The Reader "time machine" on Lawrence Avenue in Ravenswood Manor Credit: "Ian Crusken"

Now and then something is so strange it must be a hallucination—but it isn’t. When I heard about the Chicago Reader “time machine,” it evoked the Flying Dutchman, the spectral ship that haunted mariners as both a symbol of vanished grandeur and a portent of doom.

While the Dutch ghost ship was a legend, the Reader time machine actually turned up a few weeks ago on the north side of Lawrence Avenue a half block west of the Chicago River. There are pictures.

As real as it surely was when it appeared, it seemed phantasmagoric. It was a Reader newspaper box—but an ancient one, a kind this paper hasn’t used in years. Its sides had been plastered with tear sheets from old Reader editions. The box’s window, the place of honor, displayed the front page of the first Reader ever, published in 1971.

The inside of the box was stocked with Reader issues from decades past. We kept watch. As these contents diminished—apparently removed by pedestrians who helped themselves—they were mysteriously replenished.

But by whom? And how? And why? Was this an inscrutable piece of installation art by someone unknown who wanted its weirdness to speak for itself? Was it a tribute or a howl of despair? If equanimity reigned at the Reader, the box might have amused us as a mere oddity concocted by a quirky mind lying low. But equanimity doesn’t reign. The Reader faces new owners, new offices, a scarce budget, a triumphant history but an uncertain future. The “time machine” touched deep and troubled feelings.

Finally, an e-mail was received. It was unsigned, though the return address was registered to an “Ian Crusken”—a name unknown to Google. Crusken introduced himself as a longtime reader who was a “collector” (but not a “hoarder”) of “pulpy materials” such as the Reader, which, he advised us, “aside from being a stalwart publication is and was a perfect lining for the bottom of a bird cage.”

“Not meant as a critique,” he promptly added.

At any rate, he said he’d picked up the box from a recycling yard years ago and now, having recently moved, “was forced to either recycle the papers and box or give a more meaningful departure.” He opted for meaningful. “Spent afternoon and night before my move cobbling together an archive distribution box. Could have been better, but could have been worse. The seven or so batches of papers were snatched up by curious passersby.”

This didn’t explain why Crusken had bothered. But the picture in his head shed some light. “Glad readers got some old papers. Including a 20 something who may have never heard of the paper,” he wrote in the e-mail, to which he attached photos of his creation. “Three or four hundred people in apartments reading 44 year old stories of Chicago.”

The box in situ
The box in situCredit: “Ian Crusken”

Now that we knew his e-mail, editor Jake Malooley asked if I would try to find out more. I’ve formally retired; but like any old sailor home from the sea, I live on the coast and am always available to put an oar in. I dropped Crusken a note. He wrote back hinting that what he’d said already might not be entirely true.

“As a journalist, I assume you’re interested in the factual details, more than the partial fictionalization sent to the paper,” he replied. “My inclination, if you want to ask some questions, is to leave my name out of it. Nurture the mystery and refer to a one-time Reader staffer. With the idea that the focus is not a particular employee but the many people who went into creating the culture, the paper, the content. Not a character piece but a piece about an idea. An idea to dispense history and content. Rather than simply recycle, or trash. An idea generated out of physical pulp and content. Let the image be the most iconic of newspaper imagery: the newspaper box.”

The box once stood on a street in Villa Park offering copies of a suburban edition published in the late 1990s, the Reader’s Guide. It was of no use to the Reader once that edition was discontinued, but on an impulse Crusken brought it home and stashed it in his basement. There it joined the old Reader editions he’d salvaged in 2007, a year or so earlier, when the paper was sold and the new owners decided to toss out the 35 years of back Reader issues bundled in the basement. “I snagged random issues for myself. Mostly from the 70s. Took them home,” Crusken told me. He had no purpose in mind.

“Over the years,” he said, “I’d occasionally leave a paper in a coffee shop, slip a handful in a Reader box amid current issues, leave one in the back of a bus. The last day before a hurried move to a new apartment, I had to decide whether to fill the dumpster with newspapers and leave the box in the alley. The least labor intensive of choices.”

But he didn’t choose it. “Instead, I pared down some ideas to papier-mache the box and leaving it beside a public garden on Lawrence. Pushing the box six blocks on a squeaky-wheeled flat cart at midnight.”

Why? “Maybe the reason I didn’t take the Irish exit is that it still galls me that someone would buy a newspaper, a central alternative newsweekly, and have no better ideas for 35 years of newspapers than calling a junk company. Maybe I wanted to give a few bundles their due.”

He said he’d be filling the box for the last time today. When those old papers are gone, his deed is done.

Of course the name’s not Crusken. That turns out to be a tribute to “Cruiskeen Lawn,” a column in the Irish Times from the middle of the last century that was written by Myles na Gopaleen, a pseudonym chosen by the novelist Flann O’Brien, who was born Brian O’Nolan. Names are trifling things, aren’t they? And if Crusken doesn’t care to share his with anyone but me, I ask you to indulge him. Ian Crusken is a romantic with a burden of pain and a flair for drama. He’s one of us. Leave it at that.