FOR those lacking cab-ride entertainment since television screens were discontinued in taxis in 2003, there is hope. It comes in the form of Oleg Roitman, aka the Human Computer, an immigrant cabdriver from Ukraine who regales fares with a flashy sleight of mind: Give Mr. Roitman any date – say, your birthday – and within a second, he will tell you what day of the week it was.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Mr. Roitman demonstrated his skill to a passenger named Mary, who was going to Whole Foods at Union Square. In a thick Russian accent, Mr. Roitman directed Mary to read a sign explaining his talent.
“Can you guess my weight or height?” Mary asked hopefully.
“No, only dates,” Mr. Roitman answered. “What’s your birthday?”
“And what year?”
“I’m not telling you!”
“Come on!” Mr. Roitman persisted.
“Well, be kind now,” she said. “1952.”
“Thursday, young lady, Thursday!” Mr. Roitman boomed as he scrawled the information on a souvenir sheet he hands to passengers.
“Any other dates while I’m still alive?” Mr. Roitman prodded. “The date of birth of your first husband? Your second husband? Your third husband?” Mr. Roitman, who is married and lives in Midwood, Brooklyn, is a big fan of marriage jokes.
His style might best be described as tough-love entertainment. When a passenger suggested that Mr. Roitman got his answers from a reference book listing days of the week for the past century, which he keeps in the cab in case a rider questions his mental gymnastics, Mr. Roitman good-naturedly reassured her that “this book, my lady, is only for stupid passengers who don’t know mental math.”
Though the abrasiveness annoys some riders, the rough-edged immigrant spin on the archetypal New York eccentric tends to charm most. But Mr. Roitman’s showmanship is actually the much-rehearsed product of a quintessentially American catalyst: motivational literature. Inspired by its directives, Mr. Roitman is constantly tinkering with the language of his self-promotional materials – each passenger walks away with a stack, including cards with an address for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, in case he or she wants to send a complimentary letter on his behalf.
Mr. Roitman, 43, is not an idiot savant; he uses a mathematical formula that can be found at curiousmath.com, a Web site that offers an array of mathematical tricks. A fan of astronomy and math, he says he worked out the equation on his own during down time as a Red Army recruit in the 80’s.
Mr. Roitman’s act was a sensation on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, where he immigrated in 1991, but the following year, when he moved to New York, he discovered that it translated poorly in the more saturated entertainment arena of Times Square. For a time, Mr. Roitman gave up the act, but in 2000, his “blood started boiling again,” as he put it, and he decided to give it another try, this time on the road.
Mr. Roitman has a formula only for dates, but he has found that human beings are pretty predictable too, at least in the dates they remember. During the Saturday ride, after informing a couple on their way to see “A Streetcar Named Desire” of the days of the week they were born, Mr. Roitman asked for more dates.
“How about June 18, 2004?” the man said.
“Friday. What happened on this day? You got married?”
The man nodded.
“One more fallen brother!” Mr. Roitman shouted. “One more prisoner of war! Anything else?”
“Jan. 3, 1971,” the woman said.
“Sunday. Sister or brother?”
“Sister!” she exclaimed. “God! Are people that predictable?”
Mr. Roitman didn’t deign to answer.
Taxi and Limousine Commission officials were pleased to be informed by a reporter of Mr. Roitman’s extracurricular skills. “We encourage drivers who are multitalented to try to form a connection,” said the commission’s chairman, Matthew W. Daus (birth date: July 27, 1968 – a Saturday, Mr. Roitman said). “Sometimes it leads to good tips for them as well. Certainly we’ll consider Mr. Roitman for our driver recognition ceremony.”
The Human Computer indeed attracts good tips; twice he has been given more than $100, Mr. Roitman says.
But the act is a labor of love, he insists. This was apparent the other day as he ferried two young men to the Virgin Megastore at Union Square. Pulling up to a red light, he fished out his reference guide to prove he had been right about their birthdays. But he had just found the right page when the light turned green. Then Mr. Roitman yelled something few New York taxi drivers have ever uttered: “Stupid green light!”