Writer shows off intriguing debris
The public radio show 'This American Life' goes out of its way to be different. And that includes coming here. Portland is one of just five stops on its upcoming 'Lost In America' live tour, which consists of four original segments performed on stage on the theme of lost and found.
Being typically weird, host Ira Glass will report on a man who studies the lost buildings of Chicago, preserving their floor plans and artifacts, while cartoonist Chris Ware flashes his illustrations on a large screen. Interstitial music will be played live by Jon Langford of the long-lived punk band the Mekons. Sarah Vowell will riff on what got lost over the years in the evolution of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic.' Jonathan Goldstein will talk about attempts to lose his virginity. And most appetizing of all, Found magazine editor Davy Rothbart will read from his favorite scraps of paper found in the street.
There have only been two issues of Found magazine because Rothbart also is a writer, documentary filmmaker and loafer. It consists of photocopied notes laid out punk-zine style, with minimal comments. Examples include a printed-out e-mail in which a woman assesses her date: 'the car, the money, the job, the cute apartment, the boat Ñ which by the way only seats six peopleÉ' Bizarrely detailed to-do lists. A polite request from some Hell's Angels for funeral parking space.
The notes are always moving because examples of unmediated life are so rare in our media-saturated world. In comparison, reality TV is too obviously edited. Reading Found magazine is like mainlining the everyday world.
'I don't know that I'm such a dynamic performer, but the notes are so (expletive) incredible,' Rothbart says over the phone. 'Some are funny, some sad, many have both emotions.'
Rothbart will read pages 1, 2 and 4 of a four-page play which his brother Peter, 23, found. Rothbart describes Peter as a naturally gifted finder. 'He can't help himself, he stumbles on gold.'
Big brother is more of a seeker, but that doesn't mean he dives into every Dumpster or fishes through boxes in every university copy center. 'I like the serendipity of something blowing along and sticking to your leg. It makes you wonder, 'Did this find me?' '
He says four out of five bits of paper he picks up are nothing, like an ATM receipt, but he lives in hope of the unusual in the everyday. He receives between 10 and 20 submissions per day in the mail from around the world. Bad handwriting or spelling don't bother him if a note is passionate. 'You have an intimate connection with the author,' Rothbart says. 'You can almost feel their breath.'
Early reports from the first show in Boston suggest that what is easily the most interesting show on radio converts well to the theater and is often hilarious.
For Rothbart's part, the idea is not merely to laugh at regular Americans, as, say, The Onion does on its off days. One found piece, a journal of a woman's Hawaiian vacation in which she reports making love, lying on the beach and buying 'nic-naks' (sic), came with a snarky introduction by his cousin Josh.
'That was before I knew what I was doing. If I could change one thing about (Issue 1) it's that,' Rothbart says remorsefully. 'Really, when you laugh at these things you're usually laughing at yourself, like 'I've done that too!' '
And the owners of the notes? 'I thought they might feel violated,' he says. 'But generally they're mystified or a little bit honored Ñ like, why do we care about the little details of their lives?'
As a mere audience member, will you be mystified and a little bit honored? Finding out is half the fun.
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