The quirky to-do list in a library book. A bizarre snapshot lying on the sidewalk. The dry cleaning ticket on an empty bus seat that has a cartoon on the back. They’re the anonymous, scribbled flotsam of everyday experience that washes up in everyone’s life from time to time. Most of us might pick them up, take a look, and then cast them aside. Others—around 200 a week—share them with the world by sending them to Davy Rothbart, who publishes Found, a magazine devoted exclusively to such treasures.
Like Walt Whitman, Rothbart, 34, hears America singing. “There is honesty, beauty, and poetry in life,” he says. “A CEO may not write the same way as a homeless man, but the emotions are the same.”
Rothbart, who sports a shaved head and a pencil-thin chin-strap beard and closes all conversations with “Peace,” is refreshingly low-key and sincere, a classic nice guy from the Midwest. “My mom calls the magazine ‘people-watching on paper,'” he says.
It began in the winter of 2000. Rothbart had been bouncing around, working as, among other things, a ticket scalper and a creative writing teacher at a prison. Then one morning in Chicago, he went out to his car and found a napkin jammed under the windshield wiper with this written on it:
I [redacted] hate you. You said you had to work then whys your car here at HER place?? You’re a [redacted] LIAR. I hate you. I [redacted] hate you
PS Page me later
He didn’t know Mario or Amber but was transfixed. “She was so angry but still hopeful,” Rothbart says. “To me, it said ‘I still want to be with you—I’m just kind of freaking out right now.’ We’ve all been there.” He showed the note to friends. And they, in turn, showed him stuff they had found. “All my friends had some prize on their fridge. It seemed a shame that only people who had access to their kitchens would see that stuff.”
Rothbart decided to publish other people’s garbage for all to enjoy. Today, Found is a cottage industry, with an annual magazine, best-of books, and a popular website, foundmagazine.com.
As the items poured in, Rothbart often found himself surprised, especially by the amount of X-rated material. “I was shocked that so many people were taking pictures of their private parts,” he says. “And then losing them.” But his favorite submissions are the cryptic ones. “They spike the imagination,” he says. “In TV and movies, we encounter tidy resolutions. Found is real life, where things aren’t wrapped up so tidily.
“Every third day, I’ll have a new favorite,” Rothbart says. “We got this one from a kid in Pennsylvania writing to his dad in Arizona. He’s all enthused: ‘Dad, I’m going to move down there with you. We’re going to have a great time.’ It’s actually quite long and brimming with joy and hope. But then at the end, he’s like, ‘Dad, how come I never hear back from you? If you need a calling card or stamps, I’ll send them.’ And you realize what this kid doesn’t—that if his dad wanted to get hold of him, he would. It’s just crushing and beautiful.”
Luckily, there are also these sorts of notes, this one from a professor to a student, discovered on a college campus:
I have not graded your test yet, but it is clear that my message to you about receiving the grade you earn has not gotten through. To write as you do, “Please have mercy on my soul and give me a passing grade,” indicated that, as do your numerous pleas for mercy earlier … Please stop the undignified pleading.
Strangers occasionally step forward to claim authorship of an item Rothbart has published. “They’re never really angry, just confused,” he says. “‘Where did you get this?’ they’ll ask. ‘What’s so interesting about my love life?’ They don’t see it.”
Sadly, Mario and Amber remain at large in the universe. “I keep hoping one day one of them contacts me and gives me the aftermath. Was it resolved? Did they get married or never see each other again? I guess I’ll never know. But hey, that’s life.”