BY ADAM BONANNI Davy Rothbart’s first window into the lives of others came in a note mistakenly stuck to his car from a pissed off girl to her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Mario. The excitement of his find sparked Davy to create FOUND magazine, which he dubs a public art project where people submit objects they found that tell a story of their owners. Notes, photographs, drawings, and other forms of personal memorabilia are collected between the covers of FOUND, forming a kind of bread crumb trail to the quiet desperation of hidden lives. Some are funny, some are inspirational, and others are just straight-up so insane that the only appropriate thing to do is scan the original copy and let the story speak for itself. Davy Rothbart has been running with the concept for close to a decade, and grown it into a series of anthologies, the latest being Requiem for a Paper Bag, is a collection of FOUND experiences from various celebrities, musicians, authors, and friends detailing their significant finds. Requiem for a Paper Bag is the subject of Davy and his brother Peter’s nationwide Denim and Diamonds tour, which stops in Philadelphia tomorrow. Recently, Phawker got Davy on the phone to talk about FOUND magazine, his new book, and just what goes on during these nationwide tours.
PHAWKER: Just to start off, can you explain the concept behind FOUND and give us a short history?
DAVY ROTHBART [pictured, below right]: Well, the idea is simple. It’s a collection of notes, letters, and photos that folks have found. If you’re walking down the street and you see some crumpled up piece of paper and you pick it up and look at it, maybe it turns out to be a love letter or a to-do list or someone’s journal entry. People find this stuff all over the country, all around the world and send it into me. We just slap it together into FOUND magazine or the FOUND books. The way we started was, I would love collecting this kind of stuff. Never kept my collection organized, but I would always find something and marvel at the way it sparked my imagination and make you wonder about the people who had written it, what their story was. There was this one note that I found on the windshield of my car late one night in Chicago. My name’s Davy, but there was this note addressed to Mario, and I was like “Alright, what’s this all about”. I checked it out, and it said “Mario, I fuckin ‘ hate you. You said you had to work, why is the car here at her place. You’re a fucking liar, I hate you, I hate you, signed Amber. P.S. Page me later”. I just thought it was so funny, she’s so angry and upset with him, but still so hopeful and in love, and P.S. Page me later. And of course it wasn’t even Mario’s car, it was my car. I started showing that to friends, and I was surprised how many of them had a find to share with me, usually some prized find hanging on their fridge, like a Polaroid they found in the gutter, or some kid’s drawing blowing down the street, or a love letter.
It seemed like a shame to me, only people who were in their kitchen would get to see that stuff. If anything, FOUND magazine would kind of be like a natural way for everyone to share what they’ve been finding with everyone else. I had no great ambitions for it, I just thought I’d make like 50 copies. Basically, I collected my found stuff, and some stuff from friends, and I spent three nights with my 12 year old cousin just scotch-taping and putting the first issue together, like magazine style. We took it over to Kinkos at like 3 in the morning to make about 50 copies. I figured I could find 50 friends who would want a copy. This dude that was working there late at night, this punk rocker, he was like “This is awesome, we should make 800 copies”. It’s not a ton, but I was a bit hesitant. He said he was working the next few nights, so he convinced me to do it. So we made 800 copies, and we had a party a week alter. About 100 people came, and they each bought a copy for $5, and that left me with 700 copies in boxes, just filling my whole apartment, as well as a pissed off roommate. This guy Tim, lead singer for the punk band Rise Against, he was pissed at me because I was leaving for a few weeks, and he could barely move around. When I came back from the trip, all the magazines were gone. I thought he just threw them out or put them in the basement storage area. Surprisingly, he said that so many people were coming by to pick up one copy, or three for their friends. He said the neighbors had called the police because they thought he was selling drugs out of the apartment. I was stunned, but at the same time excited because I had always thought of this as my own personal hobby, and to discover there were so many people out there who shared my fascination with these windows into other people’s lives, it was truly exciting. Of course, the more magazines that were getting out there into people’s hands, the more people started sending FOUND stuff into us, it just kept growing. Now, we do the magazine every year and a couple FOUND books, getting 100-200 finds a week in the mail, and it’s been really cool to see the way it continues to grow.
PHAWKER: This was just out of your apartment at first, so how did the word become more widespread?
DAVY ROTHBART: Well, one way is by doing these tours that my brother Peter and I have been doing for a few years now. Basically, we take the show on the road and try to share the magic of these finds from people through these rowdy reading and music performances that we do. I end up doing a stack of my favorite FOUND notes and letters that people have sent to us over the years, especially some newcomers. I read them out loud, but I try to read them with the energy and emotion that they’re written with. It’s a little bit rowdy, a little bit carried away, but I try to bring them to life. Peter plays songs based on some of the FOUND notes, and he’s amazing. His songs are ridiculous, beautiful, hilarious. I find that when we travel all over the country, this tour is 57 cities in 62 days, when I get home, I see a flood of finds from those places. There are people who have a great time at these events, and they get exhilarated and inspired to go out and find stuff. My grandma calls it a Johnny Appleseed kind of thing. It’s a big community art project, and doing these tours is the best way to spread the word.
PHAWKER: Now how long has this been going on? When was the start of FOUND?
DAVY ROTHBART: Eight years, almost. June of ’01 is when the first magazine came out. We’ve done six magazines, one per year roughly, and a couple FOUND books. Now we have the new FOUND book coming out on May 5th, the day we’ll be in Philly.
PHAWKER: And this has been a full-time thing ever since?
DAVY ROTHBART: Yeah, it’s definitely been pretty consuming. I have a lot of other interests, so I try to honor those by donating some time to writing and film-making. I also work on This American Life, the NPR show, and I love doing stories for them. Definitely FOUND though, in the best of ways, occupies a ton of my time and energy. I’ve always loved finding this stuff myself, so to now be able to go to the mailbox and see this from others is great. All the mail gets sent to my folks’ house, who live a few miles from me. I go there about once a week to pick up like a crate of mail, and to read through it is totally awesome. Every time I get through a crate, I always wish there was more. There just seems to be a near infinite amount of combinations of stories and emotions contained in these notes, so every time I look in the mail, I see stuff that I’ve never seen before.
PHAWKER: You mentioned This American Life, and I wanted to know what you do for that show? Kind of the same thing you do for FOUND?
DAVY ROTHBART: A couple times I’ve done FOUND related stuff. We did the This American Life tour, and I read a bunch of the FOUND notes and had a great time with that. Most of the stuff I do for the show is being a reporter, I guess. For one story, I went to visit Mr. Rogers. I interviewed all my neighbors in Chicago about the conflicts they were having with each other. I played the tapes for Mr. Rogers, and let him mediate their disputes. King Friday, Lady Fairchilde , they all got to put in their own two cents. My mom is deaf, and we went to Brazil a couple years ago to visit this miracle healer named Child of God to see if we could get her hearing back. There were people there from all over the world, people with cancer, with AIDS, people in wheelchairs, you name it. We were down there for a month, so I was kinda following the stories of some of the other people who were there pursuing healing as well as my mom’s story, of hear deaf-ness and trying to get healed.
PHAWKER: Switching to the tour, I was curious why it’s called the “Denim and Diamonds” tour?
DAVY ROTHBART: Well, a favorite FOUND note of mine, I think it was printed in the second FOUND book was found in Kansas City by this girl who works in an independent movie theater there. Some woman had apparently left notes on every car in the lot, trying to find this guy she had met a few weeks ago at a bar next to the theater, called Denim and Diamonds, this country bar. She talks about how she took this guy home, and she saw him a couple other times, but now his phone number changed, and she was trying to find him again. She also revealed in this note that the thing she remembers about this guy is that he has a 5 year old son, he was dark haired and married, but she also revealed that the night she met him was her own bachelorette party, which is just bizarre. We call that note Denim and Diamonds, and Peter wrote a song based on this note called Denim and Diamonds, which we thought would be a fun name for the tour. The song is from the guy’s perspective, trying to really figure out what’s going on in this situation.
PHAWKER: When you release a new book, is that usually when you and your brother start touring?
DAVY ROTHBART: Usually we go on tour to celebrate a new book or a new issue of the magazine. Peter has a new album out called “The Sight of Eddie Bird”, so it’s the new book, and Peter’s new album this time around. The new book is pretty cool, because rather than having just the FOUND notes and letters, we asked a lot of our favorite writers/artists/musicians about their favorite finds. I discovered that a lot of people had these amazing stories of stuff they had found, and the story about where they found it and how it affected them was as interesting as the FOUND item itself. It wasreally cool for me to reach out to people like Chuck D, Jim Carroll, Devendra Banhardt, Seth Rogen, Kimya Dawson, all these people whose work I’ve loved and see if they had stories about stuff they had found.
PHAWKER: The names you mentioned only scratch the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of people with stories in this book, so how did you contact everyone?
DAVY ROTHBART: Most of them, I just sent a couple copies of the magazine and a letter explaining what the idea was for the new book. I just asked them the simple question “Have you found anything that sticks out in your mind, anything fascinating, weird, beautiful”? Sometimes I wouldn’t hear anything for three months, and then I would get the nicest e-mail saying that they read through the magazine and they wanted to share an experience they had. I would just wake up one day, and in my inbox there would be Chuck D, SethRogen , and my mom, all e-mailing me the same morning. I was also surprised how many people did have some knowledge of FOUND previously.
PHAWKER: Did you come up with the titles of these individual stories yourself?
DAVY ROTHBART: I think I came up with many of them myself. Often the writers named it. i tried to play editor a bit, and it was pretty hard to edit these writers I always admired. Nick Paumgarten, he edits the Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker, so to edit an editor, I felt a bit presumptuous.
PHAWKER: I ask that because one of the stories is actually titled “Requiem for a Paper Bag”, also the title of the book. Did that particular story resonate with you?
DAVY ROTHBART: Yeah, we named the whole book after that. I love that piece by Drew Daniel, and his music is great too, real minimalist. That piece, I thought, really captured the spirit of FOUND which is, you find some paper bag with this list on it, and anytime you find something, its really just like a fragment of a story and its up to you to piece together the rest of it. You get to fill in the blanks, and its part of your imagination in that way. Then, Drew goes on to talk about how he made all these guesses about the person who wrote in that bag, but later one of his friends ended up being addicted to crack, and it kind of turned the whole thing on its side. Anyways, I just loved the title too, and that was his title. Drew came up with that title. I loved it, so I was just like “Shit, let’s call the whole book that title”. I think it fits, and Drew was happy we called the book after his piece.
PHAWKER: Your “About Me” section towards the back of the book says you’re the focus of an upcoming documentary “My Heart is an Idiot”. Can you talk a bit about that?
DAVY ROTHBART: Yeah, we have a friend, David Meiklejohn, who is a documentary filmmaker. He came on tour with us a couple years in a row, more or less to document the FOUND tour, but what he inadvertently ended up documenting was the ups and downs of my love life as it played out over the course of those couple years. It’s sort of a personal documentary about my own struggles. Along the way, we would interview people; friends, family, drifters on the side of the road, about their triumphs and struggles. I think the movie will weave together my own personal stories with a bunch of other people’s. We talked to Newt Gingrich, Ira Glass, Zooey Deschanel , and then, literally, a drifter on the interstate, so we fused together a bunch of people’s ideas with what I was going through. It’s called “My Heart is an Idiot”, and it’ll probably be finished in a few months. There’s a trailer up online that’ll give you a sense of it. It’s really funny, it almost reads like a FOUND magazine does. I also think it has its poignant moments as well, and I find, when I’m reading the FOUND notes, is the reason I’m laughing at the notes is because I’m laughing at myself. I know I’ve written the same pitiful love note a hundred times myself. There are these universal things that when you see someone else experiencing it and you have that moment of recognition where you know you’ve been through it too, I feel like hopefully, that’s what people will take from the movie. In my own struggles, I hope they’ll recognize something about themselves.
PHAWKER: Can you give us an idea of what to expect when you come to Philly?
DAVY ROTHBART: We do this rowdy reading and music show, and it’s a lot of fun. i have some of the new finds that just came in that i want to share, as well as some old favorites. I’ll probably read a couple pieces from the new book, maybe Jim Carroll’s piece. These aren’t normal readings though, they’re pretty upbeat and rowdy. Peter is playing some new songs based on FOUND notes. He’s got one that’s based on a new issue of FOUND. In this one, this woman is talking about her second miscarriage and it’s a really affecting note. Peter has wrote this absolutely beautiful song that’s pretty much made me cry the past three nights. He also has some pretty ridiculous songs as well; one that’s called “That Booty Don’t Stop”. It’s based on this cassette tape that’s based on this cassette tape that was found near where we live. It’s just a bunch of homemade booty rap songs by some kids, so Peter wrote a cover of one of the songs. We just love Philly, it’s been one of the all-star cities for finds, and one of the first cities to ever carry the magazine. We’re going to celebrate the release of the new book, since it’s official release is May 5th, the day we’re in Philly. One of the founders of the Magazine, Brande Wix, he’s making the trip out to Philly just for that show, so that’ll be cool to have him around. He’s been with the magazine since day one.
PHAWKER: Just wrapping up here, what’s the Internet impact been on FOUND?
DAVY ROTHBART: Well, for us, it hasn’t had a huge impact. I know I still love to hold a book, newspaper, or magazine in my hand. We’re printing as much as ever, bu it’s interesting, because people are writing less. Since we’re a magazine of mostly handwritten notes, we have been noticing a lot of people sending e-mails. I’ve noticed two things, however. If somebody really has something important to say, they’ll put pen to paper. If you’re ending a relationship after seven years or trying to get hired, the important notes people will write. Also, as technology evolves, people are finding things in new ways. people find e-mails that have been printed out and dropped behind, or sometimes, people might get an e-mail that was meant for somebody else.. People have found cell phones with 50 text messages on them. You can find electronic messages just as easily as finding a note on the street. We leave it up to our readers to be respectful and sensible about sending stuff in, and to not go digging through people’s personal stuff. We’re always careful to change names, phone numbers, identifiable information. We are printing really raw, emotional stuff, but as long as we can be respectful of personal identifiable information, that’s the most important thing.