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."
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.
"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."
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, a 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.
He says their mission is "to get, to find." Below, Davy's magazine and book.