“I have seen a pope, I have seen Julius Erving at the top of his game. I have seen a city administration burn down a neighborhood. I watched Randall Cobb slowly realize he would never become a heavyweight champion, of the world. One night I almost saw myself die.”
Pete Dexter was saying his long, gritty goodbye to Philadelphia.
The night Dexter nearly saw himself die was in 1981, after he wrote a Daily News column about a botched drug deal that resulted in murder. The deceased’s brother, according to Dexter, “bartended in Devil’s Pocket, which has got to be the worst neighborhood in the city—maybe anywhere.” And he was angry. But Dexter “thought he could talk to him and work it out, so I went down there” with Randall “Tex” Cobb. Both Dexter and Cobb nearly saw themselves die that night.
“It has been our good fortune that Pete Dexter did not die at the hands of those heroes with ballbats and tire irons,” wrote Pete Hamill. “He has gone on to write some of the most original, and disturbing, novels in American literature.”
“In an age when words and storytelling were what counted, not bloviated ranting and raving, claimed Buzz Bissinger, Dexter covered “more ground in 900 words than most writers could cover in 9,000.”
“I know the city,” wrote Bissinger, “and nobody has ever captured it the way Dexter has, shining his light on these punks and drunks and cops and hollowed-out men and women just hoping to grab on for one more day. Wherever there is loneliness in the city — and with the withering of its manufacturing and working-class roots, there’s no shortage of loneliness — Dexter seems to find it.”
What Dexter also found was the sense to appropriate Devils Pocket for the setting of his near-death experience. Doc’s, the bar where Dexter and Cobb had their clocks cleaned, was at 24th and Lombard, a place more accurately called Grays Ferry, or Schuylkill, or possibly even (forgive me) the Graduate Hospital Area and a good half-mile away from Devil’s Pocket, which, at Catherine and Taney Streets, is hard by the southwestern wall of the Naval Home.
But none of those other neighborhood names fit Dexter’s story as brilliantly as did Devil’s Pocket.
We can forgive the artistic license. After all, if not for Dexter’s storytelling, Devil’s Pocket might have faded into the same gentrified oblivion where other Philadelphia neighborhood names of character have gone. (Who hears of Texas, Smoky Hollow, Beggarstown and Rose of Bath?)
Devils Pocket has resonance; it always did. It worked in 1911 with William Paul Dillingham, who focused on Philadelphia’s poor Irish in his study Immigrants in Cities. Dillingham noted the small triangular court called Asylum Place, “popularly known as ‘The Devil’s Pocket.’” He wrote of its ten two-story brick houses “poorly built and in bad repair” overcrowded with a mix of newly arrived and first generation Irish. Residents of Devils Pocket got their jobs at nearby mills, their water from shared hydrants in small back yards where the “dry” toilets were. Just as nearby Gibbons Court, drainage at the Devil’s Pocket ran along the pavement.
Devil’s Pocket had been known as one of those places many Philadelphians heard about, talked about, and avoided. An 1898 bicycle tour (“Trips Awheel,” The Inquirer, February 6, 1898) recommended bypassing this “nest of unnameable lawlessness. The bicyclist/journalist wouldn’t venture west of Grays Ferry Avenue; he heard the stories and gave Devil’s Pocket “a wide berth even in broad daylight.”
But there’d be no wide berth for Pete Dexter. Even if he had to fudge the coordinates of Devil’s Pocket to help make the most of his Philadelphia story.