same. Hilariously, his tough guy friends all ran. All but one... Randall "Tex" Cobb. Props to you, Randall. Dumb of you to have been sucked into that whole mess, but good on you for having the balls to protect your dumbas$ friend when everyone else ran. Go Tex!!”

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2. Bob Ingram said... on May 10, 2014 at 08:05AM

“I lived at 22nd and Lombard for several years and, as much as I admire and respect Pete Dexter as a writer, I only had one slightly bad experience and that neighnorhood was nothing compared to when I lived in Fishtown, which could be a combat zone on a Friday night. In the big city, you gotta know where you are or it's on you.”


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