Backstory: Getting lost in 'FOUND' magazine

Lyrical litter: For some, a 'diary of the human race' exists in found scraps.

Rebecca Hughes has locked away her bike and started walking more. And seeing more. When she leaves her home for her desk job in a government building, Ms. Hughes turns off her thoughts (they'll be there later) and lets the street overwhelm her: political graffiti on the walls, losing lottery tickets scattered about the pavement, or broken umbrellas peering out of trash cans. But what she's really scanning - and hoping - for is a crumpled note that may divulge a secret about somebody's life.

The first thing she picks up could be a deposit slip, or maybe gum wrapped in paper. But eventually she'll find it - a note, scribbled in a hurry: "Inconsiderate must come to the minds of all that think of you." Or "Paul and Olivia - our doorbell is NOT a toy, stop ringing it or I'll have to call your parents." Or "The madness will consume you."

These snapshots of people's lives are worth the sticky fingers, she says. And there's a growing number of "finders" like her enamored with the raw randomness of what litter can offer up about life.

Davy Rothbart understands the excitement. Found scraps - trash to some - are his job. He makes a living publishing them. FOUND, a scrapbook-like online and print magazine launched in 2001 from Mr. Rothbart's basement in Ann Arbor, Mich., makes people conscious of these sidewalk gems.

Rothbart and his helpers receive 15 to 20 envelopes a week carrying finds from Sweden to Sudan and California to Connecticut.Discarded ephemera found on the street, tucked in pages of books, left in printers, and thrown in dumpsters contain an honesty that has gripped more than 100,000 enthusiasts who bought FOUND magazine's four issues and a 252-page book.

The finds are sneak peeks into the lives of strangers. They chronicle joy, sadness, the poetry of the prosaic, or - in the case of scraps occasionally found in the halls of government here in Washington - security risks that finders will joke about privately, but not disclose for print.

It's hard to explain the thrill of the find. Flip through the magazine and you'll understand. It could be the pull of voyeurism or the need for human connection. "I wish I won't flunk sixth grade," says a note found tied to a deflated balloon in Houston. "Dear Dad. I love you so much just so you no. I cry for you evry night," reads another from a street in Hamtramck, Mich. Or this from Hoboken, NJ: "Package is on the roof. Wind go a hold of it. Look the window."

Rothbart, who speaks in machine gun-like bursts, says the notes he's published taught him that "things going on in people's lives and hearts aren't so different from each other."

Laura Kwerel, a radio producer who works in a suburban Washington coffee shop, fell hard for FOUND when she read the third issue of the magazine - a hodgepodge of love-themed finds. The accumulated weight of the voices made her cry.

"I was overwhelmed ... ," Ms. Kwerel e-mailed Rothbart last year. "I realize now that there is more humanity in a discarded grocery list than in a thousand-page novel or a two-hour movie."

To her, FOUND is a diary of the human race put together with affection and love. FOUND seems genuine, she says, because much of today's media feels fake to her. By contrast, she says, when you look at a note, it's real. To illustrate, she points to a personal find, a list of "things I love" that includes parents, babies, and art classes. Writing down things is honest, she says. "I will write that I want to lose 10 pounds, but I won't tell anyone," went one honest example.

Kwerel is one of hundreds of finders in hundreds of cities. Rothbart has toured all 50 states, drawing crowds to bookstores and coffee shops where he reads aloud found notes and letters. Fans cross gender, age, and cultural lines - they're artists, kids, parents, lawyers, doctors, retirees, toll booth operators, TV station janitors, bureaucrats, gas station attendants, homeless people. They all get it, they all "find" - and by sending the gems to Rothbart, all play.

Rachel Levin, who makes family videos in Philadelphia, learned one day that a colleague at work collected grocery lists. She was fascinated and made a video about her colleague, who tells the camera she loves the lists so much she feels like snatching them from shoppers' hands ... before they're done with them. A list hunt through the shopping carts of suburbia recorded by Ms. Levin, netted nine in one day.

Levin, who thought she couldn't find things on her own, says she saw that these fragments of humanity are out there, just waiting to be picked up. Sometimes they break your heart. Sometimes they tempt you to ... shoot automatic weapons.

At least that's what one list of stuff "that has to be done" demanded. Somebody found it and sent it to Rothbart, who - in performance-art style - set out to complete all of the tasks on the list: play drums on a plane, order fast food in Spanish, break into an abandoned train, drive a car with someone on the hood. In late October when he was interviewed for this story, he was outside a shooting range in Eugene, Ore., waiting to tick off another item on the list: "shoot an AK-47."

For people who've discovered they like the act of "finding," it is a reminder of our purpose, nudging us to be aware and take in life from the crumpled paper in the grass to the forgotten printouts in the office, to the other commuters on the bus.

Hughes lets her eyes sweep the sidewalks in search of windblown items. One of her favorite finds was a glossy poster-sized sheet with "Love" scribbled on it four times in capital letters. Who wrote this? Who was this meant for? How did it get lost? Hughes doesn't have answers. She doesn't need them. She revels in the process, the occasional voyeuristic glimpse into the minutiae of life - like the glimpse she got when she stumbled on a piece of paper, haphazardly folded into quarters.

It was a printout of an e-mail sent by a man named Eric to a Louisiana body builder. Eric praised her accomplishments and gave her best wishes in the aftermath of Katrina: "Melissa, you and your sport are a great inspiration to me ... not [just in] getting my body in shape but getting my life back together ... because I had to beat the odds every since birth as I was born with brain damage and the doctors said that ... I will never finished high school but I beat the odds thanks to my great family and friends ... I graduated with my diploma on time and later spend two years of College...."

Eric will remain unknown, but asking questions about who he might be - and by extension, who we all are at heart - is all a finder needs.

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