Davy Rothbart “finds” Portland, Maine

By Timothy Gillis

The creator of Found magazine, Davy Rothbart, will be at SPACE gallery this Friday, September 14, sharing some of his favorite “finds” from over the years and reading essays from his new book, “My Heart is an Idiot.”

His brother, Peter Rothbart, a guitarist with the band “The Poem Adept,” will provide musical interludes to the readings, some of which have spawned a song to accompany the story.

“Some of my all-time favorite finds come from the Portland area,” said Davy, whose tales have been told on This American Life, the NPR Sunday segment that features quirky and compelling anecdotes from Main Street, America. “We get a lot of this sent in from Portland, Maine. I’m not sure why that is.”

One of the finds that Rothbart shared with the audience on a European tour was “an algebra test found in Portland by a guy named David Meiklejohn, a filmmaker, who was working at (what was then) Casco Bay Books. The kid’s obviously struggling with algebra, but instead of leaving the answers blank, he came up with clever responses to each one, making light of the test.”

The teacher, rather than admire this student’s creative spark, humorlessly crossed out every problem with a red x, and gave him a zero.

“On the back, this kid had a long jabberwocky-style poem in rhyming couplets,” Rothbart said. “Someone in another state wanted to start a scholarship fund for him. We tried to track him down and came to learn, soon after writing this test, he was in a car accident and passed away. Word (about the test being in Found magazine) eventually got to his friends and family. They remembered him as this creative, mischievous kid.”

The student in question, Aaron Harmon, 22, died Nov. 10, 2001, in an automobile accident in Casco. Rothbart said that, while that story had a tragic ending, perhaps his family and friends were able to appreciate that his sense of humor was shared across the country in the widely-read magazine.

Rothbart, whose work has appeared in GQ, The Believer, SLAM magazine, and Maxim, writes a regular column in Grantland. Lately, his new book has Peter and him hitting the road most nights. He spoke this week from Burlington, Vermont, as he was setting up for a show there, remembering the early days of the magazine.

“Found was intended as a little ‘zine. We had no idea it would get this big. People send us stuff from all over the world, now,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Rothbart will stop by Longfellow Books Friday at 4:30 pm, to sign books and chat with locals.

“I’m not reading, though,” he said, wanting to save the sting of his stories for later that night at SPACE. That show, which starts at 8 pm, will mix words, music, and even a locally-made film of Portland people with found items. “I’m going to get up there with a stack of found items from over the years, and try to read them with the same passion and energy they were written with.”

His brother, Peter, has written several songs based on found items, and will play those, some of which, according to Davy, are “haunting.” One such song, “A child to call our own,” is based on a find from issue six of the magazine.

“It was found in this burnt-out abandoned shell of a car in Hawaii. This woman had written a letter to god after her second miscarriage, questioning her faith, really sad,” Davy said.

Quite a bit of the material is at the other end of the emotional spectrum, however, and will leave folks laughing.

One of Peter’s songs is based on a cassette tape found in Michigan, a “booty tape” with several tracks all centered on the one theme, songs like “Wave your booty in the air” and “The booty don’t stop.” Peter added some verses and sings it as a folk ballad.

The show will also feature audience participation, as Davy gets someone from the crowd to talk to him about life, which, according to him, “is what Found magazine is all about – getting a glimpse into people’s lives, real people.” It’s these unexpected encounters that make all the travel worth it to the Rothbarts.

“On the way to the Grand Canyon once, hitchhiking, a guy with silver hair, said he always dreamed of going to the Grand Canyon. Guys at work said he’d never make it. He had quit that day, spent all his money getting that far. So here’s this guy whose lifelong dream was to go to the Grand Canyon, and I got to spend the last two hours of his trip with him,” Davy said.

Kurt Vonnegut, jr., in Slaughterhouse-Five, suggests such a trip ends with not much more than a fearful pants-wetting at the canyon’s edge, but for Rothbart the story is all about the trip there as much as the final destination.

“Vonnegut also wrote about a note found in an accordion. We used that in an early issue,” said Davy, who hopes for a “rowdy, energetic music and reading show” at SPACE Friday. “Join in. It’s really a gigantic community art project.”

Meiklejohn, the local filmmaker, has been making “a ton of awesome and hilarious videos starring people from Portland,” said Davy, including one with zombies on a feeding melee, except for one who is off in the corner reading “My Heart is an Idiot.”

Davy said they are “going to show a bunch of these videos. I’m sure people will recognize their friends from around town.”

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