Legendary former Daily News columnist Pete Dexter has a new book out. His legacy will surely precede his upcoming visit to Philly.
He described hearing a windmill at his stepfather's funeral as making "lost-calf noises."
He wrote up the exchange he'd had with a teenager after a homeless man was accidentally crushed by a 300-ton crane: "This kid was about 15, which I judged to be too old to still find something happy in an old man's death. 'He wasn't nothin' but an old bum, huh?' he asked. I said, 'I don't know, kid. What are you?'"
The subjects Dexter chose defined him as much as the writing: blue collar, sympathetic to people who'd been done wrong, victims of violence and a good time before the bars closed.
Even before the brawl there was the sense he'd endured pain that had never gone away, what former Daily News editor Zack Stalberg calls, "the wounded-creature aspect to Pete."
Dexter threw himself so hard into life he must've been trying to escape something. Maybe the source was physical, the bad hips and bum knees from playing football.
Or it may have been mental. "His birth dad died when he was very young," says Dexter's brother Tom Tollefson. "I think he was not quite 3. Who knows how that turns a life in a different direction?"
Tollefson says Dexter enjoyed a good relationship with his mother's second husband but didn't adopt all his thinking. "In our family, achievement in school directly correlated with achievement in life," he says, "and I think pretty early on Pete realized that was bullshit, and set out on his own path."
In three hours straight of steady talking, the only time Dexter seems at a loss for words is when he tries to describe his relationship with the now 73-year-old Mickey Rosati Sr. "He meant so much," he offers before growing quiet again and shifting in his seat. "He was like a big brother to me."
To the degree that training was something Dexter did five or six days a week for seven or eight years, boxing was an important part of his life. But the tough-guy impression it creates is false--at least through Dexter's 63-year-old eyes.
"I enjoyed the exercise, No. 1," says Dexter. "Even going three or four rounds, it's a hell of a workout."
But the ring didn't mean as much to Dexter as did Rosati, who befriended the newspaperman after he started coming into the gym on a regular basis with Tex Cobb. Rosati treated him like family, inviting the writer and his wife over one New Year's Eve. "In them days we had shotguns to fire at midnight," remembers Rosati, "and when we got 'em out, Pete said, 'I think they're going to kill us, honey.'
"He'd never seen anything like it," says Rosati, "the big spread of food, all of us singing and dancing and hugging each other."
Before Dexter left town he told Rosati all his feelings.
"I never met people like you," Dexter said. "I love you, I love your son, your family, I love everything you do. You're so down to earth."
"You're down to earth too, Pete," Rosati replied.
"No," said Dexter. "I'm shy."
"I love you just the way you are, Pete," Rosati told him.
Hearing the old man's recollection, Dexter nods and says what he misses most about Philadelphia is Rosati and his gym, a tiny cobbled-together workspace, maybe 45 feet long, which continues to operate over the family's long-running South Philadelphia auto shop at 1937 S. Chadwick St. Whether this is the Pete Dexter we got to know in his columns or not, it seems safe to say--given the way his coffee-colored eyes seem to fill to the brim--this is Pete Dexter as he sits, all 155 pounds of him, complete with thumbs that don't work.
In the years after the brawl, says Rosati, Dexter had trouble just getting into the ring. The old man would lift the rope for him. Dexter would lay his face on the canvas and crawl inside.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4