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The Sentinel


Harry Buschman

The "SENTINEL-HERALD-INQUIRER-TIMES" was boldly spread in 72 point type caps across the top of the city's only remaining newspaper. It represented the last of four defunct dailies. With the coming of television the Internet and twenty-four hour news radio, instant news saturated the air waves, newspapers had little to offer other than baseball stats and market closings. People got their news elsewhere.

The Sentinel could not keep pace with current events. All of its headlines were history by the time the paper hit the street. The fires were extinguished, the victims had been pulled from the wreckage, and even elections had been decided. But the public still loved the gossip column concerning the activities of the rich and famous and the behind the scenes secrets of the dog eat dog corporate world.

Judith Barberian prepared the gossip column for the Sentinel with a blind disregard for the facts. Her column, "A Night With Judy" was devoured with salacious satisfaction by New Yorkers in all walks of life. Barney Smith's, "Street Smith" was no less satisfying to underpaid office workers who couldn't wait to see corporate executives led out of their boardrooms in handcuffs.

Neither Judith nor Barney were native New Yorkers. Judith hailed from Twin Forks, a small town on the outskirts of Rapid City. Barney came from Flint, Michigan where he had operated a fork-lift truck at a General Motors assembly plant. Not only were they out-of-towners, they were not even newspaper people. Both of them were hired blindly when the previous gossip columnist and business editor left on the very same day for greener fields, one to an afternoon talk show and the other to a cable television wall street network.

Judith arrived starry-eyed in the big city and made her first stop at the Sentinel. Her application listed her previous employment as a "Cinema Distribution Analyst." The title was meant to conceal her six months in the ticket booth of a Twin Forks multi-cinema movie theater. Barney, on the very same day, wrote on his application, "Product Acquisition Consultant for General Motors." Both of these impressive but ambiguous qualifications impressed the personnel manager at the Sentinel whose only qualifications for his position was assistant night manager for a Bronx 7-11.

In panic, he rushed both applicants to the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sentinel. Harassed as he was, the CEO never raised his head to look at them. There were no other qualified replacements for the gossip and business columns so Judith and Barney were hired at salaries above and beyond their wildest dreams back home in Twin Forks and Flint.

They were needed, not for their expertise, but because they were relatively attractive people. For some time the paper had abandoned the idea of reporting the news as it existed and was inventing it instead. The CEO had developed swat teams of experts whose purpose it was to suggest what was going to happen, rather than what did happen, therefore two wide eyed rubes, such as Judith and Barney, were all the paper needed to put a face on whatever news it deemed fit to print. It needed faces because Judy and Barney's pictures would be inset in each column and convey the impression they had written them, furthermore they could be held up in disgrace should things go wrong. Such was the low state of the fourth estate. It was a coincidence that Judith and Barney chose The Sentinel-Herald-Inquirer-Times for their first stop in the Big Apple. But without the interference of chance this story could not be told.

They took up temporary residence at their respective "Y"s for a day or two, and met by chance in the Sentinel's cafeteria. There, over tuna fish on white toast, they decided to live together. "Living together" usually spawns tactless innuendoes and snide observations, most of them concerned with the physical attraction of opposite sexes. But in Barney and Judy's case it was a matter of economics. Neither of them was physically drawn to the other. If you were to ask Barney what color Judy's eyes were he'd shrug his shoulders and say, "I never looked." If anyone asked Judy if Barney wore a wedding ring, she would be at a loss to answer -- they were in New York after all. By the same token, no one at the Sentinel knew they were living together, or for that matter, that either of them worked for the Sentinel.

Central Park West was a convenient place to live. Neither of them could afford an apartment in that part of town, but together they were sure they could swing it. They found one on a Friday afternoon after their chores were done at the Sentinel. There were two bedrooms at the east end of the apartment that overlooked the park which could be converted into two high tech work rooms. The kitchen was big enough for two refrigerators -- one for him and one for her. The living room was large enough to partition off into two bedrooms. One for him and one for her. They signed up with the landlord under the name of Barney Smith. That seemed to satisfy the landlord, cohabitation is a far more acceptable arrangement to rental agents and landlords than the prospect of two professional people of the opposite sex who can't afford to live alone.

For the next three years they never ate together, slept together or used each other's first names. The space in the kitchen where a breakfast table would normally be, was used for Barney's refrigerator.

"But'cha got one," the man from P.C. Richards said after he wrestled the new one into place.

"We need two," said Barney.

"Got no outlet over here, it's gonna cost ya extra."

"So go ahead, cost me extra," Barney shrugged.

The carpenter who installed the partition which converted the large bedroom into two smaller ones kept his opinions to himself. Either of the bedrooms was bigger than the one he and his wife slept in up in the Bronx.

They shared a taxi to the office every morning. It was easier finding one cab than two. Barney would pay one morning, Judith the next. They made adjustments whenever the need arose.

"I'm short, Barberian, I'll take tomorrow." Or perhaps ...

"Get it Smith, a twenty's all I got."

That was the sum and substance of their conversation. They ate breakfast at their separate work stations, had lunch alone in the Sentinel cafeteria, and rarely ate dinner at the apartment. They never shared their private lives or their private time. They dated other people but never brought them back to the apartment. Their soiled laundry went out in separate bags to the cleaner. It was an arrangement not much different than that of many upwardly mobile married couples with differing goals.

Barney's daily "Street Smith" column was largely written for him by the swat team assigned to business news. A brief sample may help us understand the Sentinel's unorthodox tactics concerning news reportage.

... "An unconfirmed report from reliable sources has not been denied by executives at Olympian Textiles relative to their hostile take-over of Fenwick International. Should this action be permitted by the FCC, more than 35,000 Fenwick employees in Basking Ridge, New Jersey would be furloughed."

In fact Olympian Textiles had no intention of taking over Fenwick, or were even aware it existed. The companies had nothing whatever in common and the statement, when carefully read, meant nothing. When an enraged executive at Fenwick called the Sentinel, the paper invoked the fourth amendment and was told that Mr. Smith had to protect his sources.

Barberian's "A Night With Judy" column often went something like this ...

... "Rance Lunford would deny the rumor going around, (if he were asked) why Lily Dangerfield was bounced from the cast of 'Heave Ho My Hearties,' but Lily's drinking problem has not improved and reliable sources tell me that she may be in re-hab before the week is out. Her replacement? ... well, could she be the platinum blond Rance escorted to La Marmite last night? Only time will tell."

After ruining Lily's career for a drinking problem she didn't have and getting Rance in trouble with his wife, when in fact the 'platinum blond' was his elderly mother, you might think both Judith and Barney as members of the press would be conscience stricken by the mischief their columns created. But they
were both pulling down $1500 a week after taxes and with money like that rolling in, their respective consciences slept soundly. The code of silence protecting the fourth estate continued and their nonexistent sources were protected.

"You over there, Smith?" Judith mumbled from her work station one morning as the sun glanced off the topmost branches of the sickly trees bordering Central Park West.

"Yeah, you O.K. Barberian?" Barney inquired.

"Something we gotta iron out, Smith. Got a minute?"

For the first time in three years Barney walked into Judith's work station. She pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her nose and said, "I'm not saying a word to you until you get your pants on."

"Sorry -- didn't know I had them off." It hadn't occurred to him that he was in the presence of a woman -- he decided he'd better go inside and finish dressing. There was something in Barberian's voice that concerned him, he put on a fresh shirt as well. "What's to iron out?"

"I'm involved, Smith. Happened last night ... well, maybe even before last night. The dining out guy, Devlin? You know him, right? He started with the Herald and the Inquirer? He wants to hook up with me."

Barney looked at Judith in a way he never did before. What was the matter with her! How could he stop her! He was struck with the terrifying possibility of moving to a cheaper apartment. It was difficult to know where to begin and he wished with all his heart his swat team was there to help him.

"Er ... Barberian ... Judith," he cleared his throat before beginning.

"Don't start Smith. I'll lay it out for you, okay? We've been here now, what? three years, maybe more We teamed up because we wanted a fancy address without paying for it. We were a lot different back then -- at least I was. I guess you're always going to be what you are ... I'm not the person I was three years ago. I need a relationship."

"I can give you ... "

"No you can't, Smith. You can't give anybody anything -- look at you, take a look in that mirror -- that's you Smith, Bernie Smith -- you're a word processor."

"It's Barney."

"Whatever. Anyway Johnny Devlin's quitting the paper. He's got a houseboat out in Babylon and we're going to cut loose, both of us. We're going down the Inland Waterway -- drop anchor at the first place that looks like home."

She wouldn't shut up, every time Barney opened his mouth to say something she took off again. "I'm sick of New York, sick of this cheesy newspaper, and on top of it all I'm ashamed of not even knowing the first name of the man I'm living with. You know what's under my by-line this morning Smith?"

"I ... "

"I'll tell you what. The editor's got a bug up his ass about Michael Jackson, wants to bring him down. He's got the swat team working on a scheme to prove he's cloned himself. That new baby of his? He thinks it's him. Some Swiss scientist was paid to clone Michael Jackson! That's why I want to get the hell out of here, Smith."

Some inner pecuniary urge made them both look at their watches at the same time.

"Going downtown Barberian?" Barney ventured to ask.

"Yes, I've to clean out down there, then I'll be back to pick up my stuff. The paper will be up to clear out the PC and the files. Then you're batching it Smith."

The taxi driver was Indian and they were treated to raga music from 86th street all the way down to 14th. There wasn't much chance to talk about what might have been. They sat as far apart as they could. Barney was on the starboard side with his left leg over his right, Barberian, on the port side with her right leg over her left. It was a language of the body that not even raga could sweeten. They were too far gone -- both of them.

As they approached the freshly polished bronze doors of the Sentinel, Barney ventured to ask Judy who her replacement was. If he had any residual hopes of reconciliation, he couldn't have chosen a poorer approach.

"Lots of luck, Smith, her name's Simon. I'm a little short, pay the driver and I'll leave my half on the kitchen sink. I'll drop you a card when I'm settled."

The morning passed slowly for Barney. He couldn't get Barberian out of his mind and his thoughts wandered from the column concerning the rumored downsizing at Microsoft and the suspected recall of Mitsubishi air bags.

He sighed and punched in Barberian's number.

"Simon here."

"This is Barney Smith, Simon ... thought I'd welcome you to the paper. How you getting on?"

"Thanks Smith ... pretty well. You're business, right?"

"Yes, that's right -- 'Street Smith'. Got a place to stay yet?"

"Looking for one, pretty expensive town, New York."

Barney took a deep breath and decided to plunge ahead. "Maybe I can help you, how about lunch? By the way," he added, "You got a first name, Simon?"

©Harry Buschman 1997

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