Trash and Treasures

"Dear Daddy, Remember that bus ride to North Carolina we took together. I would go through that a million times over just to be with you. I guess that now I have an idea of how you may have felt when I stopped writing you when you went back to prison after we were together in Arizona. Tim, you are ripping my hopes and dreams away from me. You and Justin are the two men in this world I want to love and dedicate my life to. What happened? Are you in love with someone else now? Why have my letters been sent back to me? Do you not even want to read what I have to say? Please tell me why this is." [sic] -- Found on a BART train in the San Francisco Bay Area.
" to be with. Joe loves me and I love him with the love you showed me. That is the gift I got from you. Love never dies and never will lessen, subside or disappear. We will meet again one day in Heaven and will love each other like there was no pause. Thank you so much for the gifts that you have given me -- I thank you & God for the relationships I've been lucky enough to find because of you. I hope you are happy I feel that I finally am. I love you S. Monkey! [heart] Always, Katie" [sic] -- Found tied to a deflated balloon in rural western Wisconsin.
It is the rare person who has not, at one point or another, felt like garbage.

For certain, all of us have at one time lost something, be it as innocuous as a CD or as momentous as a lover. We know the feeling, the comprehension of it, the very state of being that is "lost" as surely as we recognize humor or sorrow. We distinguish it from being "misplaced" or "hidden," because when a thing is lost, there is a sense of finality and hopelessness to the affair. The thing -- be it ourselves, an object, or an idea -- is really and truly gone from us. Even when it is the realization that we're lost in unfamiliar territory, it is our grounding, our ability to navigate space, that is stripped from us, and the fear of the moment is our despair that we have lost that ability forever, that we will never find our way back to a place we know.

For the creators of Found magazine, it is precisely the combination of trash and the lost scraps of our lives that holds a magical fascination. It's a simple idea: In the eddies of garbage that swirl about our feet, lie fluttering in gutters, and wind up wedged into nooks and crannies of objects and architecture, tiny scraps of our lives are floating about the world, each with its own back-story, each capturing a flicker of time and leaving a footprint trace of our being.

At first explanation, Found seems far less poetic. The magazine itself is essentially little more than photocopied pages of trash literally taped down to a backing with notations providing a title and the location where the piece was discovered. There is little commentary, and if there is much art to the arrangements of the pieces on the page, it's a rough collage at best. What you're left looking at are images of parking tickets, notebook paper, stationery, envelopes, school tests, stray photographs, scratch paper, torn scraps and recycled wrappers.

More often than not, these bits and pieces are torn or burned or otherwise damaged. They've been retrieved from storm drains, gutters, parking lots, fences, abandoned books, fields, windshields, bus stops, and culverts. They are pictures of honest-to-goodness trash.

But it's in how the scraps were used -- or more directly, what's written on them -- that the magic occurs. Here the human will to language and communication gets warped and ripped from the pages of context and offered back up to us as inscrutable artifacts of everyday actions, desires, and fears. These bits of paper are home to love letters, diatribes, class notes, test evaluations, grocery lists, family photos, legal documents, letters to parents, letters from parents, warnings, threats, break-ups, hook-ups, apologies, entreaties, affirmations, and prayers. In short, all of this so-called trash, once blowing around out in the wild, is the distillate sum of modern life, as communicated in a few short lines of handwritten chicken scratch.

Found challenges the reader to treat these scraps as anthropology. We take a handful of words and their meanings and extrapolate outwards, trying to get a sense of the situation that produced them, the hand that wrote them down and the audience for whom they were originally intended. We are granted an anonymous and incomplete form of voyeurism. We are spies and detectives. Can handwriting analysis, sentence structure and grammatical construction reveal the age, the education, the demography of the writer? What can we determine about the lives of the subject, audience or author from a brief and incomplete scene? Is there meaning in the way that a photo is torn, or the words that are missing from that mutilated Post-It note? Can we intuit pages one, two and five from pages three and four of this letter? Can our lives be boiled down and reduced to such minute essences, or do we want to see the invisible author on the other side of time and space as far more complex and unknowable?

The experience of Found is disorienting, yet funny, sad, poignant, disturbing and heartbreaking. Because these scraps are without context or commentary, we suspend judgment along with disbelief. We accept these things -- and these mysterious characters -- as more than true, malleable yet inert. Poetry is garbage.

Despite having heard about Found a few times previously, I first truly encountered the magazine and its creators all in one fell swoop. Attending the Denver performance of the nationally touring "This American Life" stage show -- a live recording of the phenomenal NPR radio program hosted by Ira Glass -- I had no idea that I was about to discover Found. But by the end of the show, despite being dazzled by the entire experience and having my absolute faith in the brilliance of Glass reinforced, I knew that I was a Found fan for life.

The theme of the "This American Life" performance-episode was "Lost in America," and thus it made perfect sense for Glass to include occasional contributor Davy Rothbart, co-founder of Found (along with Jason Bitner), in the show. What could be more about "Lost in America" than the scraps of ordinary American lives scattered to the wind, only to be picked up and collected?

In the company of some excellent, polished readings by Sarah Vowell and Jonathan Goldstein, Rothbart's presence seemed anomalous. Standing on stage in T-shirt and shorts, rambling and laughing through a handful of anecdotes and "finds" read out loud, Rothbart's "dude"-ish drawl and conspiratorial chuckle gave him the laid-back air of a guy chilling at the bar after a day of skateboarding in the park. In the moment, his portion of the show seemed off-the-cuff and charmingly nervous, and it was hard not to feel like Rothbart himself was a bit lost and out of place.

But as he wound his way through his presentation, describing how Found emerged from an idea, to a leaflet-posting campaign and a P.O. box, and finally into a real magazine entity, it was hard not to come under the spell of Rothbart's love for the whole concept of Found. Each scrap of paper he held in his hands was an actual "find," sent to the magazine and published at one point or another in its brief career, and he treated each piece of litter as carefully as he might a small treasure. When he read the notes aloud in all their grammatical inaccuracy, his wide-eyed wonder at the sentiment and emotion conveyed in each line shone through his equally grinning good humor.

Laughing along, Rothbart let us in on the joke, only to spring on us that the real punch line was how much pathos could be read into something as amusing as a fuming note to a cheating lover left on the wrong car, or as tragic as a desperate note to a long-lost parent that might never have reached its target. And all this humanity in a piece of trash.

The origin story of Found is both simple and humorous, and readily available on the magazine's website, so I'll leave that tale to Rothbart and Bitner to convey directly. But since June of 2001, the Found team has been steadily increasing the public's awareness of litter, encouraging us to watch our feet for some slip of the written tongue, and growing a network of sympathetic finders and readers who want to share in this strange language of the hidden everyday.

Each of the many faces of Found offers something slightly different. The original magazine format of Found is, of course, the standard bearer of the operation. Released annually, it is in itself a minor challenge to the accepted notion of art and publishing, offering up an odd collection to a niche market of readers who are in the know, or who are attracted by curiosity to the seemingly random content within. It's as though the magazine itself is a shiny piece of foil in a field of general interest and specialty journals, attracting readers like birds.

Ancillary to the magazine, the Found website is a fantastic resource in its own right, collecting some of the best finds and scanning them in their original form for readers to endlessly peruse, offering both some insight into how and why Found works and the same voyeuristic emotions of the magazine. Isolated into individual pieces, the website views aren't as collective as the magazine layouts, but that singularity also offers a more direct interpretation.

More recently, the larger publishing world responded to the grassroots support for Found and collected some of the magazine's greatest hits alongside a huge assortment of previously unpublished finds in book form. "Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World" is an amazing collection, and a strangely affecting read, pulling you into the lives of strangers in a way that combines the experience of epistolary fiction, photo collections, and scrapbooking all at once. Not surprising to those who've read it, the book became a runaway success, further catapulting this pet project into the realm of serious endeavor.

And, of course, there's the most recent arm of the Found empire, the Dirty Found magazine series -- where all the finds deemed too naughty or pornographic or just plain naked for the main magazine wound up finally seeing the light of day. Brilliant in its own distinct way, and often shelved in bookstores amidst the likes of Playboy and Swank, Dirty Found represents a faded and de-glamorized challenge to the fantasy of sex publications, as real and as heartbreakingly honest as Found itself.

Perhaps a part of the mystique of Found is that the whole project seems so organic and DIY, with Rothbart and Bitner stumbling across an idea so deceptively simple and homegrown that it's charming in its own right. Or maybe it's that the network of people involved built itself up so rapidly, that so many people understood exactly the allure of litter once the notion was brought to light. By all accounts, the pair was astounded by the nearly immediate success of a simple leaflet campaign requesting people send interesting trash to a P.O. box. But whether it's well-disguised skill in execution, or the simple brilliance of knowing how to let the objects speak for themselves, there's little doubt that Found has become its own small but impressive institution.

Rothbart has noted that one of his favorite types of "find" is the misplaced list. Be they to-do lists, grocery lists, or inventories, he maintains that lists offer a uniquely insular communication, where the author is in fact communicating only with the author herself. Yet, in reading over someone's private notations, we have the chance to read into their lives without mediation. Take the following example:
"Go for a walk with someone
Go out somewhere with someone
Talk to someone
Watch TV
Go on the computer
Play PlayStation 2
Go to the cemetery and talk to my mom
Listen to music
Go in my room" -- Found on the street in Arlington, Massachusetts.
This list is obviously meant to inspire the writer to action, but it seems even more telling of the writer's true state of mind. Certainly, they seem lonely, probably with few friends and family to encourage even the simple action of meeting a friend. It's probably safe to say that the person doesn't even get out of the house much, inferring as much from the vague assertions of going "somewhere". And what kind of indecision or torpor leads us to need to remind ourselves to watch TV, or listen to music, or even just go into our room? And then there's the touching, revelatory suggestion of visiting the dead mother in the cemetery. These short suggestions paint a picture of the author, letting us in more intimately than even a photograph might, yet with such minimal amount of language that the list may as well be a bank statement. And in the world of Found, even a stray bank statement may tell just as vivid a story.

This is the kind of archeological dig that Found inspires. It requires a sense of intuition and the mythmaking of a storyteller. It needs a frame-shift, a tilting of the head to look at life's castoffs from a fresh angle. No single story is complete, but the mystery provokes a desire to find the depths of what can be known and test the boundaries of the impenetrable. Or, at the very least, to find a laugh, a moment of pause, or even a tear from a scattering of fleeting instances.

One of the temptations inspired by this exploration is to compare and contrast these fragmented messages with the dialed-in ethos of contemporary communications. It would be easy to say that in spite of all the text, voice, and video conversations buzzing about the globe in an ethereal salon, there is an equally valid, equally authentic substratum of broken code lying at our feet, defying the broadcast. But Found doesn't really encourage that kind of analysis, nor does it place communication in such a binary framework. If it weren't for broadcasts and networks, Found wouldn't exist. Nor would it exist without the snatches of personalities left drifting in the dust. Found is simply the museum, its scrap collection an array of ciphers, and we ourselves are the only Rosetta stone.

I often find myself thinking about the original author of any of the stray notes, wondering if that person has since encountered Found, and whether or not they have found that tiny piece of themselves collected and pinned down like a butterfly, displayed to the public. I wonder if they are embarrassed, or amused, or simply confused about what kind of meaning a stranger could find in that tossed-off and tossed-out tidbit. I wonder if they are angry with us for spying in, wishing they could retrieve that sliver of themselves and either hide it away again, or destroy it forever.

Then I realize that I don't really know the whole, the real person on the other side of that communicative divide. The person I have imagined is a figment, a self I have projected onto the meaning of the artifact. I have read myself into that meaning. Maybe these scraps are only tiny mirrors. And I wonder how I would feel to be found, and what pieces of myself I've left lying in ditches, blown against a chain link fence, lying in a parking lot, or tacked haphazardly to a bulletin board.

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