The Garbage Caper

I stay in hotels. It’s not that I enjoy them. It’s just something that I have to do a lot for business reasons. I mean, after a while, even the fanciest hotel becomes kind of stale. Like the first time you stay at the Ritz in Paris, you stand at the window and smile to yourself because you’re staying at the Ritz. But after a few visits to Paris, it becomes old news. You stop paying attention to all the fancy touches. You’d much rather be home playing with your kids and learning in the neighborhood shul. Anyway, this story is about one particular stay in a hotel and the crazy chase that resulted from that stay.

It was at the tail end of a business trip. I had almost finished packing up my stuff. When I left the hotel room that morning for my final meeting, there were just a few odds and ends I had left on the bedside table and dresser. When I returned to the room and began putting those last items into my travel bag, I realized that my tefillin were missing! I had put them on that morning and left them in front of the mirror. Now they were gone! Quickly, I ran to the possibilities to explain their disappearance. I could have thrown them out or somehow misplaced them. But I knew that I hadn’t done either. Could I have packed them and forgotten? No. I checked my bag and they weren’t there.

Finally, it dawned on me. It was probably the hotel cleaner. I hadn’t left the “Do not disturb” sign on the door. The cleaner must have entered to clean up the room, seen the tefillin, and, not realizing their importance, decided to dispose of them! Frantically, I checked the wastebasket. It was completely empty. If I ever wanted to see my tefillin again, I knew I had to act fast.

I wasted no time. Literally running down the hotel corridor, I buttonholed the first maid I saw and asked where I could find the man who had cleaned my room. She told me in broken English that he was probably down in the basement doing “important things.” I thanked her and rushed over to the elevator.

It was dank down in the basement, nothing like the spacious lobby of two floors up. Walking quickly through the numerous rooms, I finally found a room where a few cleaning men were drinking coffee, and I started asking each of them whether he had cleaned my room. They were suspicious of my interrogation and clammed up. When I began to get desperate, though, they finally understood that I wasn’t out to get them in trouble, but I had misplaced something valuable. I told them which room I was in, and one of the men identified himself as the man who had cleaned my room, not an hour earlier.

“Did you by any chance come across two black cubes with leather straps attached to them?” I asked him desperately.

“I no know what those things are,” he answered me. “I think they garbage, so I put in garbage.”

“No, no, they are not garbage,” I told him, mortified at having left my tefillin lying around in such a way that anyone would have even considered such a thing. “They are very valuable to me! Where would they be now? They weren’t in the wastebasket.”

“No, they not in basket,” he said. “I take garbage, put in big garbage, and drop in hotel garbage.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I pictured my tefillin lying covered in a sea of garbage, and I wanted to cry. What had my tefillin done to deserve such a fate? What should I do?

“Where do you keep the hotel garbage?” I asked, my voice a quavering mess.

“Down in the back behind the emergency exit,” one of the men answered me, “but you’d better rush, because the garbage truck comes just ‘bout now to pick it up…” but he was talking to the air because I was already out the door and running up the stairs. The modishly dressed people milling around stared at me curiously as I dashed through the crowd in the directions of the revolving doors. I banked to the left and then, without pausing in my stride, ran down the sloping embankment toward the path leading around the hotel.

My chest was heaving as I ran, and the pain in my side told me that the days when Chaim Schneider* had been a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court were long gone. I ran around the side of the hotel, and soon I could see the huge enclosed area where the garbage was kept. It smelled absolutely royal down there, but I ignored the stench and, without wasting any more time, entered the enclosure.

The dumpster was empty. Everything had been removed. In my mind, I could picture the garbage truck pulling away from the hotel just minutes before. Instinctively, I knew that I could still catch it if I ran for dear life.

I ran for dear life.


Pounding hard against the asphalt, I sprinted around the side of the hotel. The sounds of traffic were everywhere. Would I find the garbage truck, or was I too late? Pushing myself beyond endurance, I finally reached the entrance of the hotel and looked anxiously in both directions. Breathing heavily, I craned my neck and peered down the bustling boulevard, finally spotting what might have been a garbage truck in the distant distance. It had to be. It just had to be. There was no time to waste. I didn’t even want to think about what was going to happen if I didn’t stop it before it poured its entire load into the city landfill!

I needed to follow that truck. I needed to get into a vehicle and get over to that huge behemoth and make it discharge its innards and reclaim what was mine. I needed … I needed a taxi.

“Taxi!” I bellowed at the top of my lungs, while thrusting out my arm. Passersby stared in wonder at this unlikely creature, this sweat-stained man with wild eyes who was screaming “TAXI! TAXI!” I ignored them. What did they know, after all? I had to get those tefillin back. Off in the distance, the garbage truck took a right and disappeared from my line of vision. All around me, cars and buses sped by, each driver intent on his particular day’s activities, none even considering stopping for me. Finally a stream of taxis passed by, and the final one of the pack put on his blinker and pulled over to the curb.

I jumped inside his less-than-immaculate cab and exhaled the words every self-respecting cab driver lives for. “Follow that garbage truck!” I roared.

He stepped on the gas pedal and we raced off. The taxi driver drove down the crowded street as if he were the lone driver on a desert island. Under normal circumstances, I might have wanted to jump out of that cab, but this was far from normal. In fact, I was ecstatic at the way he was driving. He made the lights by milliseconds, and I cheered him on as he drove.

“Do you see a garbage truck?” I asked him anxiously.

“I’m looking,” he assured me. I had to be content with that, because I couldn’t really focus on pushing him to go faster and hanging on at the same time. I gasped as he swung past a truck, barely maneuvering back into his lane in time to avoid being hit by a wonderfully sleek SUV that was bearing down on us.

And then up ahead, far, far up ahead, I could make out the garbage truck trundling along. Just looking at it made me feel sick to my stomach: my poor tefillin were sharing company with such august items as empty milk containers, leftover cat food, and greasy paper bags. I had to get them out of there before they were consigned to the landfill site that was the final destination for all garbage in the town.

But we kept on getting stuck at the red lights, while the garbage truck surged forward and consistently caught the greens. And then, without warning, we were stopped by a traffic jam and we still hadn’t overtaken the garbage truck. Which meant that by the time we finally pulled into the sanitation department’s huge parking lot, the garbage truck was parked alongside many other trucks and I was desperate.

I motioned for the taxi driver to wait for me and, throwing open the door of the cab, dashed across the oily, smelly lot toward the large, open-planned building that housed the sanitation department. Drivers were coming and going every few minutes, and the smell was overwhelming. It was hard to think in this place and I was frantic. I looked around the huge room for an office, finally seeing a small area that had been partitioned off at the side of the room. That was where I headed, running, my heart beating rapidly, hoping against hope that I had made it in time, but knowing inside that the chances of that were very slim. It was far more likely that the truck had unloaded its contents and that they were now housed in the mountain of garbage that lay a small distance away.

I knocked on the door, bruising my knuckles on the hard plywood. The drivers who were standing around drinking coffee stared at me quizzically. From behind the door, I could hear a man call out, “Wait a second, I’m coming, I’m coming!”

The door opened and a big man emerged from the office, glaring at me with an annoyed look on his face.

“What is it?” he asked me, trying to understand what on earth I was doing intruding on his territory like this.

Now that I was finally there, I was at a loss for words. Especially when standing face to face with this mountain of a guy.

“Well you see,” I began, “my tefillin were thrown in the garbage this morning by mistake by the guy in the hotel and …”

“What on earth are you talking about?” the man interrupted me.

“My tefillin.”

“What are tefillin?” he asked me.

Tefillin are religious objects,” I explained. “They are cube-shaped objects, painted black, and there are straps attached to them. Religious Jew put them on every morning when they pray.”

The man was listening quietly, his large brown eyes staring at me as I gave him my explanation.

“So you say that your teteftefillins are out there,” he finally managed, pointing a finger out the back of the building toward the monster mountain of garbage.

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Then forget about it,” he said. “The truck already unloaded. Your teflonim are probably buried deep in the landfill.”

I couldn’t believe it! It had all been for nothing. How was this possible? All the time and effort spent chasing down the garbage truck, only to have it all come to an end amid the stench of the garbage world? It didn’t seem right. But what to do?

I had done my best. It was time to move on. I would have to purchase another pair of tefillin, but boy was I going to miss the pair I’d been using since my bar mitzvah. Maybe the rav would even tell me to fast. With a heavy heart, I turned around to leave. I walked through the parking lot full of trucks that reeked of garbage, which I would always recall as the place I had lost my tefillin for good.

I was almost at the door of the taxi when I hear the shout.

“Wait!” I turned around and saw the big man waving to me. I stopped in my tracks as he ambled over, his big frame confident and surly and hopeful, all at the same time.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m not trying to get your hopes up or anything, but if you are prepared to wait, I will get into that garbage mountain and look for your tefillings or whatever they’re called.”

I nodded, shocked and speechless. I gave him a heartfelt look of thanks, and he set off, his muscle-bound, rolling shoulders giving me something to hope for after all. Maybe all wasn’t lost. Maybe it would be okay.

I got back into the cab, with the windows up and the air conditioning blowing full force. I recited a few chapters of Tehillim. The time crawled past. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. I was beginning to think that I might as well give up hope. Twenty-five minutes passed. Half an hour.

And then, all of a sudden, there he was.

He was walking across the parking lot, his huge shoulders swaying as he crossed the stained pavement toward the taxi, and he was cradling something in his hands. I strained my eyes. Could it be? YES! He was holding my tefillin in his huge bearlike hands. I let out a whoop of excitement.

The guy approached the vehicle and showed them to me. He’d done his best to clean them off, but I knew that I would have to bring them to my sofer to get them really clean and maybe get them a new paint job while we were at it.

I wanted to hug him, so I did. I thanked him over and over again for doing this good deed, and all for a stranger to whom he owed nothing. He was kind of embarrassed by my thank-you’s, but you could see that he appreciated them. I stood there in the sanitation department parking lot, holding my precious tefillin and feeling so happy I could dance. I pressed a 100 dollar bill into his huge hands. As I turned to get into the taxi, he called me over to him again.

Now I was getting curious. What was going on here?

“My wife is Jewish,” he said to me, and he seemed a little bit apologetic about this, almost as if he knew it was wrong.

“My father-in-law was never excited about the fact that she married a goy,” he went on, while I raised an eyebrow at his choice of terminology, “and we never really got along. I mean we tolerated each other because we had no choice, but he wanted here to be married to a Jew and I’m just a regular guy.

“My wife’s dad passed away a while back. I thought that was the end of the story, but now he’s started coming to my wife in her dreams. He tells her that she needs to get divorced from her non-Jewish husband. Of course, my wife is having a very hard time with the whole thing. I mean, the man was never religious and suddenly, no peace or respite from him. She doesn’t want to get divorced – we don’t want to get divorced – but really, he’s driving her crazy.”

He paused for a long second.

“Well,” he said, “a short while ago, my wife’s dad came to her in another dream. He said that it’s almost a year since he passed away, that in two days from now will be something called a yahrtzeit, and there’s nobody to say kadKaddish, or something, for him and on and on. Who’s going to say Kaddish for him? I mean, I would love to help him and so on, but obviously this is a job for a Jew.

“So,” he said, looking me in the eye, “do you think you can say this prayer business for my wife’s dad? It would sure help him out since there’s nobody else to do it.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’d be happy to do it. When should I say Kaddish for him?”

“Today,” the man said. “his yahryahrtzeit is today.”

And I thought of the anguish I’d known when the man threw my tefillin in the garbage, and the wild run down to the garbage cans at the back of the hotel, and the crazy drive after the truck, and this man climbing a mountain of garbage, all to locate my precious tefillin. And how all of it, every single move, had been choreographed so that I could end up at the right place at the right moment, just in time to say Kaddish for a man that I would never know … but just the same, would most certainly never forget.

(Reproduced from It Could Have Been You by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 27 – 34, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

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