You are snaking along your daily route, eyes gliding across the familiar scenery of flickering traffic lights, cars, passers-by, buildings and trees. For a second, bored by the predictable imagery, you look down and find a tattered note. You pick it up and straighten it, gently shaking off the dirt. It’s scribbled in a hurry, but it’s readable. You fall in love with it before you can make out the words. You have found a shred of human communication. It’s raw and honest, and you can relate to it. You stuff it in your pocket gently, grinning at the thought of owning a piece of someone else’s life.
Trevor Harris has had a lifelong obsession with the things people drop.
He is a finder, someone who picks things up, trying to understand people’s mental machinations by examining what they have dropped.
A couple of summers ago, Harris and his wife, Lisa Groshong, were walking Katie, their friends’ terrier, when Harris saw a frayed note on the ground.
It was a moment the couple had been through before. It usually goes like this:
“Do you need to pick everything up?” Groshong asks gently.
“It’s information, baby, it’s information,” responds Harris, who lives by a simple rule: “Always pick up a crumpled piece of paper.”
The note was scribbled on the back of a receipt from Famous Barr: “mett me donw by the big bush. from the kid whith the green backpack.”
Harris and Groshong read the message in amazement. It sounded menacing, but inviting. Finds like this always spark more questions than answers. But it’s the questions Harris likes.
“I’ll never piece their stories together,” Harris admits, but there is no regret in his voice. He loves the idea of being able to build narratives, piecing together his own version of the stories derived from the objects he finds.
The couple tacked the note to their kitchen bulletin board. On Oct. 10, 2002, Harris gave the note to a man who possibly owns more discarded scraps of human communication than anyone else on earth.
Piecing together the lives of strangers
Davy Rothbart is a guardian of lost items. He is a finder and the ultimate collector — a man respected by a world army of scavengers. For a 29-year-old who talks fast without bothering to finish his sentences, it’s an enjoyable responsibility. Rothbart, who operates from the basement of his house in Ann Arbor, Mich., validates the obsessions of people like Harris, who are seeking pieces of ordinary American life.
Rothbart did it in 2001 by launching, with a partner, Found magazine, a haven for lost and discarded scraps of paper. A yearly scrapbook-like publication filled with notes, photographs, letters, cards, e-mails and drawings, Found overflows with pieces of the puzzle that is human existence.
The finders who contribute to the magazine relish the mystery of messages such as, “Anthony’s apologies: don’t read beginning to end. The madness will consume you,” which appeared in a recent edition of Found.
Or this calligraphic note found in Medford, Mass.: “That I know that I might never write anything good enough to be published and read by others brings me a little closer to actually doing it.”
The author might have lost it, but the note did not go astray forever. It was published in Found, which has sold more than 100,000 copies of its first three installments. A fourth one, called Dirty Found, just came out.
Recently, Rothbart also wrote a book, “Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World.”
The magazine and the book are full of gems such as lost poems, a break-up letter scribbled on an airplane vomit bag and “How did the chicken cross the road?” jokes written on sugar packets. The items are published along with the name of the finder, like an artist credited for a masterpiece.
The paper ephemera have one thing in common: They were lost by one person, found by another. The finders send Rothbart stuff from Japan to Arizona, plucking items from street corners, secondhand books, desks, copy machines, school yards and dumpsters.
The voyeuristic thrill of flipping through these personal items is addictive. The odds and ends of human communication make us feel connected, Rothbart says, and a little less alone.
“For me, it’s getting to feel somebody so closely — deeply touch somebody who is a stranger and know what’s going on in their mind and in their heart and discover that it’s not very different from what I’m experiencing,” Rothbart says over the phone from Meridian, Miss., a stop on a 136-city tour called “Slapdance Across America” to promote Found and the new book.
On Nov. 21, Rothbart brought the “Slapdance” tour to Ragtag Cinemacafé in downtown Columbia, where he read his favorite finds and interacted with local finders, including Trevor Harris.
Rothbart appreciates people like Harris because they unleash themselves on the environment. Rothbart and Harris met two years ago when Harris passed on the note by the kid with the green backpack. It appears on page 181 of Rothbart’s book.
Harris and the other contributors to Found are part of what Rothbart calls a “gigantic collective art project.”
Harris, who is close to 6 feet tall and has a shaved head and an infectious smile beneath a reddish beard, has his own collection — three scrapbooks filled with photographs found or bought at auctions and garage sales in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Columbia.
Even though the dates of the photos’ origins span decades, Harris tried to show their connection. Some are organized by theme — parties, birthdays, weddings, trips or conferences. There is a pet page, a baby page and a page devoted to a certain one-finger salute. Harris calls the scrapbooks Radical Recyclers Family Photo Albums. He lost one in a house fire, but two are intact.
There is something in the pictures, Harris says — a truism, a universal situation to which one can relate. People rarely take snapshots of moments they don’t want to remember. There are no sad moments and few static scenes. The pictures Harris owns — whether they were discarded or lost — capture moments when the shutter clicked because it was worth the effort.
“The photographs represent the exceptional more than the mundane,” Harris says in a mellow voice that carries stories like a whisper.
He’s right. There is nothing mundane about four guys grabbing their crotches, or G.I. Joes hiding in strawberry bushes, or a letter opening with “Waz up s—-.” Some people collect dolls or Beanie Babies, but Harris says there rarely are stories connected to such mass-produced trinkets.
Columbia is ripe for collectors of the ephemeral, although there is no secret to it. Everyone can play — artists, elderly couples, janitors, teachers or cops. They all find things they want to send back into the world via Found.
Maybe one in five finds turns out to be a treasure, Rothbart told the audience at Ragtag.
“Columbia, Missouri, is fertile territory,” he said.
Dressed in light-colored plaid pants and a blue vintage T-shirt and sporting serious bling around his neck, Rothbart is a performer, a rock star icon of tattered paper. He makes faces, reads in different voices and wonders aloud whether a line he discovered in a found note will make a good slogan for the magazine: “It’s not kinky, it’s gross.”
Rothbart reads the line again, making the 60 or so people in the room break out into laughter.
Found receives about 100 letters per week, Rothbart says. It’s not a burden, but it can sometimes bring him down.
“Sometimes when you sit there reading 100 letters in a row that people have found is just so much sadness and heartbreak sometimes I’ll start crying,” Rothbart says. “Not because (of) one in particular, but the accumulated weight of all of them.”
Even the most mundane of artifacts can be powerful in their honesty. And sometimes the story behind them is heart-wrenching. Every night on the tour, Rothbart reads from an algebra test. The grade on the test is an F, because Aaron, the student, answered all the questions with witty couplets or silly comments, such as: “What Killan is talking about/I guess I’ll never know/But its stuff I should’ve learned/A long time ago.”
The audience laughs hard, and Rothbart laughs, too. But inside, he is sobbing. When some Found fans tried to locate Aaron to let him know they set up a scholarship fund for him, they came across a newspaper story saying he had died in a car crash. The accident also claimed the lives of three of Aaron’s friends.
Rothbart figures Aaron had a blast taking the math test. But now he is dead, and joy and sadness are more connected than Rothbart ever imagined.
A voyeuristic endeavor
Finding things is directly related to the awareness people bring to their world. Not everybody looks for things, but once they start, they find them — a new restaurant, a book, a new CD. While reporting this story, I found a bunch of playing cards, notes, photographs, computer printouts of personal essays and $21 in cash.
For those who don’t like to pick things up off the ground, there are shortcuts — thrift stores, estate sales or garage sales.
But, Eric Troolin says, such sanctioned locations don’t count. Troolin likes the finding game so much he tried to play it with 2,704 people. That’s how many playing cards — 52 packs of 52 cards — Troolin dropped around the MU campus last year. Each had a message written in black marker on the front and a sticker on the back. The messages were stream-of-consciousness writings. The sticker said: “The Quad, noon, 10-18-2004.”
Troolin, a graduate art student at MU, wanted to share a slice of his life with as many people as possible. He wanted to meet people, and he thought the Found way would be to invite them to a surprise event — a party to celebrate his 29th birthday.
“It’s so much more interesting if you find something in an alleyway or if someone drops something on the curb and you say ‘I gotta have that thing,’ ” Troolin says.
The process of dropping the cards became exhausting. During that year, Troolin collected 18 pounds of loose change. He shaved his head and tattooed his chest with “E.S.P.” — which stands for “Eric Skills Prevail.”
On Oct. 18, solving a yearlong mystery that intrigued students and local media, Troolin appeared on the lawn in front of Jesse Hall in a white suit, top hat and white-and-blue Adidas Superstars.
Troolin stood still as a recording of him singing “Happy Birthday” played. A rope was tied around his arms and chest, a metaphor for the feeling that he was trapped in his project. He carried a briefcase that contained playing cards, markers and notes tied together in packages.
About 100 people showed up, but Troolin didn’t speak to them. The idea was to have people interact with the objects rather than the man who dropped them.
Troolin’s point was that finding things is a voyeuristic endeavor. He wanted people to notice his cards and to follow their mysterious instructions. Those who did were rewarded with a peek into his life.
Found scraps of paper can cover the range of human feeling. They are filled with mystery, which few people are able to resist.
The wacky notes, the photographs, the sad letters and even Troolin’s playing cards are mementos of daily life, of sorrow and of celebration. Many emotions and questions can be triggered by a single scrap of paper, found in a park, written by a kid with a green backpack on the back of a Famous Barr receipt.
For more information, visit foundmagazine.com.