“We do get lots of pictures of peoples’ private parts. I didn’t realize how many people were out there, taking pictures of their genitals and then losing the photos,” says Davy Rothbart, who, at 29, has become a bit of a national phenomenon via his magazine, Found, and its recently published coffee-table book counterpart.
Rothbart is the unofficial cult king of literary trash — in the form of notes left on sidewalks, in trash cans, on cars. The Ann Arbor native says he’s been a collector of found items all his life, starting with his elementary school days when he would pick up notes in the parking lot. The spark for Found came four years ago in Chicago when Rothbart discovered a note on his windshield written by a woman named “Amber” and intended for a guy named “Mario.”
“I fucking hate you,” the note read, “you said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You’re a fucking LIAR. I hate you. I fucking hate you. Amber. P.S. Page me later.”
Rothbart decided such treasures deserve a larger audience. He gathered found notes he’d collected for years, slapped together a crude ’zine and made 800 copies. To his surprise, the ’zine was an instant sellout. Inspired, he began putting up fliers in several cities asking people to send him found items, and Found magazine was born. He’s printed three issues so far; Rothbart publishes the magazine himself, selling it for $5 a pop.
Rothbart says he thinks of Found as “my own little private hobby,” but its success belies the creator’s humbleness; the magazine has sold about 40,000 copies per issue and it’s distributed to bookstores around the country. This past spring Simon & Schuster published the book Found: The Best Lost, Tossed and Forgotten Items from around the World. In the apotheosis of mainstream success, Rothbart has appeared on Letterman (wearing a pair of pants he found).
As it happens, Rothbart doesn’t publish nude photos. It’s not that they’re too explicit, he explains, but that they’re “just not that interesting. They don’t have that sense of story. “ Erotic love letters make the grade, as do grocery lists, valentines, diary entries, e-mails and a “ransom note” which threatens, “We have your binder. You will never see it again unless you leave a sum of $3.50 directly under the clock to the left at the door. … Please do not inform any teacher of this transaction.”
The found items, about 100 a week, arrive at Rothbart’s Ann Arbor address from all over the country, and even overseas. Someone in Portland sends in an e-mail message from a guy telling his friend about a “making out” session with this “asian chick”; he didn’t bring her home “because Maggie would find out for sure.” From New York City comes a flier advertising a huge reward for anyone who finds the writer’s “babies” (her favorite dolls) left in a shopping bag. A Chicago reader sends in prayers written in Polish by a woman diagnosed with breast cancer; the prayers were tucked in the windowsills of a neighborhood church.
A 1996 graduate of the University of Michigan, where he won several prestigious Hopwood awards for creative writing, Rothbart has several irons in the fire. He’s contributed to NPR’s This American Life and written a book of short stories to be published next year by Simon & Schuster. But right now, he’s promoting Found on the second lap of a whirlwind tour — 126 stops in all 50 states, in which he “gets a little bit rowdy” and reads aloud a “bunch of the newest, craziest finds that have landed at Found.”
One of the things Rothbart likes best about the tour is the chance to meet Found finders, the best of whom tend to be “librarians, janitors, mail people.” One “champion finder” is a used-bookstore clerk in Philadelphia who’s found dozens of items (a handwritten will, an envelope with a lock of hair). Rothbart views finders as a community of curious people — and himself as sort of a “steward” to that world.
“The finders are every type of person,” he says. “It’s anyone who has a sense of curiosity or wonder about the people they share the world with.”
Rothbart is often asked to talk about his favorite finds. He has several. There’s the letter to a man in Arizona from a son anxious to hear from an apparently noncommunicating father, who writes, “I’m going to send you some stamps so you can wright me back and I’m going to give you a calling card so you can call me.” There’s the algebra test, graded zero, in which test-taker “Aaron” has written a poem reading in part, “Maybe someday /my grade will go higher/ but who am I kidding/ I’m only a lyer.” There’s the note from the woman weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the two men in her life. The “good things” about “Andrew” are that he’s “always been a good friend” and she “married him.” The “good things” about “Paul” are that he has a “house” and “money.”
“There’s amazing, bizarre, beautiful, heartbreaking, hilarious stuff out there,” muses Rothbart. “It’s just a matter of looking and being aware.”
To get a copy of the magazine or book, visit foundmagazine.com.Eve Silberman is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org