The Treasure in Other People's Trash
Your loss is Davy Rothbart's gain
It's 11am, and Davy Rothbart thinks I'm the law. About five years ago, the Michigan-based author got a ticket in Denton, Texas – one he didn't think he deserved, which is why he let the ticket get lost (there is some irony there). Eventually, the Denton Police Department turned his case over to an Austin-based collection agency. He laughs. "I still get my daily call from 512" – right around 11, in fact.
As editor and creator of Found Magazine, Rothbart spends a lot of time crisscrossing the U.S. – sort of an apostle of ephemera, champion of anonymous shopping lists and love letters and pained adolescent diary entries that fans find and send in to his magazine. On his current tour, he's traveling with his brother, Peter, a musician. ("He's younger but more mature," says Rothbart. "And he's bigger and taller than me.") At events, the younger Rothbart plays music inspired by found notes, while the elder reads aloud some of his favorites. "I try to read them with the energy and emotion that they were written with, and I get a little carried away, you know."
Rothbart will also be promoting his new book, Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities & Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed & Found Items From Around the World. To put together the anthology, he called on some people he already knew to be avid "finders," like filmmaker Miranda July, and cold-called the rest. "I sent a couple copies of the magazine and a letter to each of these people," says Rothbart, "explaining the magazine and asking them the question, 'What's the most interesting, strange, sad, hilarious, you know, weird thing that you found?'
"And then it was kind of cool, 'cause I didn't hear anything for a few weeks, a couple months, and then all of a sudden ... I'd check my e-mail and it'd be like, my mom wrote to me; my college loans people; Denton, Texas, police department; and then you know, Chuck D, Jim Carroll, Chuck Klosterman."
The particulars of each story in the book are unique, of course – there are gross-out gigglers (Jenji Kohan's "The Bloody Jockstrap Incident"), twin titty mag finds (from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), and soul-searchers (Matmos' Drew Daniel worries that his zeal for his find – paper bag poetry about "CRACK COCAIN" – has tapped a raging superiority complex). But the commonality is in the curiosity and the belief that there's something a little bit magical about finding something that once belonged to somebody else.
Rothbart, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., says he was always interested in "trash and clutter," but that interest went from casual to something else while he was living in Chicago. "There was this note on the windshield ... you know, my name's Davy, but on the windshield was this note to Mario. So I'm like, well, what's this all about?
"It said: 'Mario, I fucking hate you. 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. Signed, Amber. P.S. Page me later.'"
Rothbart fell in love with the note –with its tiny explosions of contradicting emotions: jealousy and rage, hope, a touch of the kicked dog. And of course, the final irony –it wasn't Mario's car. Rothbart started showing the note to his friends, and they in turn started showing him their own finds, and from there the thing snowballed. (As has Rothbart's career: He published his first short story collection, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, in 2005 and contributes regularly to This American Life and GQ.)
For Rothbart, the finding isn't restricted to the page. "That's part of the magic for me in a trip like this – it's sort of like a real-life Found Magazine, you know? All the strange people we meet. ... If you're doing a road trip to 55 cities in 60 days, you're going to bump into people along the way.
"There was this guy who was trying to hawk – you know what a ShamWow is? – this guy was like, hustling ShamWows at a Toronto gas-station parking lot. I talked to him for a while, and he was like, 'Yo man these are 30 on TV, I got 'em for 10 dollars right here. Plus, I'm raising money – it all goes to charity!
"And then there was this guy in Knoxville, Tennessee. After a show, we were loading up boxes outside of the bar, and he came up. ... He's like: 'I've been all around the world, man. If I see something, I'll send it to you.'
"And I was like, 'Well, what's your favorite place, if you've been all around the world?' And he's like: 'Hmmm. Oh, I got it. I got it. Phuket, Thailand: dollar Heinekens.'" Rothbart laughs. "I thought that was amazing."
Davy and Peter Rothbart's Denim and Diamonds Tour stops at the Paradise Cafe (401 E. Sixth) May 30 at 8pm. Admission is $5. For more info, visit www.foundmagazine.com.