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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Also: Springsteen cribs some Dexter prose.

The thought that Pete Dexter is drinking again could send those in Philly who knew him running for cover. For instance Barry Sandrow, the owner of Doc Watson's, says Dexter was a lot of fun when he wasn't drinking, but "you didn't want to be around him when he was."

In the 12 years Dexter spent writing for the Daily News--from 1974 to 1986--people got to know the Dexter who haunted Doc Watson's, Dirty Frank's and McGlinchey's, the Dexter who'd go to the Pen and Pencil, the journalism press club, and head-butt fellow Daily News scribe Jack McKinney between rounds of drinks.

He took bets on whether a case of beer could be hurled across Pine Street. He caroused with boxer Tex Cobb, freely loaning him company cars that would end up stranded across the country. For a column he counted transvestites on 13th Street and circled a knife-wielding old man. He threatened to drown an editor in a pot of chili. But that was the old Drinking Dexter.

This new Drinking Dexter finished his vodka and orange juice and started ordering ... orange juice. His hands didn't shake. He didn't sweat. In fact, ordering one drink and switching to the soft stuff didn't seem to faze him at all. "I was never really an addictive personality," he says. "It was about having fun."

But don't think those lost days are all behind Pete Dexter. In one of his more recent sober exploits, which his brother calls "a flight of whimsy," Dexter wandered into the adult diaper section of an Arizona supermarket and started trying on the product. Right there in the aisle. Dexter doesn't deny the incident, which got him barred from the store.

"I turned to a lady next to me," he says, "and asked if they made my butt look fat."


He sees a darkness: Dexter drank, got beat up and wrote about Philly's streets-leaving behind a mythic persona.
Adventurous living took its toll.

"My body," says Dexter, "there are all sorts of things wrong with it. A couple of weeks ago I woke up and my thumb just stopped working. I don't know how to explain it. Neither does the doctor. It just doesn't work."

Put it like this: Pete Dexter would be about 6 feet long if the right team of professionals could be assembled to stretch his body out that far. As he is, with his head retracted toward his shoulders like a turtle's, he stands only about 5 foot 9 or 5 foot 10.

Though he's an impossibly thin-looking 155 pounds, he feels burdened by "an extra 10 pounds of fat." But his eyes remain alert and transfixing, the color of burnt coffee, staring out from beneath a broad forehead that seems to drag the rest of his body behind it.

Dexter is now on tour to promote Paper Trails, his new collection of nonfiction that includes pieces he wrote for the Daily News and Esquire, along with material he penned later at the Sacramento Bee. The tour will bring him here next month, but last week he was in Seattle, drawing bemused smiles from the crowd when they spotted him limping into the room.

Though the Seattle area has been Dexter's home for more than 15 years, he doesn't see much of the city. He lives with his wife Dian on Whidbey Island, accessible from the mainland by ferryboat or a 180-mile highway diversion.

His current marriage has lasted 29 years, and he's raised a daughter--29-year-old Casey--who's working as an assistant film editor in Los Angeles. Dexter's choice of home is sometimes characterized as an example of his eccentricity, located as it is about a quarter mile from the nearest main road.

He entered the Seattle reading wearing a baseball cap, a brown button-down shirt and a rumpled gray sweatshirt, which he told the crowd he'd borrowed from his wife. He started the reading by continually hitching up his jeans, which kept falling down his skinny hips as if they were trying to escape.

"If I show you too much of myself," he told the bookstore audience, "just raise your hand and let me know. And if you get bored and wanna go on to something else, go on and go. You won't hurt my feelings."

He read seven columns in all, touching upon subjects ranging from his wife's flat chest to Jack Walsh, a strongman who wanted to park a 7,000-pound truck on his own chest as a kind of tribute to Dexter.

Some seemed surprised by how funny the columns were. One woman informed a couple who'd been drawn to the reading by a local newspaper notice, "this was nothing like Paris Trout."

Dexter is the author of six novels, and has attained a level of literary fame and respect that eclipses the most famous of his Philadelphia peers. He started writing his first book God's Pocket while convalescing from the famous beating. His third effort Trout won him the 1988 National Book Award and caused his career to explode like a case of beer flung onto Pine Street.

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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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