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'FOUND Magazine' shows off throwaway glimpses of America's collective unconscious


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WHEN Davy Rothbart found the letter above mistakenly placed on his windshield in 1999, an idea finally came to him. Since he had spent most of his life collecting found stuff--lost love letters, birthday cards, kids' homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, napkin poetry, telephone bills, doodles or anything that gave a glimpse into someone else's life--he started FOUND Magazine in order to expose it all. He never expected the project to become anywhere near as huge as it is now.

"When I first started this project, I never intended on making a [real] magazine or anything" he explained over the phone from his native Ann Arbor, Mich. "I was going to make 50 copies. Someone liked the idea and suggested I make 800 copies. So I did. And they all sold, so we printed more and more."

The number of copies exploded to 20,000, and Rothbart is heralding a worldwide community of "finders," who scour their horizons in search of discarded love letters, doodles, bizarre roommate ads, photos, report cards or any throwaway glimpse into the lives of their fellow human beings. While the first issue showcased primarily stuff that Rothbart found himself, the new issue, which just came out a few weeks ago, consists mostly of tidbits sent to him by others. "Of the two or three hundred finds in the magazine, only one is mine this time," he tells me.

"People from all walks of life have sent me stuff," he continues. "CEOs of big companies, prison mates, janitors, librarians, police officers and people of all ages. The youngest is 7 years old, and the oldest is a 96-year-old guy who just sent in a bunch of stuff from Florida. He goes on a morning walk on the beach every day and picks up stuff. I would say people from probably 25 different countries have contributed."

Rothbart is currently on the road promoting the project and finding even more stuff. His traveling show comes to Anno Domini in San Jose on Monday (Dec. 9) at 8pm, and he'll be reading recently found notes, lists and other ephemera. Audience members are invited to participate by bringing their own found stuff to read out loud.

"It's a reading and a performance," he explains. "The notes are incredible, and I enjoy giving life to them. People seem to really respond to them enthusiastically. My little brother found three pages (one, two and four) of a silly little student play called Art and Architecture, and I have people from the audience come up and read it. That's always fun."

One particular favorite is a teenage girl's journal from the '60s sent to him by a woman in Madison, Wis., who pilfered the book from a discarded box of letters next to a pile of garbage on the sidewalk. The first entry in the journal--dated Friday, Nov. 22, 1963--said: "Today the president was killed. Everyone was crying except the Republicans." Rothbart says this is interesting because it's not the version of the Kennedy assassination we usually hear.

But what do the actual subjects of this throwaway voyeurism think about all this unwarranted publicity themselves? It's hard to say, since only a few folks who spotted their own lost notes in the magazine have contacted Rothbart. "I expected that they might feel kind of violated or upset with me," he says, "but, really, people more just felt mystified at why someone would care so much about the minute machinations of someone's else love life."

According to Rothbart, the elements of FOUND Magazine are, simply, slices of life from every single one of us. "When we read these letters, we recognize ourselves in them," he says with enthusiasm. "We've all been in these same situations. When we laugh at them, we're really laughing at ourselves. One girl even said she felt honored that so many people were interested in her life, so she sent me an email updating all the stuff that was in her note."

"The idea of all this," he cautions, "is not to nail anyone or expose anyone or get anyone in trouble. With the first issue, I really could have done a better job with crossing out the last names and phone numbers, because I originally thought that only about 50 people were ever going to see the magazine, but now I'm much more careful about that."

And speaking of throwaway culture in San Jose, Rothbart reiterates that all local brethren should bring their found stuff to the show. "In big cities, there are a lot of people who are into finding stuff. But I love getting letters from people in Mississippi, Montana or Alaska, saying, 'Everyone thinks I'm a freak for walking around and picking up trash. Now I know that I'm not alone.' It's great to see people that are passionate and intrigued about this stuff--this community of finders coming together."

Davy Rothbart appears Monday (Dec. 9) at 8pm at Anno Domini, 150 S. Montgomery St., Unit B, San Jose. FOUND Magazine's website is: www.foundmagazine.com.

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From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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