Six years ago, Found Magazine creator Davy Rothbart got a message that completely changed his life. It wasn’t a burning bush from God, or an oversized check from Ed McMahon. It was somewhat more pedestrian than that—a scrap of paper left on the windshield of his car that read:
Mario, I f***ing hate you. You said you had to work. Then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You’re a f***ing LIAR. I hate you. I f***ing hate you.– Amber
P.S. Page me later
“I just thought that was so funny. There’s those complicated emotions, you know, that she’s so angry with him but so hopeful and in love,” Rothbart says. “And it wasn’t even Mario’s car. It was my car. I showed that note to some of my friends, and they started showing me things that they had found. I was blown away by how something as small as a love letter picked up from the grass can show you so much about strangers’ lives. It started circulating in my head, all this found stuff.”
The “Mario” letter was the first step toward the creation of Found. The second came when a friend turned Rothbart on to some of the more popular self-published zines in the world, titles like Cometbus and Burn Collector. It was an eye-opener. Though Rothbart was already somewhat established as a man of letters (he’s a regular contributor to the NPR show This American Life, and in 2005, Simon & Schuster published his collection of short stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas), the world of grassroots self-publishing was somewhat alien to him.
“I’d never been exposed to zines before,” Rothbart admits. “I got really into them. So all the found stuff was in my head, and then all the zine stuff, and they kept moving closer and closer like those monsters on Sesame Street that say the conjoined words. You know: ‘Found … Zines … Found … Zines.’”
Then one late night on a cross-country drive, Rothbart has his eureka moment: Found Magazine.
And so he joined the ranks of such great finders as Ponce de León, Moses and those dudes who hang out around Montford Park looking for scrap with their metal detectors. An empire was born. Or conceived at least.
Rothbart started collecting more found items from friends. When he gathered enough, he cut and pasted the collection together and went down to his local copy shop to make a mere 50 copies of the magazine. When a late-night employee took interest in the project, though, he made more copies for Rothbart.
Way more. Like, 800 more.
“After the release party, I still had like 700 copies filling my living room,” Rothbart recalls. “My roommates were all pissed off, especially because I was leaving on a trip. When I came back, though, all the magazines were gone. So many people were coming by all the time to buy copies that the neighbors were going to call the police because they thought we were selling drugs out of the house.”
Since then, Rothbart (and several of his cronies who now make up the Found staff) has gotten enough of these little glimpses into other people’s lives to fill five issues of the magazine, plus two Found books and two issues of Dirty Found, which compiles all of the submissions that are too lewd, explicit or gross for the pages of the regular magazine.
There’s also FoundMagazine.com, which has finds of the day, news and updates about the magazine and related events. Rothbart has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, and has been profiled in The New York Times, GQ, Esquire and The Onion. And the Found wagon shows no sign of slowing down.
“You think that I would’ve seen every combination of story and emotion,” Rothbart says. “But, I continue to be surprised at some of the stuff that comes in that’s totally unique.” There are love letters, hate letters, mixes of the two (like the “Mario” letter), poetry on napkins, scrawled drug budgets, bizarre doodles and letters from and to prisoners, from and to estranged parents, from and to estranged children. In the upcoming “Crime Issue,” there are even letters from J. Edgar Hoover reprimanding a hapless FBI agent for losing his gun.
For Rothbart, this montage—made up entirely of snippets from the secret lives of strangers—is more than just something at which to gawk or chuckle. He says it has changed the way in which he sees things around him.
“I definitely feel like I look at the world in a different way,” he reports. “It’s so easy to have this inner monologue going on where you’re repeating stuff in your own head, like, ‘Why won’t this girl call me back? Why is my boss such a prick? Where did I put my keys?’ When you start looking for found stuff it brings you out of your head and into the world around you. I find myself more likely to engage with people I see, on the bus or on the street.”
Rothbart has also managed to turn his experiences with Found into something of a road show, giving lectures across the country. For his current tour, a meandering, 65-city monster, Rothbart has joined up with PostSecret, a community-art project (and series of books) that mines from many of the same sources as Found, but takes it a step further by actually soliciting glimpses into people’s lives by leaving self-addressed postcards in public places for people to write their darkest secrets on. The readings and performances are benefits for different groups in each city; in Asheville, the proceeds will go to Asheville Prison Books.
[Ethan Clark is a freelance writer, zinester, editor and cartoonist based in New Orleans. His punk-lifestyle memoir Leaning with Intent to Fall is currently available from Garrett County Press.]
who: Found Magazine vs. PostSecret tour
what: An evening of found art and strange stories
where: Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Nov. 30 (8 p.m. $10. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)