AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVY ROTHBART
Davy Rothbart makes FOUND Magazine, contributes stories to This American Life, and wrote a book of stories called The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. He also writes frequently for GQ, SLAM, and The Believer. If you've found something cool, please send it to him at his parents' house -- details at foundmagazine.com
This interview was conducted despite jetlag (at least two time zones apiece), technical difficulties (both of us), and a misremembered password (me). Davy Rothbart will be reading for Houston's recycling program on August 16th at the Makeout Room, along with Tom Barbash, Michelle Tea, Jonathan Franzen, Matthew Eck and with comedy by Ali Wong.
SA: Has anyone ever bribed you for your vote?
DR: In 4th grade, my friend David Pfeiffer spent weeks circulating a petition among our schoolmates, trying to finagle more recess for all of us. About half of our school had already signed it, and David believed that if me and another friend of ours named Blair Austin got on board, the rest of the kids in school would follow suit. I'm not sure it would've worked out like that, but that was David's thought at the time.
He stayed overnight at my house one weekend, and spent the whole time hectoring me to sign the petition. What kind of red-blooded American boy could possibly be opposed to such a proposal? Me, I guess. I mean, recess was cool and all, but our teachers were pretty cool, too, and I liked the shit they were teaching us. I didn't really think we needed more recess. I was in a tight spot. On one hand, David Pfeiffer was bound to keep haranguing me until I signed the damn thing; he even offered me bribes -- a dollar, a Jolly Rancher, a 1979 Topps Carlton Fisk. When the bribes didn't budge me, he tried threats, which had a bit more power to melt my convictions. But on the other hand, more recess meant more opportunities to be pummeled by the big kids in Dodgeball, and ultimately, I couldn't in good faith sign the petition. So I did the only thing I could do... I did, in fact, what many other policy-makers might've done if Congress was held in their basement. I snuck the petition out of David Pfeiffer's backpack, ripped it to shreds, and tossed it in the bathroom trashcan. Then an hour later when he started freaking out thinking he'd lost the thing, I led him to the bathroom and sheepishly pointed out to him what I'd done with it.
On Monday, at lunchtime recess, he made good on his threats and beat me up with cement-filled nunchuks. There's two morals to this story. One, more recess is always good. Two, if anyone offers you their 1979 Topps Carlton Fisk to sign a petition, take the catcher and run.
SA: Wow, that's a great story. Do you know what sort of career David Pfeiffer has had? How did that experience affect what you learned about policy?
DR: Ya know, I'm not really sure what happened to Pfeiffer, and I can't say it affected my policy education. but I remember one other thing about David Pfeiffer...My last name, Rothbart has the unusual property that you can change a single consonant and end up with either Rothbarf or Rothfart, and plenty of my grade school classmates made that discovery; as far as invoking those nicknames goes, they voted early and often. But David Pfeiffer, after the petition incident, always called me a new name, which to this day I still marvel at for its catchiness and cleverness despite being so unclever. He simply called me Rothcrap.
SA: This money raised at this month's Progressive will raise funds to donate recycling bins to the city of Houston. Have you ever been to Houston? Did you find anything interesting there? What's the best thing someone has sent you from Houston that’s ended up in the magazine?
DR: Houston is like home to me! It’s awesome that this event will benefit Houston’s recycling program. We've received a ton of amazing finds from Houston over the years. I fear, though, that once we hook up all these new recycling bins, the kinds of notes and papers that folks used to find strewn in the street will now be more properly disposed of and the Houston finds will dwindle!
One particularly memorable find was given to me in Houston by a 120-year-old man. I was doing some radio reporting after Hurricane Katrina, talking to storm refugees at the Astrodome in Houston. This old guy - the oldest guy I’ve ever met in my life - we started talking for a while, and he gave me a stack of papers he'd carried with him from New Orleans. He'd mistakenly believed he was rescuing his own treasured mementos and letters, but they turned out to have belonged to this neighbor whose home had been washed away. It was a series of love letters between a woman in New Orleans and her husband, an air force pilot stationed in Korea. Months later, I managed to track down the woman, this old guy's former neighbor, and return the letters.
SA: I’m sure the good people of Houston will continue to send in their finds and that you’ve received many items from cities that do recycle. What sort of sense of place do you get from places you've never been to based on what people have sent you?
DR: The thing I'm most often struck by is the similarities between the
finds we receive, even from vastly different places. Whether someone's in Madagascar, Maine, or Mississippi, they seem to be
dealing with the same kinds of general issues in their lives --love, family, work, and the new Dilated Peoples record.
SA: Did you find anything interesting on your recent trips, to 29 Palms or in Pittsburgh?
DR: My friend Nikki Kemp in Pittsburgh gave me this pretty awesome find yesterday. It's some torn up pieces of a typed letter between friends; she only found enough scraps of it to piece together
certain fragments of the letter. Most of them seem to deal with some questions about a home mortgage, but then out of nowhere there's an invitation to come to D.C. for Thanksgiving and watch porno flicks! Like the best found notes, the actual story is elusive, just out of reach, but there's enough hints there to spark our curiosity and let our imaginations run wild.
SA: Can you give us hint of what we're going to be hearing you read on the 16th?
DR:I’ll either read a piece of mine that's already aired on This American Life called "Nibble, Lick, Suck, and Feast" (those critical words were bleeped out when the piece aired) or this other new piece called "Bigger and Deafer" that is due to air but hasn't yet aired, depending how much time we have. One is about pulling pranks on local morning TV hosts during the Found tour; the other is about pulling pranks on my deaf mom when I was a kid.
SA: I'm pretty sure Dublit puts up a lot of readings and doesn't bleep anything out so people will be able to access it online in its full glory.
DR: Rad, will do!
SA: Anything else you'd like our audience to know?
DR: Come find me and talk to me before, during, or after the show so I can tell you the details of our super-secret after-party on August 16th, the night of the reading!
SA: You heard it here first folks.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Posted by Sona Avakian at 6:53 AM