Last May, Simon & Schuster published a book I put together called Found—a collection of notes, letters, and photos that folks around the country had found and sent in to me, little scraps that give a glimpse into the lives of strangers. I bought a van on eBay and hit the road with my younger brother for an 8-month, 50-state, 136-city tour. The publicity team at S&S managed to get me booked on local morning TV shows in most of these cities. I’d show up at the station around 6:30 a.m., a producer would clip a little microphone on me, and somewhere between weather and sports, I’d sit with one of the morning-show anchors and share my favorite Found notes for two to three minutes.
Early on in the tour, I took these gigs pretty seriously. After all, the publicists and TV stations were clearly doing me a huge favor by trying to help spread word about the book. But by the third week of the trip, I was starting to wonder who exactly, if anyone, was watching the local news at 7 a.m. Blurbs in the alt-weeklies or quick spots on the local public-radio stations seemed to generate ten times the response. Also, while a couple of the hosts of these shows were really cool and genuinely excited about the book, most of them didn’t get the whole idea behind it—but this only increased their chipperness and jaunty dawn enthusiasm. “Those pants are so fun!” they’d say, looking me up and down. “Plaid pants! You’re fun, huh?”
What kept me excited about these morning TV shows was getting to meet and hang out with the other folks who were my fellow guests. These were local chefs with recipes-of-the-week, mayoral candidates, a team of Irish dancers, a kid with an eighty-pound pumpkin. In Baltimore, on FOX-5’s Good Morning Baltimore, the anchor asked me to stay on her couch while she brought on the next guest—Baltimore’s Best Mom. This was right before Mother’s Day. Baltimore’s Best Mom turned out to be an eighty-seven-year-old woman named Darnelda Cole. She sat next to me on the couch, and on the far side of her sat her fifty-year-old son, Dice. Darnelda had no idea why she’d been asked to come on TV; they’d plotted this as a surprise. The anchor asked Dice Cole to read the letter he’d written nominating his mother for the prize. Darnelda grew weepy. At last, the anchor declared Darnelda Baltimore’s Best Mom, produced an oversized plaque from somewhere, and presented it to her, at which point Darnelda fell sobbing into my arms; I gave her a wild bear hug, caught up in the moment. A moment later, the anchorwoman joined our embrace. Dice, meanwhile, had lit up a cigarette, which an alarmed producer raced over and doused with a splash of sparkling Evian. Darnelda began hollering at her son and whacking him with her new plaque. “Dice, you can’t smoke in here. This is TV we’re making, what you thinking, boy! Put that damn thing out!”
There were other high points—and by high points I mean low points for the stations and their guests. In Cleveland, two city parks employees showed off an injured hawk and falcon they’d rescued and rehabilitated. The falcon got loose and started flapping about, peeing on everything. The anchors had to forge on through the local news and sports and weather, while the falcon continued to dive-bomb them, rationing its urine so it had enough to drip a few drops on them with every sortie. It was fucking amazing. In Chicago, a young soccer champ, whom they’d invited to demonstrate his fancy moves, booted a ball off the wall of the set, knocking it over backwards and revealing that we were not actually in the hosts’ living room, but in the middle of a big, dank, concrete hangar. In Phoenix, I was sandwiched on-air between Cedric the Entertainer and the governor of Arizona. Cedric dropped a couple F-bombs, and then sheepishly left, telling his chaperone, “I didn’t mean to say that shit, it just came out, I swear to God!”
Often, my brother and I would do a Found event in one city, hit the road for seven hours, taking turns driving all night, and get to the TV station parking lot in Louisville or Milwaukee at around 4 a.m. for a couple hours of sleep before it was time for me to unfold myself, clomp inside all rumpled and bleary-eyed, and do my thing for ninety seconds on-air. In the wee hours, security guards in the station lots inevitably would shine flashlights in our van windows and roust us, and I’d explain that I was going to be a guest on the morning show. They’d disappear for twenty minutes to check into it, then come back and wake us again to tell us that things had checked out and everything was cool.
In Seattle, I asked a young security guard who played this game with us if I could come inside to use the john. His name was Pico. It turned out that the station was moving soon to brand-new, larger digs, and that Pico was going to be replaced by an automatic gate with a swipe card. He told me he was looking for work as an armored-truck driver, which would mean a raise in pay. Pico asked why I was going to be on the morning show, and I explained to him the whole idea behind the Found book. Pico got excited. He told me that earlier that very same night he’d been sifting through boxes that were being tossed out before the station’s big move, looking for mugs, T-shirts, and old calculators, anything of value, and he’d found a bunch of racy notes from the morning-show’s old, dour anchorman to a young camera-woman. We galloped out back to the dumpsters and mucked about until we found the stack of steamy pages. “You should read some of these on the show!” Pico cried. I resisted for a bit, but Pico was vehement. “This guy’s a Class-A asshole,” he said. “I’m telling you. He got a janitor fired for throwing out his lucky tie that he left on the bathroom floor. She worked here eight years.”
Three hours later I was on the air and the anchorman was turning to me with a grumpy look. “So tell me about this book. You collect trash, is that it? You like trash? Trashy trash? One person’s treasure is another’s treasure?” He might very well have been drunk at 7:15 in the morning.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “People are finding this stuff all over the country, all over the world, really, and sending it in to me. It’s amazing how powerfully you can get a sense of someone just from a little ripped piece of paper you pick up off the grass. Like this one, for example. Seems like it’s a guy who’s trying to woo a girl by describing what he’d like to do with her breasts.” I held his note up high and read it aloud. “‘Stacey, you’ve got a rack on you, now that’s a pair. I will nibble, lick, suck, and feast on them. Quit playing hard-to-get.’”
What an expression that fellow had on his face! Back in the lobby, Pico stood with two janitors by a big TV set and as I walked out into the bright, blurry morning sun, they applauded and whistled and called after me, “Good job, good job.”