It Once Was Lost

We are all voyeurs. Celebrity gossip, tales of true crime and that fortuitous intersection, celebrity true crime gossip, keep the media in business. We fill in the blanks with conjecture, fancying ourselves, for example, armchair marriage counselors to the Clintons.

This pastime has found a less fame-driven expression in Davy Rothbart's Found Magazine. In it, Rothbart shares his scanned-in collection of lost and discarded things. Very, very personal things: love notes, breakup notes, notes of attempted blackmail. The artifacts are identified by location and finder, but other than that, they're totally free of context. We're left to draw our own conclusions about how a story culminated in this moment of someone's self-expression.

"I love getting insight into people's hearts and minds," says Rothbart. "They might be very different from me, but they're dealing with the same issues in their lives. That you don't know who these people are makes you feel more connected to everybody. It could be anybody on the bus who wrote, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. Call me later.' I've written that same note."

Found has provided a second home for lost things. Rothbart has tapped into a new brand of enthusiast; thanks to Found, kindred spirits who comb the hallways and sidewalks of the world for hand-written flotsam now have a way to share their finds. "I get about ten Found letters a day," he says. "It's turned into a giant collaborative art project."

By virtue of its publication, a find is transformed into an essential clue to a life, even though it might not have seemed essential to its author. But what if you were asked to boil down the idea knocking around in your head on any given day into a public message?

Former Houstonian Abram Himelstein found out. In putting together his book What the Hell Am I Doing Here? The 100 T-Shirt Project, he asked the people around his New Orleans neighborhood, "What do you think but rarely say out loud?" Then he handed each a marker and a plain white T-shirt, and he asked the person to write a message down, don the shirt and pose for a photo.

"Most people I asked were very ready to have their stories be heard," says Himelstein. "The response was overwhelmingly positive," even if the messages on the T-shirts ("I Miss My Daddy," "I Can't Believe I Got Fired") were not always so upbeat.

For now, Found remains the more voyeuristic of the two projects -- after all, in the magazine, the watched are unaware that they are being watched. But Rothbart has been contacted by several people who've seen their own personal notes printed in his magazine. Rather than siccing lawyers on him with cease-and-desist orders, they've written in with updates. And so issue No. 3 will have a feature called "Hey, That's Me" about people who have recognized themselves in Found.

Rothbart and Himelstein are hosting a Found Objects and 100 T-Shirt Party at Sound Exchange this Saturday. Bring your found objects to share, or think of a story to tell. As Rothbart says, "Strangers are now feeding my hobby."

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Lisa Simon