Backstory: Getting Lost in 'FOUND' Magazine ; Lyrical Litter: For Some, a 'Diary of the Human Race' Exists in Found Scraps

Article excerpt

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. …