Digging through debris has been a lifelong project for the 27-year-old writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who started collecting litter when he was 7. But it wasn't until he came across an angry missive mistakenly taped to his windshield -- "Mario, I fucking hate you. You said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? I hate you. I fucking hate you, Amber. P.S. Page me later" -- that he knew he had to find a vehicle for his hobby. "The complicated emotions in it, the economy of language, how much she expresses herself in so few words," Rothbart says during a recent phone conversation. "I realized I needed to find a way to share all the things I've been finding."
Compiling his treasures with those of other scavengers, Rothbart printed doodles, to-do lists, faxes, résumés, photographs, and love letters salvaged from buses, Kinko's recycling bins, schoolyards, and laundromats into a quarterly print and online publication. Since its initial launch in June 2001, the first issue has sold approximately 16,000 copies and has made headlines in everything from The New Yorker to Penthouse.
Each finding is taped helter-skelter across the page, accompanied by a title and short commentary. Taken out of context, the anonymous messages offer a peek into the lives of random folks. "There's a stigma attached to voyeurism, but a certain degree is healthy," explains Rothbart. "It's natural to be curious about people around us."
Perhaps the most fascinating element of Found is the soft-spoken man behind it. A former ticket scalper and sometime NPR correspondent for This American Life, Rothbart is clearly passionate about his pastime. "I was always amazed at how powerfully I could connect with someone just from seeing 2/3 of a love note," he explains. He's currently traveling to all 50 states to host a series of "show-and-tell" events, where he'll unveil the second issue and evaluate his readers' discoveries. He'll also perform a four-page play that's missing the third page. Rothbart's got big plans for his baby, including more magazines and a CD based on some of his findings. A junk junkie who sees a story behind every scrap of paper, Rothbart expects his passion to last: "They linger, they nag me. The people in the notes really stay with me."