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Get Your Mind Into the Gutter

"When I was 8 or 9," says Rothbart, "I used to walk across a debris-strewn field every day from the [school] bus and would pick stuff up, love letters and notes. I was amazed at how powerfully you could connect with someone through this; you felt like you knew them."

When Rothbart and his Dumpster-diving brother, Peter, take to the road, the pair turn the inert writings into a kinetic performance of animated and expressive voices and gestures. Imagine an improv show of impressions -- of your oddball neighbors. Davy reads aloud, Peter plays guitar and sings songs inspired by the notes. On the Michigan "Booty Time" tape, for example, the crowd helps with the rousing chorus, "Damn, the booty don't stop."


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)

With his skinny-as-a-twig body, elongated face and high-octane speech that spills out so fast the words slur, Rothbart can easily morph into the author-characters. He channels a pair of trash-writing girls, each trying to outsass the other by piling on the B-word. Or he transforms into the guileless boy who wrote to his dead mother about his new crush and tied the letter to a red balloon, for a one-way flight from an Illinois cemetery to Heaven (only to get tangled in a tree).

Beyond the performance-art shtick, Rothbart attracts, à la the Pied Piper, other personal-scraps collectors who view him as a savior of lost and accidental scribes. He is curator, caretaker and documentarian of all those bitty shreds of paper that look and smell like litter but read like novellas.

"You only find one of these things once in a lifetime, so I had to come down here and give it to someone who appreciates it," says Frank Warren, 40, who dropped off some finds during the tour's October stop here. His trove: from Clopper Lake in Gaithersburg, a smoke-filled bottle that held a cryptic hand-shaped postcard and skeleton keys and, from a urinal at the National Institutes of Health, an envelope stuffed with English flashcards of sorts.

Like Rothbart, Warren had a eureka moment, as did many of the other 100-odd attendees at the show, at the Adams Morgan club Staccato: In middle school, he came across a mislaid calculator. From then on, his perspective changed from looking only straight ahead to seeking out the filler spaces where goodies collect.

"People who haven't found something valuable, something that strikes their soul, don't understand," he says. " . . . There are finders and there are non-finders. The people in this room probably can find 100 precious things in a day that thousands of people will walk right by. It's looking for beauty in the out-of-place."

From a purely sociological-anthropological standpoint, the sampling of items featured in Found magazine offers keen insights into our society: We are a nation of bad spellers and even worse cussers. Our teens are oversexed and angry, yet giddy in love (many I's are dotted with hearts). We are careless with our belongings. We are resilient -- writing gives us an outlet that helps us survive everything from a missing cat to a parent's death.

Rothbart is not alone in his obsessive collection of personal effects. On a much larger scale, the National Archives holds in its research stacks thousands of private letters that have been submitted by other government agencies or by citizens themselves. In addition, a permanent installation called "Public Vaults," coming Nov. 12 to the Archives building downtown, will display writings that mix the intimate with the historical, including a Depression-era letter from a young girl asking Eleanor Roosevelt to please send her mother a coat, because she is cold, and a written plea from two girls in Montana begging President Eisenhower not to give a dashing soldier named Elvis a military buzz cut.

"We as individuals leave our own blueprint in various ways, through letters, memos, e-mail," says spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "Individuals and their blueprints are extremely important because together we make up this nation and we make up history."

Of course the letters whisper to our prurient side, too. Why else do we obsess over reality TV, pore over published correspondences by famous personalities, sneak a peek at a friend's diary?

"Those who wrote those letters did not intend for us to know," Cooper says. "We are voyeurs, but I don't think the word is necessarily judgmental. We shouldn't feel guilty about that."

Rothbart says the notes are testament to our commonality as human beings. "What I am struck by are the similarities, that the finds from New York City and from another country might be in different languages, but the feelings are the same," he says. "We have the same emotions over the death of a mother, or falling in love, or breaking up. It makes me feel more connected to other people."

After a spin around 14th and U streets NW and some alleys in between, the best Rothbart and his brother can find in these parts are some unused floral note cards, a red shirt sleeve with an embroidered rose, and a school paper for a girl named Sade, who, according to the report, spent the day coloring vegetables and identifying farm animals and ranked only a "sometimes" in the follows-rules category.

"That's the magic of finding something. It's not easy," Rothbart says as he wends his way back to the white tour van parked on 13th Street. "But when you do find something, well, you can create in your own mind who these people are.

"I will stay up all night just thinking about people like Mario and Amber, and wondering what happened to them."

And whether Mario ever paged Amber.


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