By Dave Barton
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A keen-eyed, unsentimental observer, “outraged by cruelty, but never surprised,” as Pete Hamill, author and onetime hard-drinking New York City newsman, wrote of him, Dexter penned 900-word columns three times a week for Philly’s afternoon tabloid. There was the homeless man crushed by a 300-ton crane; the boy who gave up having sexual intercourse with dogs; a paean to the genius of baseball analyst Tim McCarver; and a sweet little piece on how he taught his daughter, Casey, the way chickens lay eggs by shoving one down Mrs. Dexter’s pants.
In an email, former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez writes of Dexter, “He’s the best I’ve ever read. He’s the guy who makes you want to give it up, sell shoes, take up heavy drinking, or just shoot yourself.”
Adds Lopez, author of The Soloist, a book (later made into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx) based on a series of columns he wrote for the Los Angeles Times (where he still works) about a homeless musician he befriended on Skid Row in Los Angeles, “Dexter writes a sentence that sits on the page like a fist, and you can’t even begin to break it down, to figure out where its power is or how he constructed it, or even thought of it. It’s just there.”
Here’s a Dexter nugget about a memorable stay at a hotel in Oklahoma City: “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 young and harder then, and Fred went over to the other bed and lay down. ‘I think I’ll take this one,’ he said.’”
On women’s breasts: “I think’s fair to say that women overestimate breasts. More to the point, they overestimate the hold breasts have on men. Men notice new breasts, but by the time they get to know the owner, breasts—or the absence of breasts—are among the things they have taken for granted, like Southern accents. This isn’t all bad. Like almost everything else, in the end, breasts are more complicated than they look, and too much thinking can ruin anything.”
“Pete really blossomed in Philadelphia. It’s where he developed his voice,” notes Gregory Favre, a former editor of Dexter’s in Florida.
It was also in Philadelphia where Dexter began his long, complicated association with Cobb, who later, as a washed-up fighter, reinvented himself as a Hollywood actor, taking on villainous roles in such films as Ace Ventura and the Coen brothers’ 1987 comedy Raising Arizona, in which Cobb played Leonard Smalls, the lone biker of the Apocalypse. (Cobb could not be reached for comment. “I see him around from time to time, borrowing money and stuff. He don’t look too good,” recounts Mickey Rosati Sr., owner of the South Philly gym Cobb used to train at.)
“We had a strange relationship,” Dexter says of his old sparring partner. “We were so completely different. We traded off being the older brother. He was a white guy, a little slow defensively. I was constantly worried about Randall, that something bad was going to happen to his head, to his brain [from all the punches he absorbed].”
Dexter may have taken a pounding himself in the City of Brotherly Love, but some very good things happened to him along the way, none less than finding Dian, his second wife. For 32 years and counting, it has been a marriage filled with mischief, for Dexter delighted in making her the foil of numerous columns. As he admitted in one: “I swear there is something in me that has to tease that girl, and every time I do it, I get letters from people who say she ought to slam the door on my testicles.”
In 1986, Dexter gently closed the door on Philly after a dozen years and headed to Sacramento. He ended his farewell column in the Daily News this way: “I have seen a pope. I have seen Julius Erving at the top of his game. I have seen a city administrator burn down a neighborhood. I watched Randall Cobb slowly realize he would never become heavyweight champion of the world. One night, I almost watched myself die.
“And as moving as those things were at the time, they are not what endure. What endures are the people I loved.
“Somewhere along the line, this city has done me a profound favor. I glimpse it once in a while at night in the street, among the people who live there, or along the road. Hitchhikers. It cuts fresh every time.
“I recognize the lost faces because one of them, I think, was supposed to be mine.”