Davy's Lost and Found

The art of finding has made Davy Rothbart a cultural treasure.

Davy Rothbart, a 29-year-old hipster with one of those anemic, pencil-thin Honest Abe beards, is probably the nation's most notable pick-up artist: He sees things on the ground, he picks them up. But unlike most of us, he's created an entire cult around the random notes, lists, napkin doodles, snapshots and other shreds of personal detritus he's found over the years, enshrining them in Foundmagazine, an always funny and often poignant publication that was born in his parents' Ann Arbor basement a few years ago. Then something happened: People began sending him stuff they'd found, and Rothbart became a minor superstar, putting out his zine once a year, getting profiled in the New Yorker, guesting regularly on NPR's This American Life and, now, authoring Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World, a paperback collection of new and favorite found items with commentary, presented in Rothbart's signature homemade, cut-and-paste style.

Rothbart will appear at the hi-dive on Sunday with his brother Pete (and anyone else who wants to participate) in conjunction with one of the most unorthodox book tours around. Rothbart will read -- or, really, perform -- material from the book, while Pete shares original songs he's based on the same. There'll be other participatory surprises, such as the reading of a four-page found play of which only three pages were retrieved.

Rothbart got the idea for the tour from his musician friends, who would work hard on putting together a repertoire and then hit the road. "They always pile in a van to take a tour around the country for a few months," he says, "and that's sort of been my model for how you do things and how you tour. I feel like we worked hard in putting the book together, so now it's only fair to take it back to every state to share it with people and encourage them to collect new stuff." Still, he pooh-poohs the idea that the art of finding stuff has reached the status of a cultural mini-revolution. "I wish it was that grand," he admits. "It's more like a gigantic collaborative art project uniting people in one common cause: to collect this stuff together."

So how do you get started? For Rothbart, it was just a matter of looking down. "I just always loved finding stuff," he explains. "Back when I was in school, I used to cross a field to get to the bus, and there was a softball backstop there. I didn't have to look hard; the stuff just collected there against it. And then I'd wonder who the people who lost the notes might have been. There'd be these strange cryptic phrases, and I'd try to figure out what they meant." Rothbart identified with the snippets of anonymous angst: "Maybe the people who wrote them were different from me -- it might be the president of a company, or someone living in a prison cell -- yet they're all dealing with the same basic things in life. And I might laugh at it at first, but then I'll think, 'But I've written that same kind of love note,' and it makes me feel a little less alone."

The real charm, he continues, is that it requires no special skills. "Anyone can pick something up off the ground; everyone can play. Any find is almost like a riddle: It's only a piece of the story, and it's up to you to guess at what's on that missing page." And in what seems like a natural progression, Rothbart is working on a collection of short stories for Simon and Schuster based on things he's found; it's tentatively titled The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. "There's a character in every one of these notes," Rothbart stresses. "The stories all come, literally, from one of these notes. They come from a found moment."

 
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