Davy Rothbart | Your Loss, His Find

prof_found_sm.jpgIts current incarnation, the Denim and Diamonds Tour, is itself a bit of a traveling carnival, part gallery installation, part concert, with a smattering of party and old-fashioned "happening" thrown into the mix.

 

 

 

 

There are two types of people in this world. No, wait; there are actually dozens upon dozens of types of people. But let’s pretend that there are only two: the kind who see discarded personal effects as litter, debris cluttering up a perfect world, and those who see these scraps of paper, bent, faded photos and plastic whats-its as artifacts, relics from a world otherwise unknown. For every person who’s ever turned over a faded Post-It lying on South Grand or a discovering a baffling picture of somebody’s polyester-clad grandpa circa 1968 at the base of a tree on the Loop, Found exists for you. Found is a website, a magazine, a series of books and, for its devotees, a way of life, a chance to gain a little insight into the human condition via left-behind notes, photos, diaries, drawings, lists and more.

On a comfortingly regular basis, Found heads out on the road to share and commune. Its current incarnation, the Denim and Diamonds Tour, is itself a bit of a traveling carnival, part gallery installation, part concert, with a smattering of party and old-fashioned "happening" thrown into the mix. Expect a community vibe, readings and interpretations done with aplomb, and the singing of songs inspired by finds.

The latest Found book, Requiem for a Paper Bag, expounds on the project’s mission by commissioning a bumper crop of celebrities (comedians, writers, artists and musicians running the gamut from Seth Rogen to Chuck D, Sarah Vowell to Andrew Bird) and regular folks alike to wax poetic about their favorite found finds. It includes straight-up essays as well as comic strips and short bursts of fiction inspired by extraordinary objects. I spoke with Found founder/NPR This American Life correspondent/author Davy Rothbart about Requiem for a Paper Bag, his seemingly perpetual Found tour/evangelist movement, and the particular, magnetic appeal of things just sitting there in the street.

prof_found.jpgWhat is it that fascinates us about other people’s things, even if it’s often the mundane refuse of their lives? Is it pure voyeurism? Anthropological curiosity? The "ooh, shiny!" effect?

[Laughs] Two responses to that. Sometimes there’s a stigma attached to the idea of voyeurism, but I think a certain level of voyeurism is healthy. You’re surrounded by strangers all the time: on the bus, walking down the street; I think it’s natural to be curious what other people’s experience of being human is like. From these notes, you get a powerful glimpse of somebody else’s life, a powerful sense of being in someone else’s head. You read a note, look at the handwriting; anyone who’s ever sat there people watching…my mom actually calls Found magazine "people watching on paper." Which is a great way to put it. ‘Cause you are out people watching, wondering what somebody’s thinking, to read the notes; you’re boring inside people’s heads. The fact that these notes were written for one other person, generally, or even themselves, a to-do list or a journal, people reveal themselves in these really raw and intimate ways. ‘Cause they’re being totally un-self conscious. Just the way that each of these notes is a fragment of a story, it tells a riddle; you wonder what the rest of the story is. It sparks your imagination once you read it; it’s up to you to fill in the blanks, and you try to piece together the rest of it. It’s an interesting element of it that’s captivating. Two different people can look at the same note and come up with a totally different idea about what the story is there. Some of them are so hilarious, and some of them are just heartbreaking; you never know what you’re going to find.

That’s something that I’ve noticed in reading the new book, just the amazing different reactions that these things elicit in people, the desire to try to fill in the blanks, the stories that some people have come up with, and their reactions versus my reaction to the same found items, sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s different. I totally understand that.

That’s interesting, because you do bring to it your own ideas and your own viewpoints. What I like sometimes is that flicker of recognition — when I’m laughing at the notes, I’m not laughing at the person who wrote it usually as much as I’m laughing at myself. I’ve written that same pitiful love note a hundred times myself. Say you’re struggling with some dark issue in your life and trying to figure out, or solve, some problems; you read a note by a stranger and it’ll teach you not to feel isolated, like you’re the only person in the world who could feel this, no one could possibly know what I’m experiencing right now. You read some found note written by a stranger and you see they’re going through the same thing. That’s a striking image; it makes you feel a little less alone, I think, and more connected to everybody. You didn’t even know who even wrote that other note, you can almost imagine if you’re sitting on the bus, it could’ve been any of the people on the bus who wrote that note, makes you feel more connected to everybody. The best magic of all in literature, in movies, when you have that flicker of recognition. These notes, there’s a truth to them that’s so intense.

In a way, it’s unfiltered humanity.

Exactly, exactly! That’s a great way to put it.

You’ve shown a remarkably sustained passion for Found over the past seven or eight years. What set you on the "path?" Was it something specific that you found at some point, or just a general, lifelong fascination?

Well, I’ve always loved finding stuff, even when I was a kid. I’d pick stuff up, bring it home, look it over with my mom. It was just across the school field, to get to a bus; I think there was a backstop there that would collect a ton of notes and letters and just trash, basically. But I would look at some half-torn piece of a love note and wonder what the story was. So I was always picking this stuff up but I never collected it in any organized fashion. And then one day, about 10 years ago, in 1999, over the winter I found this note on the windshield of my car and my name’s Davy, but this note was addressed to Mario. So I’m like, what’s this all about? It said, "Mario, I fuckin’ hate you! You said you had to work, but why is your car here, at her place? You’re a fucking liar, I hate you, I hate you, [signed] Amber. P.S. Page me later." [Surprised/excited laugh]

I remember that one, yeah!

It was so hilarious, because she was so angry and upset with him but still hopeful and in love, with the P.S. Page me later. And of course, there’s Mario and the love triangle. So I showed it to a bunch of friends, and maybe somebody that I met found stuff to share back with me, I’d be in someone’s kitchen, and on their fridge they’d have taped up their favorite find, whether it was a kid’s drawing or a Polaroid they found in the gutter. So I thought a magazine, Found Magazine, would be a natural way for everyone to share what they’re finding with everyone else. That being said, I had no great ambitions for it, just made a few copies to trade with friends. I spent a few months telling friends about the project and it occurred to them to send me stuff and I collected a bunch of great stuff; me and my 12-year-old cousin spent like, three nights taping pieces of tape putting the first issue together. One of us went to Kinko’s to make 50 copies and the dude working there at like three in the morning was like, "Whoa, this is awesome; let’s make 800 copies!" That sounds like a lot, but he said he’d help us collate and staple, he was working the next few nights. So we had a party a couple of weeks later, and a few hundred people came and bought a copy for five bucks; that left me with 700 copies filling my apartment, and I was leaving for this trip the next day. My roommate was pissed off ’cause he could barely walk around with all these boxes, and when I came back from the trip a few weeks later, all the boxes were gone, and I figured he either threw them out or put them in the basement storage area. He was like, no, he said so many people were coming by to pick up one copy, or three copies or five for their friends, the neighbors called the police; they thought he was selling drugs! He could not believe it; I was stunned! Because I always loved finding this stuff, but to discover that other people shared a fascination with these little scraps of paper, these little glimpses of other people’s lives, it was an exciting thing. So I was like, Should I print more magazines?, and we made more, and once the magazines started getting out into people’s hands, the great thing was we started having more and more people send us stuff, to the point where we now get one to two hundred finds a week. It’s fun just to go to the mailbox. I get stuff sent to my folks’ house, so I go over there once a week and just pick up a crate of mail, and it’s always interesting to see what comes in, you know?

Absolutely. Speaking of stuff coming in, you go on tour pretty regularly. Do your epic tours provide, either through things you find or stuff that people bring in person, fuel for the next round? Do these things have their own kind of momentum? Do the tours themselves generate more fuel?

Yes, absolutely; that’s really the reason we do these tours. ‘Cause Found, it’s a giant community art project. It only exists because tons of people are sending in their finds from all over the country, around the world. We basically go out to do our shows, and we see all the fun, the great time that people have, but it’s also we try to collect stuff. And in each city people do bring us great finds. Last night in Philadelphia I got a stack of awesome new stuff; learning about it, it inspires [people] to go out and keep their eyes to the ground and then when they do find something they’ll send it to us. When we get home from tour, I’ve noticed that we’ll get a lot of found stuff from cities that we’d just gone to for the first time, and a few weeks later, over the next few weeks and months, we usually get a ton of great stuff.

And the show itself, I go through the stack of our favorite found notes and letters that people have sent in over the years, and some of the brand new ones that people have sent in, and I just read them out loud, you know, but I get a little bit rowdy and carried away. I try to read them with the energy and emotion that they were written with, so I sort of bring them to life that way. My brother Peter plays songs based on some of the found notes. And he plays guitar and sings; some of the songs are just totally beautiful, others are just absolutely hilarious or ridiculous. So people leave feeling exhilarated, they go have a great time, and they feel inspired to find stuff and send it to us.

That’s beautiful. You actually just answered another question that I hadn’t asked yet, which was: Fans know what to expect out of the publication, but what does a typical show or a gig or whatever you want to call it entail? What would you say to a first time attendant?

I try to stress how much fun it is. A reading can sound boring, it’s more than a reading…it’s just a crazy show; people laugh a lot, have a great time with things.

Requiem for a Paper Bag is a slightly different approach to the typical Found magazine/book collections that you’ve done. Why the switch? Do celebrities find better things?

I try not to use that word in the book; the people in the book aren’t interesting because they’re famous, they’re interesting because they’re such awesome artists, filmmakers and writers, and they’re my heroes, you know? That’s an argument I have with the publisher… [Laughs]

That wasn’t supposed to sound accusatory.

What I’ve noticed is after these shows, people…the idea for this book started out on the road, because when we’d do these tours, people come up to us, they bring us great found stuff, but they also tell us stories about where they found the things and how the find affected them, and I realized that sometimes the stories about where people found stuff or what they made of it was as interesting as the found item itself. So I thought it’d be fun to collect some of the stories I heard out on the road, along with from some of my favorite artists and writers. I sent them a letter asking them to participate, and I was surprised with how many of these awesome people wrote back and had these great stories to share.

I found the book to be massively moving and incredibly hilarious and touching, and in my mind it was a coup to get some of these people. And obviously, some of them are "normal people," too. The format is very different at first, but the more of the book I read, I never considered approaching the found items or experience in that way. I think it makes the experiences even stronger in a lot of ways.

In the magazine we’re mostly limited to using the found notes and letters and pictures, and we can’t print up other interesting stories that revolve around other kinds of stuff. I’ve got a bunch of favorites in there. I was just talking about the range of stuff in there. Some of the writers, like Sarah Vowell, she works on the This American Life radio show with me, she was like, "I found some great stuff, but I can’t think exactly which one to write about," so I told her to look through the magazines and see if she had any other favorites, and she picked a list: This kid wrote this thing "What I know about U.S. history." He made this hilarious list of things, and it’s weird which ones he included on his list. Del the Funkee Homosapien, the rapper: He chose that one note a kid wrote that was found in a hospital, that’s like, "Dear God, my dad’s very ill, he’s dying, give me money, goddammit," and the "goddammit" is crossed out. Del pointed out that if you’re writing a letter to God, you probably don’t want to say "goddammit." [Chuckles] Might piss him off.

Speaking of that, the essay with the fifth grade class’s letters to The Rock was a particularly good example, because it was something that I was completely laughing out loud at, but at the same time had a really eerie poignancy to it.

Yeah, because the way Kimya Dawson describes it, for some kids who might not have a father figure, their adopted father figure was The Rock. And they’d just spill their hearts to him. That’s a great way to put it; it has an eerie poignancy to it. I might borrow that phrase from you.

Awesome. I have one more question for you, if you don’t mind. I asked about your first find, what got you going, but do you have a "personal best find," or one that really resonates with you? I know that’s like asking a parent "which one’s your favorite kid," or a songwriter "uh, what’s your favorite song you’ve written?" But I didn’t know if there was just one…

There are some all-time favorites. I think I have a new favorite every third day! [Laughs] One that stands out for me — we talked about notes with eerie poignancy, and about notes that write a story behind where they were found as part of the story — is this note that was found outside of Chicago. And the woman who found it told me the story, but it was basically this kid writing to his mom. It was like, "Hi Mom, I miss you, I wish you were here," and then he starts talking about this new girl he’s been dating, and how much he loves her, and how it’s unbelievable that he’s been able to win her heart, and then at the end he’s like, "I got my driver’s license this summer so I can get out here every day, I’ll call to check up soon, talk to you later, I love you Mom, [signed] Colin. P.S. Trevor misses you, too." So the woman that found it told me the story that she was at a cemetery, and that she saw this note, there was an old oak tree and caught up in the highest branches was a balloon with a ribbon coming down from it, and tied to the ribbon was that note. So you can picture this kid at the cemetery, writing her this note, and sending it up to her in this balloon up to heaven. And for me, it’s ones like that one that just move and affect me so much, you know, make me want to pick up every piece of paper I see floating down the street, blowing down the alleyway, hanging from a balloon in a tree.

So I hope that by doing these shows and getting people out that people will experience some of these stories and people will feel inspired to get out.

It’s ones like that which really illustrate that, yeah, at least in my appreciation of Found has always been that it’s a laugh, but it’s also, without getting too pretentious, it’s a way to better understand the human condition and understand that we’re all in this together even, if we don’t necessarily connect with each other on a daily basis or in meaningful ways.

Absolutely; it’s a great way to touch the people around us that we share the world with in these really intense ways, to get a sense of all the kinds of lives that are being led around us all the time. There’s this sort of faucet of human story and emotion. | Mike Rengel

The Found Magazine Denim and Diamonds Tour parks its passionate caravan of discovery at Mad Art in Soulard (2727 S. 12th St., 314-771-8230) on Wednesday, May 20. Doors 7 p.m., show 8. Admission is $5 at the door.

For more information on Found, check out www.foundmagazine.com.

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