In all his approachable Everyman glory, Davy Rothbart won over the likes of David Letterman and the entire Late Show with this message displayed and read aloud during his early-October appearance on the show: "Took some hos to get some burritos."
Rothbart is the creator of FOUND Magazine, a collection of found lists, photos, drawings and notes distributed, well, whenever he collects enough material. Three issues and a book ago, Rothbart was inspired by a note--like the hos/burritos one, but more personal. It was a love note, of sorts, from some person named Amber presumably to her beau Mario. Rothbart just happened upon it and kept it. "That one was the one that sort of sparked the whole idea of doing the magazine," he says of a favorite among FOUND fans that would become known as "Page Me Later." "I'd been collecting stuff for a long time. I liked that one so much, and roaming around...visiting friends in different cities, I would notice that people would have, like, their one great prize find on their fridge--you know, some funny picture or kid's drawing or something. It just seemed like a shame that only people that trooped through their kitchen would get to see that stuff."
A contributor to NPR's This American Life, Rothbart also writes short stories. Before the birth of FOUND, ticket scalping for Bulls games in Chicago supplemented his meager radio income enough for him to concentrate on writing and eventually help finance the first issue of the magazine, something that was intended to be a small printing mostly for fun. "I didn't have grand ambitions for FOUND; I just thought I'll make 50 copies for friends, and maybe it'll grow," he says. "Then those were gone, and we printed 800, and then, like, those were gone."
And this is something that continues to astound Rothbart. "I just thought of this as my own little personal hobby, and I never realized how many people share this fascination with these little scraps and little glimpses of other people's lives," he says. The tiny printing of FOUND's first issue evolved into something that called for a published collection, Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World (by Simon & Schuster, which also will be publishing Rothbart's upcoming collection of short stories).
He calls it a "massive collaborative art project," one that anyone can participate in. And obviously they do. "FOUND only exists because thousands of people have been participating. I think I found, like, two things in the whole book, and everything else was found mostly by strangers." Appearances, as well, have grown in size. They began with tiny first-issue parties attended by eight people. Now the Slapdance Across America Tour 2004 reaches, on occasion, audiences of 500.
Rothbart is living this thing, immersed in a 50-state tour with multiple appearances in most cities. In Madison, a few weeks ago, it hit him. "There were, like, 300 people there, and the theater was just, like, totally packed, and in the middle of the thing I just lost my train of thought, and I was just looking out and was like, 'How did this happen? This is crazy! It's so fucking weird! That's a lot of people.' It was surreal," he says.
Surreal is an excellent word for the FOUND experience. Some of its out-of-context items are beautiful, others morbid and even disturbing. Somehow, FOUND feels incredibly personal. Maybe that's because Rothbart has such a magnetic energy and channels that into his presentation of each item. Whatever it is, hey Davy, page me later, 'kay?