Did you hear what happened to...?

Our window cleaner was always the source of screeds of gossip – low-level waste that he spread around liberally.

Even if you never told him anything mildly interesting, he spent his days peering into people's houses or even peering out of them when he washed the panes inside.

In fact, he was probably the only person, outside our immediate family, who got a peek in absolutely every room of the house. A close survey of the contents would no doubt have generated a story or two about our curious life. The camel-skin lamps and tribal spears in the attic, odd-looking chemicals in huge glass bottles in the bathroom, a large locked safe in the study.

But in the unpublished world of local gossip, you rarely get to hear the dirt on your own life. It's a carefully calibrated system of shoveling along other people's tales.

Lack of celebrity saved us from National Enquirer-style headlines. That tabloid, which turns 50 this year, is still one of the most popular papers in the US – sadly. Alien abductions, miracle diets, crudely doctored photos – right head, wrong body – haven't lost their bizarre appeal.

Public curiosity about private lives is as voracious as ever – not a new phenomenon, but perhaps reaching new heights, courtesy of the Internet. Think Matt Drudge.

But according to a slew of top New York gossip columnists, getting the goods is proving tough these days (see story page 17).

Celebrities, not content to be relegated to the gossip column, are increasingly savvy about planting their "news." And when a scandal looms, a little PR muscle and well-tuned spin can mask the bumps.

So when someone says, "You wouldn't believe what I heard the other day," you probably shouldn't.

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