Found's Lone Surfer Tour
The hunting of the snark
Ann Arborite Davy Rothbart does something nobody else has thought to do: he collects interesting lost notes and lists and other kinds of communication that he finds on the street, and publishes them in his on-line and print magazine, Found. This wildly successful enterprise - by now, fans bring him a lot of his material - has expanded in various ways. He's presented Found segments on the NPR radio program This American Life (where they fit perfectly with the show's wider preoccupation with identity); there are Found books and CDs; he's got a book of short stories out, called The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas; and now he's presenting the Found Magazine Lone Surfer Tour 2005, which brings Found to life and also features songs by his brother Peter (some of them based on Davy's found items) and readings from his own prose. "Naked in New York" is an apparently truthful account of what occurred after he awakened in that condition in a Lower Manhattan alley.
The show is traveling to fifty-one cities in fifty-five days; I saw it last month at the 555 Gallery in Detroit, an old factory building with cold air pouring in a broken window. A lot of the tour is happening in places like that; the show is fast, a bit rowdy (the found materials often expose the stream of profanity that flows through the American unconscious), and full of late-night energy. In his hometown, however, Rothbart gets to play the more plush Michigan Theater, where the tour winds up on Saturday, November 19. Rothbart always wanted, he said, to go on a book tour "with scallops and caviar," but as it turned out he ended up stuffing carrots into his pockets at receptions. For much of the program Rothbart read his found notes aloud, sometimes half acting them out. Sometimes they were flat-out funny, sometimes abstractly strange one-liners. But in the longer ones something else was going on.
a fascinating space between voyeurism and social critique. "You love that feeling when you see a notebook on a bench in a park, because you know you're going to get to know this person," says Rothbart from the stage, and the found materials contain their share of personal quarrels and love notes, often brought up short somehow. "I love you, but things have not been the same since we found out we were related," says one. Other notes are more akin to the small Readings section items in Harper's magazine. Rothbart finds people, like a police officer confronting antiwar demonstrators in San Francisco, trapped in skeins of officialese and other discourses of power that seem ridiculous when held up to the light of day.
In the end, though, Rothbart is sympathetic toward the people whom he has caught with his unusual kind of candid camera, even if he is often bemused by them. He hunts for and finds things that we can be snarky about, but at some level we recognize ourselves in the crazy stories he finds. A lot of the found items, interestingly, originated with children; they give us an odd little perspective on how they turn into the crazy people we are. Found magazine is Ann Arbor's latest homegrown national phenomenon, and the Michigan show should be a triumphant homecoming of sorts.
[Review published November 2005]