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Get Your Mind Into the Gutter

Amid Dead Leaves And Discarded Lists, Sometimes There's Poetry to Be Found

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page D01

Davy Rothbart is tramping through a patchy field of litter in Southeast Washington as if on an exotic walkabout. Every few steps, he stoops to inspect a fragment of paper or soggy receipt, then tosses it aside, only to scan the ground for that one objet trouve that would cross over from rubbish to treasure. It is tough going, though.

"This just looks like trash," says the 29-year-old Michigan native and former District resident, who can tell from a glance or a toe-flip what's litter and what's a keeper. "It's so clean around here. Washington used to be pretty fertile territory for found stuff."

Davy Rothbart, left, and his brother Peter discover photos and posters in Adams Morgan. Davy Rothbart says their mission is "to get, to find." (Preston Keres For The Washington Post)

But then, just when it seems his scavenger hunt will be as useless as a crushed beer can, he finds it: a black square of paper with the words "To Get" typed in bold white letters.

"There's our mission!" he exclaims. "'To get, to find.'"

Add it to the pile. The pile that has mushroomed, one note/postcard/photo/letter/sign at a time, from a magazine into a subculture.

Rothbart is creator of Found magazine, an annual publication of revealing scraps that have risen from the dump heap. The magazine led to a best-of book published in May, and a months-long 136-city tour of readings, groupie gatherings and recreational "garbage" collecting.

"I think it's natural to be curious about what other people's lives are about," Rothbart says. "That's the magic of finding something -- a notebook forgotten on a bench or a journal in the street, its pages flipping in the wind. These notes and letters are not so easily digestible, and they are not so easy to forget."

Rothbart's initial find was a note mistakenly left on his windshield four years ago in Chicago. It was from someone named Amber to someone named Mario. Based on the string of seven-letter invectives, it appears Amber was pretty miffed about seeing Mario's parked car when Mario was supposedly at work. Amber wondered if Mario was really at "HER place." She hated him, accused him of lying, then signed off with a P.S. to "Page me later."

Touched by that impassioned letter, Rothbart wanted to share Mario and Amber with friends. He got the idea of parlaying the note into a magazine of similar discovered jottings on a visit with D.C. punksters Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schweser, friends who had used zines to indulge their off-mainstream interests. The first issue sold 50,000 copies in three years. (The third, released in February, is already at 30,000.)

He eventually took a break from scalping tickets in Chicago -- his full-time job before a temporary gig with National Public Radio filming a documentary about a Southeast family -- to go on tour with his found notes. This year's schedule has been like a rock star's, with a new state each day, packed houses and groupies waiting in the wings. He was even on David Letterman's show recently.

He has "met" thousands of other people whose intimate scrawlings have been unwittingly exposed for public viewing (and jollies) simply because their pocket had a hole or the wind blew in the wrong direction. A vast network of volunteer trash-amassers submit to-do lists, Post-it notes, doodles, journal entries, photos, cassette tapes and other first-person detritus found in the usual places -- on the street, in laundry rooms and cafeterias, between library book pages.

"What he's finding, the things he is identifying as being found, have such depth of feeling, such sorrow and human emotion," says Rodney Elin of Silver Spring, who attended a Found show here in late October. "You just can't help but sympathize with them or identify with them."

Take the Barf Bag Breaker-Upper. On an airsickness bag discovered at Los Angeles International Airport, the anonymous author heart-rendingly notifies her significant other: "I think this is it for us. . . . You don't even know how much of a tremendous loss this is for me." Yet the end may not be so final; there are clues that the letter may have been only a rough draft.

Also found: a ransom note by Milwaukee blackmailers who threaten to destroy A.J.'s binder unless he coughs up $3.50, to be dropped off "directly under the clock to the left of the door at precisely 1:15." Then there's the two-page "What I Know About U.S. History" report by "Justin Gotlieb" (the magazine changes last names and blacks out phone numbers to protect the innocent and clueless). His essay includes such significant events as Columbus's discovery of America, the Sputnik launch, the invention of the stoplight, the production of the 1967 Shelby Mustang, the use of nitrous oxide in muscle cars and racing cars, the deaths of Elvis, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney's knighting and . . . the birth of Justin Gotlieb. You have to admire the World According to Justin.

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