Pick-Up Artist

One man's trash is another man's self-published magazine, Simon & Schuster book deal, 126-city tour and guest spot on Letterman. Davy Rothbart has taken the pick of the nation's litter -- collected from parking lots, buses, waiting rooms and recycling bins -- and assembled it into the phenomenon of the "found." First laid out in Found magazine -- and now in a 252-page book -- the ever-growing assortment of shopping lists, drawings, love letters and ransom notes has captivated a culture wherein everyone thrives on knowing everyone else's business.

Rothbart's "found on the ground" collection -- piling up since his grade-school days -- took magazine form three years ago. In just three issues, circulation swelled from 50 (copied at Kinko's) to 30,000. And a world of finders has joined Rothbart's curious quest; their submissions fill his new book, Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World. Rothbart finds his way to the Valley on Tuesday, May 18, when "Found's Slapdance Across America Book Tour 2004" touches down in Tempe.

Taking its name from a found letter ("This guy's talking about this sort of lewd act he used to do in his dorm room to entertain his fellow students," Rothbart explains), the "Slapdance" Tour is hardly by the book. At each stop, Rothbart "brings to life" a few of his favorite finds, his brother Peter sets several finds to song (including a "folk ballad" based on a found lyric: "Damn, the booty don't stop"), and members of the audience perform a four-page play (of which page three never was found).

"And I always ask people to share their finds," Rothbart adds. "We're gonna put a whole special issue of Found magazine together just from notes people have given us on this trip."

And what a long, strange trip it's proving to be. While most of the finds provide bizarre entertainment value (scribbled on a shopping list found in Bel Air: "Alec Baldwin is never going to love you -- dammit dammit dammit dammit"), some carry historical insight (a journal entry dated November 22, 1963: "Today the president was killed! Isn't that terrible! At school everyone was crying; except the republicans"), while others take a literary tone ("You have to make up your mind Mr. Dickens twas either the best of time or the worst of time it could scarcely be both . . .").

A copy editor's nightmare, Found entries spill over with grammatical errors, misspellings and profanity. But no matter how -- or how poorly -- people communicate, "They seem to be expressing the same kinds of sentiments," Rothbart says.

And while not all finds are relatable (a letter found in Austin: ". . . I was able to orchestrate a procedure with corpses as marionettes in a hospital morgue"), Rothbart believes readers find common ground in Found. "I relate to so many of the notes in the book . . ." he says. "Like, oh, man, I've written that same pitiful love note. It makes me feel less alone, to see that other people are going through the same things as me."

And going through the trash, apparently. "We get five or 10 finds in the mail every day, maybe 100 a week," Rothbart reports. "I'm thrilled that so many people are participating now."

A nosy nation has found its calling.

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Jill Koch
Contact: Jill Koch