For storyteller Davy Rothbart, New York is, perhaps, the very epicenter of curiosity and that’s good for business. Last week, Rothbart, 37, and his brother Peter, 32, visited UCBeast to celebrate Found Magazine’s 10th anniversary. They are on a tour that will span 37 states and 75 cities in 99 days. Found Magazine, Rothbart’s brainchild, showcases found stuff—tangible, often emotional glimpses into complete strangers’ lives by way of love letters, to-do lists, drawings, ticket stubs, etc. “My Mom says it’s ‘people watching on paper,’” he tells me, “It’s a curiosity about the people we share the world with.”
Rothbart, an author and contributor to NPR’s “This American Life,” was also promoting My Heart is an Idiot, a book of personal essays, along with his brother Peter, a singer/songwriter who’s recently released his third album. When Davy calls me from Richmond, VA, he sounds at peace, or maybe exhausted. Rothbart and the road are old pals, whether they’re together in South Dakota or Manhattan. “It’s the most grueling and thrilling experience,” he says. “The challenges are made up for by all the wonderful friendship’s I’ve made.”
The night of the show, a nearly sold-out UCB Theater bubbled in anticipation of the Rothbart brothers’ performance below generic, comedy-club jazz. Soon it would all make sense—life that is—or at least it wouldn’t feel so darn singular because Davy and Peter had everyone in the room covered: if they haven’t experienced it themselves, they’ve got authentic evidence that others have, and that’s consoling. Here they were, as emotional evangelists, lobbying for the okayness of human imperfection in a city of masquerading perfectionists.
Davy arrived on stage in a houndstooth hat, baggy red pants and a black hoodie, a decidedly 90s style that feels locationless yet familiar. Throughout the night Davy downed Tecate and spoke like a seasoned storyteller who’s comfortable in any medium, as I counted not a single “uhm” utterance. He began by reading some of his favorite Found artifacts, many of which contained the type of built-in irony that serves humor well. For example, two found lists: “Gun, gun, ski mask, nerds,” which was followed by, “Chicken Ramen noodles, chicken Ramen noodles, chicken Ramen noodles, 12-pack lubricated condoms.”
As the crowd loosened up, Davy added a story of his own, which he read from his new collection, about his pursuit of love aboard a plane with a young woman he was seated next to and talked up during a flight. It was an admission of the ease and speed at which he falls—a craving for affection and for connection. “And she’s here tonight!” he offered to a hushed, hoping crowd. But she wasn’t, and he was kidding.
The idea behind Found Magazine began ten years ago not far from Davy’s hometown of Ann Arbor. Late one fated Chicago night, he discovered a note pasted to the windshield of his car:
I fucking hate you. You said you had to work. Why is your car here at her place? You’re a liar. I fucking hate you.
P.S. Page me later
“And my name’s Davy,” he reminded me.
When Rothbart shared the note with his friends they responded with “finds” of their own, items often magneted to their Midwest fridges. “It seemed like a shame to me that only people who were trooping through kitchens would get to see [them],” he says. Soon he collected enough to make the first “very lo-fi” issue of Found, originally intending to make just 50 copies until “some punk rocker at Kinkos was like ‘dude, let’s make 800.’”
After the release party, 700 remained, stacked high in his apartment, which he shared with Tim McIlrath, lead singer of the band Rise Against. Soon thereafter, Davy left town and when he returned, the issues were gone, sold by his roommate to high demand. Found now receives 10-20 submissions a day and has an 8th edition coming out next month.
On stage, Davy gave way to his younger brother Peter, a talented guitarist who opened with a song inspired by a found note about “building bad-ass Nissans in the northeast” in falsetto. With a comedic tone firmly in place, Peter then crooned about another found item, a letter written to God from a woman who had just experienced her second miscarriage, promptly flipping the pathos script. “Something light,” Peter said once his guitar had bled its final tone, “Probably not your standard UCB fare.”
Afterward, Davy and his brother shared the stage to perform a track from a tape—yes, a tape—found by their friend Nigel on a street in Ypsilanti, Michigan, entitled “Booty Tape.” They rapped one track’s refrain, over and again, as the crowd, was summoned to join in: “Damn, tha booty don’t stop girl, whatcha gonna do? Damn, tha booty don’t stop girl.”
Towards the end of the show, Davy chose a member of the audience to come on stage, a ritual at each tour stop; here, the brave soul’s was named Vanessa. Before the show, audience members had filled out a small piece of paper with the directive to write down a question they’d like to ask a stranger. Within minutes, she spoke with Davy about a recent break-up, her passion as an experimental artist, and answered questions such as, “Who are you really?” I couldn’t help but make the connection that Vanessa was a Found artifact incarnate, so to speak, a living example of what Davy has centered a career on collecting and sharing, as well as a larger glimpse into his own life, much of which, over the last ten years, has been spent on the road.
Davy tells me of a night on a previous tour when at times he would sleep in the back of a van 5 nights out of the week. He recalls one particular instance when he listened to a pensive Tapes n’ Tapes track while drinking a beer on a rainy night in South Dakota, far away from friends. “Even in the most fucked up, sad, or disturbing moment, there’ll be some humorous lining,” says Rothbart. “It’s fun for life to be so unpredictable and adventurous. I consider myself lucky to have met so many people, it’s very special.”
Like the Found notes, Davy literally stumbled upon an experience and forged a career. And during a time when the Internet can crowd-source an incredible array of commonalities into one electronic dashboard, we should be so lucky to have Davy Rothbart sewing the seams of human experience person by person, old school and in ink.
He ended the show by reading this note: “Dad, come get me at the coffee shop when you’re done taking a crap.”