How one man’s love for geography made him a Boulder icon

By Caryn Maconi on November 28, 2011

David Rosdeitcher was 5 years old when his mother, grandmother and sister went shopping without him.

As consolation for not bringing him along, they came home with a globe — and that’s where it all began.

David Rosdeitcher, Pearl Street's "ZIP Code Man."

David Rosdeitcher, known by many in Boulder as the “ZIP Code Man,” is one of Pearl Street’s best-known performers. He sets up his act on the corner of Pearl and 13th Street almost every weekend, hoping to gather a crowd of interested passers-by.

But David’s act goes beyond juggling and jokes. It stands out from the others in its originality and apparent genius. It’s not complicated or confusing, but it is remarkable.

Tell David your ZIP code, and he will describe your city. Wherever you’re from, whether it’s a big metropolis, small town, or Indian reservation; East Coast, West Coast, Canada, even Europe or Asia — David gets it right.

The first time I saw him perform, I challenged him with my hometown: “21401.”

“You came to Boulder all the way from Annapolis, Maryland,” David said without a moment’s hesitation. “You live very close to the Naval Academy, and sometimes you can see the Navy crew team practicing on the water near your house.”

He was right on the money. Here I was in Boulder, Colo., but this man painted a picture of Annapolis that was so accurate, I felt like I was back at home.

David swears he doesn’t have a photographic memory. He’s not Einstein, and he’s not cheating, either. He just has a passion for geography.

David was born in New York City, where he lived for 18 years. He was always on a mission to learn, and ever since receiving that globe as a 5-year-old, he was hooked on geography. He memorized all the U.S. capitals and the populations of various cities and was able to organize the states by area, all by the time he was 10. He had a keen interest in traveling, and he wanted to visit every place he learned about on that globe.

His first real escape from New York came after high school, when he headed to New Orleans, La., to attend Tulane University. As he worked towards a degree in anthropology, he often found himself in the French Quarter of New Orleans performing another skill he had mastered on the side: juggling.

After performing at his first Mardi Gras as a college senior, he was captivated by the street performer’s lifestyle. At that point, though, juggling was his only selling point. He needed something to make his act different.

Then, one day, a 12-year-old spectator approached him from out of the crowd.

“She said she saw an act with a man and you could tell him your ZIP code and he could say where you lived,” David said. “I thought, ‘That’d be perfect for me.’ I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it, it would just be to make my show different from other jugglers.”

And for awhile, that was all it was. He had a knack for memorization and a love for maps, so the ZIP code act quickly became part of his regular performances. David said Boulder was the jugglers’ capital of the world when he moved there in 1991, though, so he was still focusing his efforts on juggling.

But once David discovered that the other ZIP code act the girl had told him about was not based on memorization, he knew his act was truly one-of-a-kind. From there, “ZIP Code Man” grew into a phenomenon.

“I want everything to be real,” David said. “I’m doing exactly what it looks like I’m doing.”

David Rosdeitcher performs his ZIP code show to an audience on Pearl.

Today, David performs his show on Pearl Street as often as the weather allows, though he spends his winters performing in a warmer location. An avid traveler, he has spent time just about everywhere. He says the only places he hasn’t seen in person are an area of upper Michigan, Alaska above the Arctic Circle, and a few islands in Hawaii.

David said he often has his ZIP code show in mind when he’s traveling somewhere new.

“I go out of my way to visit certain places so I can tell people what’s there,” David said.

David’s act has grown from the simple reciting of city names to a lively, interactive performance. He starts by spreading a white chain around his performance area in the shape of the United States. One by one, he asks for audience members’ ZIP codes, pulls people from the crowd, and arranges them in their corresponding cities on the map. He weaves a story about a character who journeys across the country to each participant’s city, describing in detail every stop along the way.

As a closing act, David has a few other tricks up his sleeve. He’ll take someone’s birth date and tell him on which day of the week he was born. He’ll take someone’s phone number — even an international one — and say where that person lives.

As the crowd starts to dissipate, David gestures toward a donation hat sitting at the edge of his makeshift map, reminding audience members that performing is his sole source of income.

Then he collects his props and clears the way for Ibashi-I, a well-known fellow performer whom he calls his best working partner.

“Me and Ibashi-I are the strongest allies in the world,” David said. “He draws a good crowd and I draw a good crowd, and we work off of each other.”

Ibashi-I agrees that he and David have a bond that’s important for success as a performer. They met in the New Orleans French Quarter in 1985, and have been sharing performance spaces ever since.

“When you work on the street, you have to have respect for each other,” Ibashi-I said. “We have a good understanding.”

Ibashi-I, a fellow Pearl Street performer

David and Ibashi-I, while not best friends, certainly have each other’s backs. When Ibashi-I went through a deportation struggle last year, David wrote an article for Boulder Weekly called “Boxed In” that defended his performing partner’s right to live in Boulder and continue to share his gift.

“[That story] got the ball moving and got people stirred up,” Ibashi-I said. “He was significant in the fight to keep me here.”

In addition to the article about Ibashi-I, David is also the author of a book, a chronicle of his experiences titled The Adventures of the Zip Code Man.

That’s the thing about David: even as his brain houses thousands of ZIP codes, area codes and city names, he is an expert in so many other things. Among his talents are martial arts, meditation, yoga, unicycling and a complete mastery of the ancient Chinese game of Go. David met a CU-Boulder student who was also interested in the game, studied it with him, and has since become an expert player.

“He’s an excellent student at whatever he chooses to study,” said Ira Liss, a good friend of David and an employee in the ATLAS Institute at CU. “Whatever subject matter he decides to focus on, he finds an amazing teacher and puts in the time.”

His dedication and enthusiasm inspires other performers, such as Steele Ely, Pearl Street’s “Earthy Man.”

“He uses his intuition a lot in the show,” Ely said. “He doesn’t stick to the same script … he tries to kind of get [the audience’s] vibe and tune into what they’re up to in life, tell them a little about not just where they’re from but what he thinks they’re into, so he makes it fun for them.”

Liss agreed that the personal nature of David’s act is what draws people in.

“Where people live is very close to our hearts,” Liss said. “He has an act that connects very simply to people’s identities.”

Another performer, magician Nickey Fynn, met David on Pearl Street but currently performs in Thailand. Fynn, who became close with David during his years in Boulder, sees more than just a star performer in his friend.

“David’s approach is to live with curiosity and a thirst for wanting to know more,” Fynn said. “Many people seek to keep their mind free … and they go on that path through meditation, yoga, perhaps drugs and alcohol, sports, this or that … David understands that even in that pursuit, one can become a slave to the Zen or yoga lifestyle. Although he’s a disciplined guy, he truly knows that he doesn’t need anything to be free.”