Think That Love Letter Is Gone? Think Again

Davy Rothbart has made a career out of collecting discarded notes and lists.

August 18, 2008, 1:02 PM

June 12, 2009— -- There are many things out there, just blowing around in the wind: a wish, a discarded love letter, a shopping list.

If you think you got rid of those scraps forever, think again. They may now belong to Davy Rothbart.

Rothbart, 34, collects and sorts castoffs from the most waste-producing culture the world has ever known: ours. It's not trash in the typical sense of the word, but rather bizarre to-do lists, lost item notices, lists of expenses, love letters, hate notes and others that are a bit hard to categorize.

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"Now, this is one that was found in North Carolina," said Rothbart, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It says, 'Dear Ron, the longer I think about what I'm doing, the sicker I feel. Ron, I'm sorry but I don't think we should continue to have a relationship together, at least not as a couple. I love you but things have not been the same since we found out that we were related.'"

Rothbart has made a career of recycling lost advice and rants and ideas and emotions into the business of publishing trash. The collections have made their way into a series of bestselling books and magazines, called "FOUND."

A favorite find of Rothbart's is someone's budget.

"This guy had typed it up and lost it," he said. "So it says, 'monthly budget -- rent: $600; cell phone: $50; electric gas: $45; food: $500; liquor: $600; crack: $600; attorney: $250; savings: $100.'

"So that's a responsible guy, right? Putting 100 bucks away in his savings every month.," Rothbart said. "If he could spend a little bit less on crack and liquor, he'd be golden."

Rothbart works with friends, rummaging through finds that people send them from around the world, along with what they've discovered on their own.

He's so involved with the discoveries and the stories behind them that he goes on tour, traveling coast-to-coast, reading the best of his lost-item collection in front of enthusiastic crowds. His brother has even joined in, setting some of the finds to music. Now, they're on a cross-country tour, sharing their incredible finds across the nation.

"I never anticipated that so many other people out there would share my fascination, you know, of looking at these little scraps of paper -- you know, getting a glimpse into other people's lives," he said.

When Your Trash Gets Discovered

Concerned that publishing other people's discards might be considered a violation of privacy, Rothbart takes steps to ensure that there's some degree of anonymity.

"We're very careful to change all the names," he said. "You know, all the phone numbers. But it's happened a few times, that someone has said, 'Hey, that's mine.' And I didn't know if they would be freaked out or pissed off. The few times it's happened, they've been really cool about it. Either a bit honored or, more often, totally mystified."

The notes run the gamut of emotions and circumstances.

"Here's a hostage note that somebody found," Rothbart said. "It says, 'AJ, we have your binder.' It demands $3.50 and warns him against telling a teacher and ends, 'If you do not comply, then you will never see it again.'"

There are also heart-wrenching notes, such as this one from a child asking her parents to stop doing drugs.

"Dear Mommy and Daddy, I know you love me, but when you keep bringing that stuff in the house, it feels like you don't. I don't want to be rude, but I really want you to stop. I do get scared. Please Mommy and Daddy, I love you. I just don't like it when you do it. Love, Eliza."

Rothbart said, "And you look at this thing, just the economy of language, you know, it's intense."

'I Hate You ... Page Me Later'

The idea of collecting and publishing trash came from one of Rothbart's own experiences.

"I went out to my car late one night and on the windshield is a note addressed to Mario. My name's Davy," Rothbart said, "so I'm like, you know, what's this thing? I open it up and it says, 'Mario, I hate you. You said you had to work -- why is your car here at her place. You're a liar, I hate you, I hate you. Signed, Amber. P.S. page me later.'

"She's so angry and upset but also still hopeful, and a bit in love and, you know, the 'page me later,'" he said.

Rothbart is ever alert for scraps of paper he sees laying or flying about.

"Then, of course," he said, "there's the question: Now that I've picked this up, if, if it's not something I'm interested in, do I drop it back on the ground, or is that then littering? So, sometimes, I have a three-second rule. If it's not in my hand for three seconds, then I put it back down."

Rothbart acknowledged that there's a degree of voyeurism in what he does, but thinks, in an impersonal world, that might be a good thing.

"Is it voyeuristic? Absolutely," he said. "But I believe a certain degree of voyeurism is healthy. You know, we're surrounded by strangers all the time, walking down the street, sitting on a bus. I think it's natural to be curious what other people's experience of being human is like and these notes give us that in a really potent and powerful way. It's a way to get a glimpse into other people's lives, to understand the people we share the world with and to understand ourselves better."

For more information about Davy Rothbart's finds, CLICK HERE. For details on the Rothbarts' current cross-country tour and other events, CLICK HERE

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