Slapdance Across America: An evening with Davy and Peter Rothbart at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), Friday (November 5). Free. 416-531-5042.
Found: The best lost, tossed, and forgotten items from around the world by Davy Rothbart (Simon & Schuster), 252 pages, $21 paper. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Davy Rothbart collects trash.
For years he's been gathering love letters, notes, lists, photographs, ticket stubs, doodles and other items found in restaurants, on buses, in gutters and pretty much anywhere he's looked. He did it as a little kid growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, always wondering about the lives of the owners. He kept doing it as an adult. Travelling around, he'd visit friends who often had a prized find stuck to the refrigerator.
"It was a shame that only the people who trooped into their kitchen would get to see that stuff," he says on the phone from the back of his van in Des Moines, Iowa. "A magazine seemed like a natural way for people to share their finds with everybody else."
So a few years ago, Rothbart, 29 - documentary filmmaker, contributor to NPR's popular This American Life and former ticket scalper - and his friend Jason Bitner decided to publish some of these pieces in a little Xeroxed magazine entitled Found. He encouraged people to send in their own found items and eventually started receiving finds from all over the world. It's one of those simple ideas you could have thought of but didn't.
Something about the publication struck a chord. Within a year there were profiles in the New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and Penthouse. The publication of a book followed last May.
Found: The Best Lost, Tossed And Forgotten Items From Around the World is heartbreaking and hilarious.
It's almost impossible to describe the variety of its contents, including a "curtesy" (sic) notice from the Frisco Hells Angels "asking" people to give up their parking spaces for a funeral, a breakup letter written on an airplane barf bag and a desperately sad and hopeful letter written by a badass kid to an absent dad.
Some are cryptic. Others are straight to the point, like the note that reads: "To whoever finds this I hope you're life is perfect or perfecto. My father & Step mom was killed while I was in the house. My Grandma, aunt, Unkle All turned their back on me. My dream someday is to become a model/I hope."
The next step was to turn this raw material into a spectacle. So Rothbart and his brother Peter hit the road with the Slapdance Across America Tour, which comes to the Drake Friday (November 5).
The event features Davy Rothbart showcasing his favourite found items. He gets rowdy and rambunctious and generally acts the fool.
"I try to read the finds with the energy and emotion they might have been written with," he says. "I guess sometimes I get a bit carried away."
His brother, who plays guitar, has composed intentionally ridiculous tunes based on some of the material. Audience members are invited to share their own finds during the evening - so bring yours along.
Rothbart says one of the key factors in getting the project started was a note he found on the windshield of his car. It was from Amber to Mario and it read, "Mario, I fucking hate you you said you had to work late then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You're a fucking LIAR. I hate you I fuckin hate you. Amber PS Page me later."
It was the wrong car, so obviously, Mario never got the note.
"I think about that a lot. I can just imagine what the conversation that ensued must have sounded like. 'I saw your car! I put a note on it!'
"'But I swear I really was at work. You can ask my boss!'
"I think it would be a mistake for her to totally let him off the hook, because for her to jump to that conclusion so quickly, he must have abused her trust in the past."
Rothbart's obsession shows a pathological affinity with his fellow humans. On the phone, he's so friendly it's almost freaky. You can tell that a lot of thought goes into everything he says and does, and even though he must have done something like 50 million interviews, he's still excited about it.
There was just something about that note, he explains.
"It was the conflicting emotions. So angry yet in love and hopeful still. Many of these notes have that same sense of conflict. Often we're feeling more than one thing at a time and we're saying one thing and feeling another, but you can sort of read between the lines." Found gives us a glimpse of people's lives when they have no idea anyone is looking, as opposed to the camera-ready, glossy dramatics offered up by so-called reality TV or the calculated soul-bearing of online blogs.
"Yeah. Online blogs are like the least private thing. The cameras are there. Not that I have anything against them. It can be a cool way to share your thoughts, but it's certainly not done unselfconsciously."
The popularity of reality programming shows how fascinated we are by human interactions. The strikingly insipid and compulsive behaviour exhibited by those on television - we, of course, would never stoop to such actions - allows us to feel superior. This has to be a cunning ploy on the part of the producers to get us to watch.
Found, on the other hand, conjures up no such illusion. One of the most striking things about it is that it showcases how much we all have in common. We all think our ideas and sorrows, our aches and joys are unique, when in actual fact we're all the same.
Have you ever been jilted by a lover and taken pen to paper? Remember how you felt that that particular desperation, pain and loneliness was exclusively yours and had never been experienced quite the same way by anyone else? Oh my god, you were so wrong.
"These notes let us see people at their most open and honest, and that's what I think the thrill is: seeing people being truthfully themselves and then recognizing yourself. Often I'm reading one and then I'm just like, 'Oh my god, I've written the same pitiful love note a hundred times before. '"
I wonder if he's ever found anything that was too disturbing or offensive to publish, or even something scary that maybe had to be taken to the cops. The closest things, he says, are suicide notes, one of which a woman actually did take to the police. Other than that, it's all pretty much fair game, though not everything is worthy of the pages of Found.
"We do get a lot of pictures of people's penises.
"They're funny, but they're ultimately not that interesting. It's crazy that so many people are taking those pictures and losing them."