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Passing Notes 

by Dan Egan


Credit Davy Rothbart's great idea to two complete strangers. It was about five years ago on a cold night in Chicago when Rothbart went out to his car from a friend's apartment when he noticed a handwritten note left on his windshield. Apparently, someone named Amber had mistaken his car for that driven by someone named Mario. This is what the note read: "Mario, I f--ing hate you you said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You're a f--ing LIAR. I hate you I f--ing hate you. Amber. PS Page me later."


Rothbart was so struck by the note's raw honesty and complicated emotions that he felt compelled to find a way to share it with others. The idea was as simple as it was brilliant: Collect stuff that people find and publish it in a magazine. In 2001, he started Found magazine, and after three years and three official issues he signed a book deal with Simon and Schuster. The book, titled Found: The Best Lost, Tossed and Forgotten Items From Around the World, was just released in May. Rothbart, who hit the road in April for a 50-state book tour, including a recent appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, will be at Borders in Coeur d'Alene on Tuesday night.


The 252-page book has a cut-and-paste look and is chock full of discarded love letters, bizarre lists (one has the heading, "Goals,": "1. Go to Church. Find God, than myself through him. Get Baptised. 2. Party a lot. Meet new people. Start drinking once a week..."), napkin doodles, announcements ("COLON HOLE WILL NOT BE PERFORMING TONIGHT WE APOLOGIZE FOR ANY DISAPPOINTMENT THANKYOU"), mysterious Polaroid pictures, even a breakup letter written on the back of an airsick bag.


Rothbart, interviewed last week from San Francisco, says Found events can be pretty lively affairs. "Basically, I just get up there with a big stack of my favorite notes that people have sent in and I just read them. But I get kind of rowdy and get carried away with them. Some of the notes are pretty incredible."


Audience participation is strongly encouraged. Rothbart asks audience members to bring their own "finds" to the show and read them aloud if they want. "Last night, people brought so much great stuff," he says. Most of the time, he's joined by his little brother, Peter, who plays songs on the guitar based on some of the found pieces. One of Peter's finds is a four-page play of which he only found pages 1, 2 and 4. "We'll have people come up from the audience to perform it," says Rothbart.


Other than the found items people bring to his shows, Rothbart says he gets about 10 items a day sent to his parents' home in Michigan. The most compelling items are those suggesting a story; a note on the end of a string tied to a flat balloon with a child's handwriting that reads "I wish I won't flunk Sixth Grade." One handwritten letter from a girl named Tasha starts out with, "Jacob, Hi. What's up boy? Me? just chill'n. I know you ain't know who I am but I see you around a lot. Everytime I see you you be look'n fine like always." The last of three paragraphs reads: "I found out you have a baby well that's good now maybe you can give me one too." Then, in the bottom left corner of the page, in small letters, she writes, "Don't tell your lady I wrote to you!"





Found notes range from hilarious to heartbreaking, says Rothbart. Sometimes when reading through a stack of notes, he'll find himself overcome by the sadness on some of the pages. "I'll be reading one, and I'll just start crying. And I think it's just the accumulated weight of all of them, the accumulated sadness of all these notes. So many of them have this sadness, like people not getting what they so badly want. Or, people who are so hopeful and optimistic but you can kind of see that they're probably gonna get let down."


One of the most common themes, says Rothbart, is a sense of longing. Consider this note, written in big, looping letters found on the street in Richmond, Va.: "To whoever finds this I hope your life is perfect or perfecto. My father + stepmom was killed while I was in the house. My Grandma Aunt, Unkle all turned their back on me. My dream is to become a modle someday I hope. Good luck to you + your dreams. Stranger Monique."


Rothbart says his favorite finds are the ones that are funny, absurd and heartbreaking all at the same time. In an online interview, he described one of his most impressive finds. "It's a crayon drawing of a pretty green hillside, and on the hillside there's a gigantic cross skewering a profusely-bleeding stick figure, and a caption at the bottom says in big block letters, 'Yankees in 5.' Inexplicable!"


Outside of Found, 29-year-old Rothbart is a regular contributor to the public radio program This American Life, with Ira Glass. He's written a book of short stories, titled The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. He's also spent time teaching creative writing to prison inmates and, lest I forget, he's also a rapper. His Ann Arbor rap group is called Ride the Ride.





Rothbart says one of the biggest honors he received was last year when Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood died, the New York Times contacted him to write the eulogy.


"It got a huge response," says Rothbart. He first met Mr. Rogers at the age of four when his older brother wrote him a letter and Mr. Rogers wrote back. After a little correspondence, his brother told Mr. Rogers that their family was headed to Massachusetts for a week's vacation. And as Rothbart wrote in his eulogy, "Mr. Rogers invited all of us to chill with him for a day at his summer home in Nantucket."


Rothbart says Mr. Rogers was a big fan of Found. "He was just a regular dude," says Rothbart. "I feel like his message is the same message, hopefully, as Found. Which is respect for strangers' lives and a sense of curiosity and wonder about it. That's just why he delighted in these found things. His message was like, the more you know another person, the more courage you can have to actually talk to strangers, the more you connect to the world. I remember him saying to me something like, 'It's natural to be curious about what other people's experience of being human is.' I mean we're surrounded by strangers on the street everyday."


"To me, this stuff is just endlessly fascinating," says Rothbart. "Because it's such a raw and intimate way of experiencing these people. I think all of us experience longing -- intense longing, sometimes -- and to see that other people are going through the same kind of things, it does help you feel a little less alone. And I usually end up connecting, in some way, with the people who've written the letters."





Publication date: 06/10/04

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