Magazine creator’s essays tell tales from time on the road

Melena Ryzik / New York Times News Service /


Published Sep 23, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“My Heart is an Idiot: Essays” By David Rothbart (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pgs., $25)

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Davy Rothbart had misplaced his usual hype music, so Rage Against the Machine would have to do. Rothbart, a writer and a creator of Found magazine, the repository for forgotten notes and photos, normally listened to Metallica’s “One” to get himself pumped for a show. But Monday evening he popped a CD with “Bombtrack” into the player in his rented Dodge minivan and began fist-pumping along.

He was amping himself up for a library stop on the tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of Found, at which he would also read from “My Heart Is an Idiot,” his unfiltered new memoir. Outside the parked car, he changed from one basketball jersey to another, deodorizing himself with a spray of body mist — a road shower, he called it — before sitting in the driver’s seat and swigging from a bottle of rye whiskey.

He opened a thrift-store briefcase to go through an assemblage of discarded to-do lists, receipts and love letters that he would read at the show, like this one: “Dear Ron, I love you, but things have not been the same since we found out we were related.”

This was the least weird part of Rothbart’s day.

In his role as an editor of Found, Rothbart, 37, has long been a beacon for voyeurism, whimsy and wistfulness, exposing missives not intended for public consumption in a way that prefigured websites like To-Do List and Passive aggressivenotes.com.

In the decade since he and a few friends started the magazine (which has spawned three popular book anthologies), he has traversed the country eight times. He has racked up thousands of miles to read in offbeat places, like a Roman Catholic girls’ school in New Hampshire and a bodybuilding gym in Sacramento, most often with his brother Peter, a musician who writes songs based on their finds. They are at it again, in the midst of a 75-city tour.

Rothbart wrote the new book, released this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, during a 31⁄2-year break from touring, but it is full of tales of lost love, sexual misfires and the many oddball characters he encountered on the road. The essays are often humiliatingly comical but not without pathos.

“I’ve been publishing people’s most private thoughts in Found magazine for the last 10 years,” he said. “So I feel like it’s only fair to put myself on the line.”

Rothbart and his magazine are also the subject of a new musical, “Found,” created by Hunter Bell (a Tony nominee for “(title of show)”) and composer Eli Bolin (“Sesame Street”), which is being given a trial run in the Berkshires this weekend. A few hours before they pulled up to the august Institute Library in New Haven, the Rothbart brothers stopped at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, Mass., to see a rehearsal.

They had not read a script and so did not know what to expect. This would turn out to be the weirdest part of their day.

It was early afternoon. Davy Rothbart, in wide Elmo-red pants and his usual houndstooth cap, and his brother, in shorts and hiking boots, sat in the sixth row and took notes as, onstage, they watched their professional origin story.

Afterward, the cast gathered, eager to know how surreal it felt to watch your life unfold theatrically.

“Really surreal,” Davy said. “I like it. I feel like I’m ‘shrooming again.”

Returning to the van, jammed with copies of the book and magazines and Peter’s new album, “You Are What You Dream,” was less psychedelic. There was a parking ticket on the window, then an errand to retrieve a favorite sweatshirt, left behind two nights before at a decent after-party.

Between five and 20 physical finds are sent in daily to their parents’ home in Ann Arbor, Mich. (with more coming in online), Davy said; his mom opens some of them.

Despite his affinity for other people’s diaries, Davy doesn’t keep a journal and wrote “My Heart Is an Idiot,” which covers a decade of his life, largely from memory. He shared some of the stories with the people in them before publication and took some creative license. Names, dates and other identifying details have been changed, although in the tradition of memoirs now, it was legally vetted.

But most of the embarrassing stuff happens to him, anyway. In New Haven he read “What Are You Wearing?” — a mistaken-identity phone sex romance that first appeared in GQ — out loud for the first time. The audience members were into it: As usual, they lingered over beers afterward, asking for autographs and offering wildly personal stories. His capacity for serendipity and overshare is infectious, even if the particulars are distinctly Davy.

“Who among us,” his brother deadpanned, “hasn’t had a four-month relationship with a woman who turned out to be a dude?”