Junk Mail

Jason Bitner just seems to attract interesting trash. While working as a sorter at a Chicago recycling facility at the age of 16, he would regularly come across crumpled anonymous notes, torn grocery lists full of strange items and faded love letters, stuffing each into his pocket for later perusal.

Back then, these brief glimpses into someone else's world were simply a way to pass the time. But eventually, Bitner's interest in the social significance of this material prompted the creation of Found magazine, an underground compilation of letters, notes, drawings and photos that have, either accidentally or deliberately, been discarded.

“By going through this stuff, we were always trying to get a better sense of what was happening in our communities,” Bitner says. “Seeing the things that were left behind really gave us access to people's lives in a way that we really hadn't known before.”

Bitner co-founded the magazine with Davy Rothbart, a former ticket scalper who shared Bitner's penchant for collecting interesting trash. Using funds generously donated by their friends, Bitner and Rothbart published the first edition of Found in June 2001. Only 50 copies of that initial issue were planned, but demand far exceeding either man's expectations led to an eventual run of more than 100,000 copies.

With visible creases, imperfections and tears — the battle scars of a trashed find — the items reprinted in Found are displayed like the contents of Oscar the Grouch's scrapbook, scattered and overlapping. Some notes are handwritten in a flowing script. Others employ a harried scrawl. Many are typed.

Items in recent issues of the magazine include a student's letter to her teacher, a fan letter to hip-hop artist Lil' Kim and a letter from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office denying a student's request for a letter of recommendation. Readers can also discover the contents of a teacher's evaluation, a photo of a grandmother toting an infant, random e-mails and a waylaid film script. Each item includes details of where and how it was found.

“There are all these stories that are kind of playing out and you want to figure out ‘Why did this happen? Where are these people now?’” Bitner says. He adds that he receives submissions from around the world.

Found is published annually, with the fifth edition slated for release this spring. In addition to the magazine — and its more risqué counterpart, Dirty Found — staff members also have released three books filled with interesting discarded items, including a new compilation focusing exclusively on Polaroids.

Bitner emphasizes that Found is not designed to demean the creators of the material within its pages, but rather to show how trash can sometimes provide a glimpse into another's daily life, the triumphs and the struggles of the otherwise anonymous individuals around us. “I think what we're trying to do is just let people discover what's happening in the world through the leftovers and the things left behind,” he says.

You can learn more about Found (including how to submit items) at www.foundmagazine.com.

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