Memories of the Sentinel Print Shop
Something was wrong. I could sense it as much as see it. The perennially-lit windows were now dark, lifeless eyes. The bustle of activity that was so ubiquitous was absent. One of the large warehouse doors was open, like a gaping wound, exposing the innards of the building. Inky shadows spilled from within. I felt as if I was observing a corpse from my car window as I waited for the traffic light to change.
The Orlando Sentinel pressroom was dead.
I worked inside the building as a young man, fresh from the Army. Swaddled in the bosom of the coquina-covered structure were five printing presses each three stories tall and hundreds of feet long. Men (and a very few women) swarmed across the bodies of the presses, tending to their needs. Adjusting, tweaking, coddling, feeding the presses paper and oil and ink. It took a crew of eight to bring the press to life. With a whoosh of air and hydraulics, coupled with electricity and manual effort, the printing press would seemingly come to life with a groan, soon supplanted by a roar of immense power that would shake the floors and ring in your ears.
Now, its been over two decades since I last stood on that floor, as much in awe the last time as the first. Today the floor was silent and cold. The only sound the occasional rattle of a power tool and the sound of safety horn as a forklift backed up. Other men were in attendance on the floor now, tearing the presses limb from limb, their electric cables spilling out like entrails. Waste ink dripping blood-like from broken pipes. The pressroom was dead.
When I started at the Sentinel, the paper was like a beautiful girl seeping into middle age. Still striking, still capable of turning heads. Still meaningful. Maybe she was just slightly past her prime - she had an impact but it was a little harder to get out of bed every morning. And behind her, in the shadows was someone new offering something different. She could just barely discern the challenge. That it was not so obvious only made it more unsettling.
The newspaper was somehow so permanent. It was Harry Truman holding up a paper with a wrong headline. It was a black and white photo of Lyndon Johnson with his hand on a Bible as a blood-drenched widow looked on. It was a beautiful blue sky with a shattered space shuttle raining down toward the fold on the front page. It was a paper as big as a turkey on your driveway every Thanksgiving Day. It was a daily chronicle of life, made tangible and readable and as regular as the sunrise. And we made it happen every single day.
Men often commingle their life with their work. A woman may see herself as a mother or a wife, or a woman but a man usually sees himself not as who he is but by what he does. We were pressmen. We were blue collar but we wrought a miracle everyday. We showed up on weekends, on holidays, during cold winter evenings and even during hurricanes and wars and we got the news out. We were proud of what we did. We were relevant.
My life there was so long ago. It’s been so long that I can’t remember everyone I worked with. Some names are with me always. There were some people that I liked or loved, or hated. Some people I can only see as glimpses, a hand or a mustache, a silly smile or a threatening glower. Their names lost. Others I can hear as a snippet of an echo. A peculiar laugh, a turn of phrase. Their names and faces gone too. I suppose it’s the same for many of them. Maybe I’m only a glimmer to them too.
I wonder and even worry about my old coworkers. For many, their career at the Sentinel was the apex of their work life. It seemed somehow so impervious that I fear that many must have been left bereft without it. The newspaper offered good benefits and pay and prestige from a earlier day. I left when it was thought foolhardy to do so. I’d like to say it was because of some grand bit of foresight but it wasn’t. I just didn’t seem to fit in. Silly really; and utterly fortuitous. It wasn’t strategy, it was serendipity.
The traffic light turns green. I look over at the car next to mine. The driver’s head is down, texting a message on his cell phone. The horn of the car behind him honks and the texting driver looks up, his face a mixture of surprise and irritation. My car radio sends me an instant traffic alert via satellite. I drive away knowing I’m about to be delayed. The Sentinel building appears in my rear-view mirror, a discarded newspaper blowing silently across the parking lot.
I avert my gaze. I don’t want to see anymore.