The missing Reader T-shirt mystery solved

T-shirts too cheap, too small — plus stories from T-shirt fans

T-shirt winners see themselves as part of a brother/sisterhood of smart people.
  • T-shirt winners see themselves as part of a brother/sisterhood of smart people.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear M.A. Dude: Where are all the Reader T-shirts people win for solving the "Reader Puzzle*? Me and my friends have never seen anyone wearing one. — Mark Rossi (Ocean Beach), Paul Woodburn (Ocean Beach), John Bidleman (Encinitas)

In abbreviated form, this is the question that launched our quest for the Reader T, asking lucky owners to tell us what happened to them. The elves in the Matthew Alice mailroom are still grousing about the overtime and papercuts from grappling with the deluge of replies.

If your faxes and letters could speak, they’d sound like a flock of Easter chicks. “Cheap, cheap, cheap” was a popular theme, supplemented with the occasional “flimsy" and “cheesy.” More than one miffed winner washed his or her prize only to have it transformed into a shriveled, twisted, unwearable ball of poly-cotton. Two long-ago winners who received the black-logo-on-mustard-yellow shirts considered them just too damn ugly to wear in public, though another recipient said it was so garish it made a perfect high-visibility biking shirt. A significant number of well-worn shirts are stowed in closets or drawers, too threadbare to wear anymore but obviously too important to throw away. Some wear theirs rarely, so they’ll last longer. A couple of extra-large winners received shirts that were too small and were given the brush-off when they asked us for replacements. One winner wrote to say he wouldn’t wear his Reader T-shirt to the proverbial dog fight but offered no further explanation nor any hint about what is proper attire for a dog fight. At any rate, that’s a fair summary of why people don’t wear their shirts.

Far outnumbering the disgruntled replies were those who said they wear their shirts frequently and the three dudes who inquired just aren’t paying attention. I’ll give you a hint: Check out gyms, joggers, bikers. Reader Ts are sweated in a lot. They’re also worn to run errands and for cleaning or gardening. The shirts don’t seem to be major fashion statements, but lots of winners admitted they wear theirs hoping people will recognize how smart they are for having solved the puzzle, though, apparently, people rarely do. Debbie Hilbert faxed a suggestion that the shirt is too subtle, and what winners really want is one that says in big letters, “Hey! I won the Reader puzzle!”

Included in several letters were photos of grinning winners proudly wearing their Ts, one Xerox copy of the shirt itself, and a copy of the page on which the winner’s name was announced. The last was from an attorney who apparently figured I wouldn’t believe him if he didn’t submit evidence. Quite a few of you took this chance to make a clean breast of the fact that you cheat like crazy to win the puzzle — group efforts being the most common form of subterfuge. And lots of people were bright enough to realize that if they’d saved all the postage money they’ve spent over the years just to win one lousy T-shirt, they could have solved the family’s cash flow problems or replaced their wardrobes several times over. There was lots of complaining about how long it took to win one. They’ll not be happy to hear that many people claim to be winners of two, three, six, eight, or even a dozen shirts over the years. None related to the Reader puzzlemeister, I trust.

Random interesting observations: Dave Hightower from Encinitas wins the prize for acquiring his shirt in the most interesting way. He was rock climbing in Mission Gorge and found an old discarded engine block wrapped in a Reader T. He took the shirt home, washed it about 15 times, but only got it clean enough to wear while repairing his car. If Norm Pos from San Diego and B.J. Park from La Jolla don’t know each other, they should. Both admitted they have dozens of T-shirts that they stack on a shelf, taking a new one from the top of the stack each day and putting freshly laundered ones on the bottom, so their Reader Ts are only worn when they rise to the top (every 43 days, in Norm’s case). Several people claim to have sold their T-shirts to people who made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, and John Strauch of San Diego traded one of several he had for a backpacking tent. Keith in Poway is burdened with a “longhaired hippie brother from L.A.” who always comes to visit without a change of clothes. Keith’s “beloved light-blue x-large” shirt is now slumming the streets of Lotusland, and Keith’s pretty pissed about it.

An interesting undercurrent in many replies suggests that T-shirt winners see themselves as part of a proud if silent brother/sisterhood of smart people. Jovino Arias (San Diego), Jerry Sadowski (El Cajon), and “Mike" (faxland) each suggested a reunion of Reader T-shirt winners — a big party where everybody’s wearing his prize. If at that reunion recognition is given for the shirt that’s traveled the farthest to get there, consider this note from D.K.A. of Lakeside: “My son came to visit me from Auburn, Washington, wearing a Reader T-shirt.... It turns out that he got it from his cousin, who lives in Port Orchard. He got it from his cousin, who lives in Tacoma. This cousin had gotten it from their grandma, who lives in Port Angeles. She had gotten it from her sister, who lives in San Diego. She bought it at a garage sale about a year ago." Thanks to all for the help.

August 19 sollicitation

Whither the T-shirt? Last week we issued an all-points bulletin for those free rags from a free rag: Reader T-shirts. Several inquiring minds in O.B. wondered why they’ve never seen one being worn by an actual person on the street, since we claim to have given away thousands of them — five a week since the “Reader Puzzle" was first published in 1978. So this is last call. If you’ve won one or acquired one by some other means, please let us know what became of it. Do you wear it? You don’t? Why not? Used it to wax your floor? Color didn’t blend with your wardrobe? Too embarrassed? Why have so few people ever seen one being worn? Mail your particular T-shirt tale or fax it or voice mail it (235-3000 x460) to the special investigations division of the Matthew Alice Mysterious Disappearances and Applied Cheez-Its Technology Centre. (Our motto: “The dog ate our homework. Really. We’re not kidding!") This will be your last chance to fess up. We’ll survey the replies next week. Or maybe the week after. Well, actually, we’ll do it whenever we get around to it.

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