While traveling, Davy Rothbart often chats with strangers. And when he does, he doesn't mince words.
"I'm the kind of person that, when I meet someone, I always want to go there and dig in with them and talk about real things," he told Boise Weekly. "Skip the small talk and talk about real stuff."
As a filmmaker, author and regular contributor to Public Radio International's This American Life, Rothbart has made a career out of telling stories. But for 10 years, Rothbart's voyeuristic oeuvre, FOUND magazine, has told the stories of complete strangers. The zine's pages are chock-full of forgotten scraps of paper found on street corners and in old boxes: everything from hastily scribbled to-do lists to passionate love notes. Davy and his brother, Peter, share these tidbits on cross-country tours.
"FOUND is this entire community art project," Rothbart explained, "so after our performances, I feel like people are inspired to go out and discover finds of their own."
In September, the Rothbarts embarked on a FOUND magazine 10th anniversary tour, a 75-city sprint that lands in Boise Saturday, Oct. 27, at Visual Arts Collective. The brothers turn FOUND into performance art--Peter with a guitar, singing songs inspired by notes, while Davy reads a few aloud.
FOUND started with a single note, which began, "Mario, I fucking hate you."
While living in Chicago in 2000, Davy found the note stuck to his car by mistake. Though the author, Amber, accused Mario of infidelity, it was signed, "Page me later."
"I try to read them with the same emotion which they were written with," he said.
The point of preserving each find is to share something that offers a glimpse into a stranger's life. However, on this tour, Rothbart is also telling personal stories from his new book, My Heart Is an Idiot.
"With FOUND, I get to share all these glimpses into these other people's lives and it's up to you to imagine the rest of the story," he said. "All the stories in the new book, it's almost like FOUND notes come to life."
Yet sharing his personal stories in front of audiences has made him a little uncomfortable.
"I forgot somehow that people would ever get to read it," he said. "It was on my laptop for so many years. It's thrilling that so many people have read it, but it's also kind of weird."
Within the book's pages, Rothbart tells the stories of people he has met on his travels. One is about Laquisha, a young black woman on a bus from Chicago to the still-smoking Ground Zero in New York City just days after Sept. 11, 2001. Another tells the story of nursing a love for a British girl--and realizing he can't move to the United Kingdom to be with her.
One story he shares with audiences, "What are you wearing?" chronicles a months-long romance with a woman he never met, entirely over the phone. It started with steamy phone sex, but eventually became more serious, he tells the audience.
"I find myself drinking a little more those nights," said Rothbart. "It's one thing to write that in a book. But it's another to read it in front of people."
Peter interacts with the audience in a different way: He provides original songs, singing lyrics often based on FOUND notes. They range from the folk-ballad cover of a found tape of "Booty Rap" anthems recorded by a group of kids to more haunting songs.
"There's this one song, based on this note that's in FOUND magazine No. 6," Rothbart said. "This guy found a woman's letter written to God. She had just had a miscarriage, and she was questioning her faith. Peter took the FOUND note and wrote a song based on it, wondering what it would be like to be the husband of this woman."
Rothbart said he still tears up listening to that song, "A Child to Call Our Own."
Rothbart explained that there's a common thread between My Heart is an Idiot, FOUND notes, a stranger's stories and Peter's songs.
"I think the fundamental thing about all of these projects is just having a curiosity about other people's lives," he said. "The people we share the world with, having a sense of empathy and curiosity and compassion. Whether it's FOUND notes, some mystery stranger you'll never meet in person--you might benefit by having a glimpse into their lives and caring about them."
Rothbart said he encourages the audience to do the same--to talk with a stranger on a bus or a park bench.
"The rewards outweigh the risks," he said.
Rothbart has always been a guy to dig in with people and share real things, which may explain why he's only a little uncomfortable sharing My Heart is an Idiot with audiences. But he said it's worth the trade-off.
"People smile at me and say, 'Yeah, I read the book.' They suddenly know a lot about me, which is a little uncomfortable. But people have felt really comfortable sharing things with me because of it."
Rothbart said he's happy that his book helps people open up.
"I've already disclosed some of my more painful, humiliating, awkward, weird moments, and now people have opened up and shared what's really on their minds," he said.
Helping strangers open up is one of Rothbart's talents. He describes a moment during a segment when he pulls an audience member onto the stage to talk about life.
"The guy in Vermont, he was the most guarded and officious. At first, he was keeping his cards close to the vest, I guess you could say. The question came up, 'Do you have any regrets?'" Rothbart explained. "He said, 'I regret that I have no relationship with my third child.'"
The guy explained she's the daughter of a brief second marriage who lives in Arizona. He just never made an effort to be in her life.
"Afterwards, his wife came up to me and said, 'I've been married to him for 10 years and I had no idea,'" Rothbart said. "It's a safe place to talk about what's on their mind."