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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A call to the medical examiner's office last week revealed the initial cause of death was "undetermined." Lego says his brother "experimented" with a mix of drugs that proved toxic to him. "He had heroin in his system, cocaine. He was experimenting, and it went bad."

The police found his boots and a bottle of beer near the water at 68th and Cobbs Creek. He was 21.


Pete Dexter barely stirs in reaction to the retelling of Tommy Lego's narrative. He shrugs off parts he remembers differently, the tone of his voice barely changing from the easy, friendly tenor it's had all night. "If these guys, for whatever reason, want to talk and get their version out, they have that right."

He says he never pressed charges--he could easily have identified Lego--because "I know when something's over. I made a mistake going there, and I didn't see a need to send anyone to jail."

Though he says he's "sick" of talking about that night, he understands why people focus on it.

Even the foreword to Dexter's new nonfiction collection seems to portray that night as the fulcrum on which his life turns--from excessive drinking to sobriety, from newspaper writing to success in literature and movies. In the short essay written by Pete Hamill, Dexter himself is quoted as calling the area where the fight took place "one of the worst neighborhoods in America."

It's a judgment he repeats at the book reading in Seattle, adding, "it's this inbred Irish neighborhood."

At first glance his portrayal of Grays Ferry--he calls 24th and Lombard "the Devil's Pocket" (it's perhaps more accurately the border between Center City and Grays Ferry)--would appear to be so false on its face as to be evidence he's retrofit elements of the story to further inflate its mythic stature. Or that perhaps he does suffer toxic memories of the place, the people, the whole damn night. Bad neighborhoods tend to be defined in a very specific way: Kids can't walk to school by themselves; old people are afraid to go to the corner store; the innocent are jumped by toughs who rake their pockets for money; gunfire is common.

By that score, the worst corner of Grays Ferry doesn't even rate among the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia, let alone America. But Dexter doesn't back down from his assessment, which is less emotional than it first appears.

"I don't know," he says. "What would you say about a neighborhood where in a minute they're able to assemble--however many guys, I'm not gonna get into a debate about that--a lot of guys, with long reinforced steel, with bats? What kind of neighborhood is that?"

But there's another reason Dexter feels disinclined to discuss that evening. His next novel will address both the assault and its aftermath. "I really don't think I have any great body of work," he says. "But I have hopes for this one. I think it could be a real step up, but we'll have to see ... In the meantime I can't talk about that night because I don't want what I said to influence me when I sit down at the typewriter the next day."

The book will also address something Dexter counts as a whole lot more important, "something that happened two days later, in the hospital, and just being in the hospital, which were both more profound experiences to me than what happened that night."

This too may seem somehow convenient, a way of parsing his biography. After all, if he hadn't been assaulted, he wouldn't have been in the hospital. But then again, no one stood over his hospital bed with a bat, so how much credit can the men of Grays Ferry claim for his experiences there?

The way Dexter explains it, the beat down he suffered is an anecdote he feels personally if not publicly free from. "If I was going over the top 100 most important experiences in my life, that night would probably be somewhere in there. But it wouldn't make the top 25."

His brother Tom also thinks the event's influence has been overstated. "When you look at everything in its totality," he says, "what happened, what he's done and everything since then--being married for almost 30 years, raising a child, all those things in life and all the achievements, I think that night was maybe a little turn in the road, but I don't think it was formative or transformative. Everything since then is just stuff he worked for."

Among the many talked-about aspects of that night is Dexter's history with drinking. He's been quoted over the years, saying the trauma done to his head damaged his tastebuds. The result: He no longer had "a taste" for alcohol.

He repeats as much in Seattle, adding his customary chaser of wit. "I couldn't drink the stuff anymore," he says. "But I started to like fish, which I'd never previously cared for."

His former editor Gil Spencer and friend Art Bourgeau both say they had conversations with Dexter shortly after the fight during which he described giving up drinking as a choice. "That tastebuds thing is bullshit," says Spencer flatly.

"A choice," says Dexter, in response. "We all make a choice not to drink battery acid too. And that's what alcohol tasted like to me."

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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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