Davy Rothbart, the founder and editor of FOUND magazine, strolled onstage at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The center is stately and bilingual, and the author was slightly incongruous in his engagement at this venue.
He took the stage in a bright pink jersey. He carried a gold sequined bag and a stack of photocopies. He had the half-lidded look of a man under the influence and the easy humor of a writer who is comfortable playing the fool. He sipped from a miniature bottle of rum that he set atop an unruly pile of care-worn finds.
“Some people are purists,” he said of his found treasures. “Some people say it doesn’t count as FOUND unless you find it blowing down the street.” The dog-eared pages testified of winds and alleys and a book tour coming to a close.
The author stood in front of a packed auditorium and described the ways in which these photos, lists and letters came into his possession. Some were tied to balloons and set on the breeze, and some were left in shopping carts or found in the purest way, blowing down the street. He read one list picked up on a college campus, and a man in the crowd yelled out, “That’s my find!” Rothbart shaded his eyes and looked into the crowd. “Yeah! Seven years ago, at that bookstore. I remember everything.” The man with the find was stunned, and a hush swept over the crowd. To a docent, Rothbart called out, “Can I get another beer?”
Rothbart shared his favorite finds, including kids’ secret club rules, love letters and a crowd-pleaser that declared, “You are a dirty bitch, and I rebuke you!” He read us the goal lists and “Dear John” letters of strangers, and we laughed and sighed as one over the struggles of people we would never know. Finds are always Rothbart’s business, but this tour was created in support of his novel, newly released in paperback and titled “My Heart Is an Idiot.”
This memoir constructs a man whose life has been much like his magazine: made up of pieces found in the most unexpected places. He read aloud from his book a story about a boy named Hakim. They met in strange places and lost one another only to meet up again thousands of miles away. Hakim was a charm in Rothbart’s life at a time when he had no direction except wanting to date a St. Pauli girl-cosplaying promoter in Los Angeles. He showed Rothbart the strange power of truly random connections and helped explain to his audience how he fell in love with the ephemera of everyday strangers. The book is full of tales like these and stands as something of a road novel. Rothbart has been everywhere, even admitting that the address for FOUND items is his parents’ house.
Knowing what the people wanted, Rothbart bookended his reading with hilarious and heartwarming finds. The author took questions from the audience and even consented to a request to juggle. The items supplied to him for the task were a glass jar of garlic, a bracelet and what appeared to be a tin of cat food. He succeeded fairly well, and the glass didn’t shatter when he dropped it. Rothbart then tossed T-shirts into the audience and reminded us to listen to NPR, for which he is a contributor to “This American Life.”
He hawked copies of his book and back issues of FOUND for a very low price and chuckled through a declaration that he would accept IOUs from people who did not have cash. Rothbart may be from Michigan, but he is fully adapted to the laid-back vibe of the Bay Area. He was incredibly humble, remarkably candid and seemed far younger than his age (he is 38). Case in point: He invited the entire house to drink with him at a bar in the city and announced that he had mushrooms that he would share with anyone who wished to partake.
Meg Elison covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]