Three years ago, Davy Rothbart started a little, self-published zine called FOUND. In it, Rothbart reproduced the best items he had found lying in the street: old love letters, shopping lists, kids' drawings, mangled photographs, stained postcards. Each item, separated from its creator, took on a mysterious life of its own. A humorously mutilated “Lost Kitten” flyer could share gutter space with a suicide note. Each one, a tiny riddle.
Rothbart's zine instantly took on a life of its own as well. Collectors from around the world started mailing in their prize finds. Soon, Rothbart found himself the loving caretaker of the windblown detritus of a thousand human lives.
Since April, Rothbart has been on an epic 50-state, 136-city tour of America presenting a live FOUND stage show. Amid a rowdy show-and-tell atmosphere, Rothbart shares some of his newest and craziest finds. Rothbart's little brother Peter, along for the ride, performs songs based on snippets of notes found in parking lots and alleyways. In the end, everyone is invited on stage to show off their favorite finds.
Alibi took the opportunity to chat with Rothbart as he makes his weary way toward Albuquerque, due to arrive at the Guild Cinema on Nov. 24.
Have you always been a collector?
Yeah. When I was I kid, I used to have to cross this field to get to the school. It was kind of a debris-strewn field. You know: pictures, papers. Trash, really. I remember picking up some of this stuff and being amazed how powerfully you could connect with someone through some little half-page love note that was blowing across the grass. I would take this stuff home and show it to my mom and we would just wonder about who these people were and what was going on in the note. My friends were always into it, too.
I would collect the stuff, but never save it in any organized fashion. But there was one note in particular that sparked the idea of doing something grander. On the windshield of my car in Chicago someone wrote, “Mario, I fucking hate you. You said you had to work. Then why's your car HERE at HER place?? You're a fucking LIAR. I hate you. I fucking hate you. --Amber. (P.S. Page me later.)” First of all, it was the wrong car. And then there was something about [the fact that] she was angry and upset with him, but still in love and a bit hopeful, really. I loved it and I wanted to find a way to share it with other people.
As I'd been roaming around the country and visiting other friends, I would always notice that people would have their one prized find hanging on their fridge: a funny picture or a crazy kid's drawing, whatever. It seemed like a shame only the people that came in the kitchen got to see that. So, a magazine, it just felt like a natural way for everybody to share their findings with everybody else.
How was the initial response?
Honestly, I had no grand ambitions for it to be a “real magazine.” I still think of it as a zine. I was gonna make 50 copies. Me and my friend Jason we went over to Kinko's at, like, three in the morning to make 50 copies. The kid who was working there was like, “Whoa, this is awesome! Let's make 800 copies.” We were like, “Eight hundred. That sounds like a lot.” He was like, “No, I'm working the next few nights. I'll help you out.” I went out of town for a few weeks after making the 800. When I left, there were all these boxes piled in the living room. My roommates were kinda grumbling. When I got back [the boxes] were all gone. I thought they had thrown them out. They told me no. There had been so many people coming over to the house, day and night, to get the magazines that the neighbors called the police. They thought it was a crack house.
Were you surprised to find that other people were obsessed with the same crazy thing?
It was surprising to me, because I thought it was my own personal little hobby. There's people that have been doing this since way before I was born. ... It's been cool just to see it growing. The more people that find out about the project, the more people you have sending in stuff. We probably get 10 to 20 things a day.
What does your house look like?
I share my house with, like, seven roommates. They basically give me free rein in the basement. We've got a big, rustic basement. But it's pretty chaotic.
One of the things I love about these items is the range they have. Some of them make me giggle like an 8-year-old. Then there's stuff that's really emotional.
I know. And sometimes I'll even find those two totally different currents of emotion within the same note. You're laughing at one line. Three lines later, you're like, “Oh, holy shit.” Something is revealed and it zags a different way. I feel the notes, they really comprise the whole spectrum of human emotion. What amazes me is that, even if the person is completely different than me--maybe they're the president of some big, fancy company, maybe they're writing from inside a prison cell--they're dealing with the same kinds of things in life. Sometimes I'm laughing, not at the person, but at myself: Like I've written that same pitiful love note like a hundred times before.
What made you go on tour?
Because this is a project that requires the participation of thousands of people, I just thought I could go on the road and do a “Johnny Appleseed” thing and explain to people why I love this so much, share with them my favorites and personally bully and harangue them into being a part of it.
Fifty states and 136 cities. This has got to be a great way to see America.
In a weird way, I think of this as a very patriotic project. Not in a flag-waving type of way. But these notes give you a sense of the people that live in America. Certainly, traveling does that same thing. I love driving around the country. It's one of my favorite things, just meeting all these people. It's like reading a found note, but it's real interaction. When you're traveling, you end up talking to people that you wouldn't ordinarily have a chance to meet. People in the middle of the Montana mountains or some small town in Kansas or in the middle of New York City. It gives you a good sense of the range of people that make up this country.
Have you been to Albuquerque before?
When I found that first note in Chicago, I was just visiting. At the time I was living in New Mexico, just outside of Taos. I made up some fliers with that note that said “FOUND magazine needs your help.” Albuquerque was the first place I ever passed those out. I went up and down Central Avenue: The Food Co-Op, the Guild Theater. Whenever I saw a cool-looking car, I'd stick one on. So, in a lot of ways, I feel like Albuquerque is the place that gave birth to FOUND.