Treasuring someone else's trash

`Found' collectors always keep a close eye on the ground

May 07, 2004|By Alexandra Fenwick | Alexandra Fenwick,SUN STAFF

One ordinary day, you're walking down the street, and suddenly something glinting in the sun catches your eye. Maybe it's a quarter, maybe just a piece of tin foil. But maybe, just maybe, it's a treasure; a lost key, a dime-store ring, a fork flattened by years of traffic. You bend down to get a closer look, and then, when no one is looking, slip it in your pocket. And you're not alone.

Just look through the pages of Found magazine. Created in 2001 by Davy Rothbart and his co-publisher, Jason Bitner, the yearly magazine publishes hundreds of what Rothbart calls "finds": discarded ticket stubs, old birthday cards, notebook doodles, ripped-up love notes, grocery lists, yellowed photographs, lost homework assignments, rusty keys, and other detritus galore, plucked from trash bins and sidewalks across the globe.

Found's contents are sometimes bizarre, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes downright hilarious, and other times a combination of all three.

This year Rothbart has cobbled together a greatest hits of Found magazine in a book titled Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World (Fireside Books, $14), and he and his team are making stops in all 50 states, holding Found parties in places as varied as the origins of the finds themselves.

Bars, bookstores, cafes, art galleries, colleges, prisons, Army bases, boats and an abandoned old train-car are all playing host to Found parties this year, and today from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., so will Atomic Books (1100 W. 36th St. in Hampden).

At Found parties, Rothbart performs dramatic readings of his all-time favorite found items, his brother Peter plays songs based on found notes, and a four-page play, missing Page 3, is acted out. And, of course, guests are invited to bring in their own finds to be read aloud and submitted for future issues of Found.

It all began as a hobby for Rothbart, but Found has quickly became a phenomenon. "It's something I thought was fun," says Rothbart, of Ann Arbor, Mich. "I didn't realize so many people shared this fascination. It's become a gigantic, collaborative art project."

Its appeal, says Rothbart, comes from the fact that people are naturally curious. "We're surrounded by strangers all the time, walking up city streets, waiting at bus stops. And you don't know what's going on in people's hearts and minds. Found provides little snapshots of those people."

It's also interpretive, says Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books where Found is one of their best sellers. "There's no context, but the fact that I found this photo in a gutter gives me the background to create a story around it."

Found submissions are sent in by people ages 6 to 96, hailing from all over the globe. But Baltimore, local finders agree, is an especially ripe place for finding. Carly Ptak, a local musician, has known Rothbart since their college days and has contributed many items to Found, including a video of a family's vacation titled "Memorial Day 2000."

"More than a lot of other cities, Baltimore hasn't become too gentrified," she says. "Things just aren't so shop-at-the-mall here and I think that relates to found stuff because it's more on the level of everyday people."

Found, she says, "is a way to see history that's not just events, it's people's history, a record of current times." And if one history lesson can be learned from the pages of Found, it's that all people share a common thread.

"I'll sometimes look at these found objects and think, `Oh my god, I've written that same sad love note.' It's striking how similar people are," says Rothbart.

No one knows this better than Miriam DesHarnais, a librarian at the Essex branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. Like the janitors, postmen and cops that Rothbart calls "Champion Finders," DesHarnais' job puts her in constant contact with found items, be they photos left as bookmarks, or notes scrawled in margins. There isn't a day she doesn't come across a found object, she says. Matt Summers-Sparks, a writer based in Washington, keeps his eyes peeled for notes during his daily walk to work, but actually picking them up can present awkward situations.

"I get funny looks sometimes during the act," he says. "I work near a junior high where there's this path kids walk on the way to school and I find a lot of things there. One time I was near that school and there was this note that looked very promising. It was torn, ripped into 15 or 20 pieces. People from my office were walking past and I tried to play it off like I was looking for my pen or something."

But, says Summers-Sparks, it's worth it. "That feeling of discovery is a great feeling. These things would otherwise be lost, thrown away, or decomposed. It's exhilarating."

Rothbart agrees. "So much of this is trash. It's a very noble act to pick it up. That's why we give so much credit to finders. We ask people to name their finds just like you would name a painting or a poem. It's an act of creation, and like a work of art it has meaning. It's just trash until someone takes time to pick it up and see it as a gem," he says. "Finders are alchemists."

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