I don't know if I believe Davy Rothbart. But I choose to believe Davy Rothbart because regardless of our own failures at love, however damaging and disastrous they might be, we should always choose to believe in it. Because we are idiots.
Or, at least, our hearts are. Rothbart's new book, My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, contains 16 hilarious and gripping slices of his life, which is as often spectacular as it is heartbreaking. He's always falling in love—"Some folks fall in love gradually; for me it always happens in an instant"—and being jettisoned back out of love. And the way each tale unfolds makes you wonder whether he's been blessed or cursed by his condition.
He lives each situation with uncompromising fullness, even as tragedy darkens the sky above him. He's always in motion as well, heading moonily toward some lovely, forlorn woman whom he's built up to an impossible ideal, or grabbing his duffel and hoofing it away from that lovely, forlorn woman who's brought those expectations crashing down.
The procession of women through these stories will overwhelm you. There's Lauren, the Buffalo bartender in "Human Snowball" he takes a bus from Detroit on Valentine's Day to surprise, and who seems like she might bail but ends up in the back of a stolen car with him amid a cast of other characters too bizarre to believe. There's Ondrea, the pretty Bay Area writer who can't quite handle the fact that he's brought a backpack full of bottles of his own pee to douse an unscrupulous racketeer of sham literary contests and conferences. And there are any number of women who rotate through the title role in the collection's central story "Shade," about his search for the flesh-and-blood version of the pouty waif that Fairuza Balk played in the movie Gas, Food, Lodging. Rothbart's always on the lookout for Shades.
Rothbart's made a career out of his uncanny attention to the itinerant spirit. The raconteur, writer and filmmaker is also a contributor to This American Life and the founder of FOUND Magazine, which gathers all manner of discarded documents—letters, cards, scribbled love notes, grocery lists—to display them with the finders' stories of their discovery.
FOUND started in 2000 in Chicago when Rothbart plucked a note from under his windshield wiper from a girl named Amber to a guy named Mario—neither of whom Rothbart knew. Amber had mistaken the car for Mario's and flipped out, accusing Mario of cheating on her: "You said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place??" After the requisite hatred and f-bombs Amber added as a postscript "Page me later."
Rothbart and his friends kept the note, excitedly imagining the iceberg of unknowable, turbulent life beneath the torn-off tip that this note represented. More scraps followed and FOUND Magazine was born. It has since become a popular institution, yielding nationwide tours—including memorable stops in the Triangle in years past.
My Heart Is an Idiot reads like an investigative report into these lives that first appeared in FOUND. And while every story seems about to offer up moments of insight into the nature of love or life, Rothbart masterfully leaves those moments alone, knowing that what's left unwritten is what makes them so evocative. The closest he comes to providing explication is to offer occasional reflective asides: "The allure of being the DJ finally registered for me—you can be with others and be alone at the same time, and feel good about it."
As you read My Heart Is an Idiot, you might wish you were Davy Rothbart so that you could claim some of these experiences for your own. Don't you want to click-and-drag into your past the night he pointed out to Los Angeles Lakers star Pau Gasol that Rothbart's girl Missy was making out with someone else on a Los Angeles dance floor—thus introducing the expression "sucking face" into the Spanish athlete's lexicon?
But then Rothbart himself breaks down in some of these stories too, or wakes up on a Manhattan park bench with nothing but a pair of socks on his feet. Perhaps it's better to let a writer have these experiences and just tell us about them in standup-routine prose.
It takes a rare kind of openness to experience to pick up the career machinist hitchhiking to the Grand Canyon (see excerpt below) or chauffeur the 110-year-old guy you just met all over Buffalo, N.Y. Most of us stick to our own paths and let as few strangers as possible cross them. Despite its romantic origins in our inexhaustible concept of the American frontier, the American drifter trope has been ruthlessly co-opted by our serial killer fantasies.
You know that the chances are virtually zero that that hitchhiker is a spontaneous homicidal lunatic, and furthermore that it's pretty likely he'd have an interesting story about what's brought him to this point, but you still don't stop to pick him up.
Davy Rothbart does.
Just past Flagstaff he appeared, a tiny, grizzled man on the shoulder of Highway 64 with his thumb out, wearing a backpack bigger than himself. I pulled over a little ways past him and climbed out of the car and watched him waddle toward me. A tin canteen and a pair of hiking boots with red laces dangled from his pack, clanking together every couple of steps. His short white hair, creased face smudged with dirt, rumpled jeans, and oil-stained sneakers gave him the look of a homeless track coach.
"Young man, thanks for stopping!" he said, thrusting out a hand. "Name's John Molloy. Where ya headed, where ya headed?"
"The Grand Canyon," I said.
His eyes sparkled. "Bingo! Me too!"
In the car, headed west again, John told me his story. For thirty-five years he'd worked in a machine shop in Lowell, Massachusetts. But his lifelong dream was to visit the Grand Canyon. He'd read dozens of books about it, studied its geology and its history; he'd even cut out pictures from National Geographic and pasted them to the wall above his bed.
A few weeks before, he'd been talking about the Grand Canyon with the guys he worked with, and one of them had said, "For Chrissakes, shut up already! What is it with you? It's always the Grand Canyon this, the Grand Canyon that. Look, you'll never make it there, and it's depressing to hear you go on and on about it every damn day."
John looked at me with a mischievous glint. "So I said to him, 'Okay, I quit.' Turned in my tools and walked out." He'd scraped together enough money for a Greyhound ticket as far as Amarillo, said goodbye to his mother and his teenage son, who shared his apartment, and hopped on the bus. It had taken him three days to reach Amarillo and three more days to hitchhike six hundred miles to Flagstaff. Now that he'd found a ride—me—to take him the rest of the way, he was shaking with excitement. "I can't believe we'll be there in less than two hours," he said. He clapped his hands. He drummed on the dashboard. He rubbed his eyes and whistled at the sight of each towering cactus we passed.
Excerpted from My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays by Davy Rothbart, published in September 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2012 by Davy Rothbart. All rights reserved.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lost and found on the open road"