By Mordechai Schmutter

I can never figure out what the garbage men will and won’t take, and I’m pretty sure they keep changing the rules.

Wait. Can I even say “garbage man”? A lot of people find it offensive. I mentioned garbage men in an article once, and a few of my readers went crazy. Is it because women can do the job too? Because we changed the term years ago, and I still haven’t seen a garbage woman.

Maybe it has to do with where you live. Also, I’m usually not awake that early. But I do end up stuck behind a lot of garbage trucks (can I say “garbage trucks”?) trying to figure out whether I’m allowed to go around and whether I’m going to run over a garbage man, and still . . . all men. Most women that I know won’t even take the garbage out of the house. Nor do they push it down with their feet.

“Garbage MAN!” they say. When it’s convenient.

So maybe it’s the men finding the term offensive.

Or maybe the problem isn’t gender. Some people think that the term “garbage man” is saying something derogatory about the guy who does it. Like he’s garbage. But to be honest, the term “garbage man” isn’t saying that the guy is garbage any more than “fireman” is saying that the guy is fire. There are a lot of terms like that. A milkman isn’t milk; a mailman isn’t mail (he could be femail); a corpsman isn’t dead; a gentleman can be Jewish; an assemblyman is usually in one piece; most ottomans are not named “Otto”; a henchman doesn’t hench; a Roman doesn’t Ro; a shaman isn’t quiet; and a talisman doesn’t wear tzitzis.

I call them “garbage men,” but I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Without them, our lives would be disgusting. Also, they have to wake up really early in the morning and hang off the back of a truck, which isn’t as cool as it sounds because:

  1. They have to stop every ten feet;
  2. Sometimes it’s raining; and
  3. What it really means is that there aren’t enough seats.

They’re lifting things all day, and people absolutely do not care about sealing their bags. We have to respect them, and also trust that they aren’t gluing our old credit cards together. Without them, we’d have to drive our garbage to the dump ourselves, and we’d keep pushing it off until our pile is insanely huge, and we’d have to put it all in our minivans and push it in with our feet, and there’d always be traffic to get to the dump, and we’d be sitting in stinky cars, and stuff would spill every time we made a short stop.

I have a son who recently told me that he wants to be a garbage man when he grows up. So apparently, he’s not offended by the term. Though he also told me be wants to be a paperboy. (Can I say “paperboy”?) So I told him that he doesn’t have to choose–he could do both. The hours are about the same. He can drive the truck slowly around the neighborhood and toss papers out of it. Or he could throw the papers directly in the garbage, and cut out the middleman.

And anyway, what should we call these people? Some say we should call them “sanitation engineers.” Engineers? I’m related to some people who went to school for years to be engineers, and I’m pretty sure they would be offended. How much extra schooling do you need to be a sanitation engineer? Definitely not more than four years.

So a lot of people say “trash collector.” But I think that’s worse. It sounds like he has a weird obsession. It feels like a guy who comes over to you at parties and says, “You wanna see my trash collection?” And he has pictures on his phone.

But my point is I have no idea at any given time what they’ll take. For example, I can’t always figure out, on any given week, how to get them to take or not take our old garbage cans. We had a garbage can that we bought the first week we moved into our house, and the first time we put it out at the curb, the wheels disappeared.

So we bought a new can, and we put out the old can to be collected, but they didn’t collect it. (Maybe we should have put the can in a garbage bag.) We eventually became a family that needed as many garbage cans as we could get, so we went back to using it, even though it couldn’t actually stand up. We just stood it against the telephone pole next to our driveway. Then the garbage men would empty it and leave it in front of our house without taking the time to lean it back against the pole. So I can’t tell you how many times we’ve driven over this can. Yet they didn’t take it for almost 11 years, until finally one day they changed the rules and took it while I was stuck in bed with a herniated disc. One of my neighbors ran out and got us a tiny can that holds about as much as a kitchen garbage. So now we’re waiting for that one to die. The good news is that it’s good quality, so that’s never going to happen.

But my point is that there are things the garbage men take, and there are things they don’t, and there are things they only take sometimes, and I don’t have time to sit outside all day and figure out why they’re taking whatever they’re taking. I don’t know the rules. I just leave it at the curb, and let the garbage men decide. I assume they know the rules, with their six-year engineering degree.

I’m also not 100% sure it’s the garbage men that have been taking the things I leave out. I left a door out once, and my wife was all like, “They’re not going to take that.” And then the door disappeared. I’m not even sure it was garbage day. I think maybe someone drove by and said, “Hey, we need a door! This will keep the animals out of our house!”

On the other hand, we have a neighbor who put out some old monitors, and the monitors lived in front of their house for months, with passersby ripping them open and mining the insides for gold. Eventually, they had to put the pieces into a van and drive it to who-knows-where. We’re not close.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that my wife recently cut down our aravah bushes while I was taking down the sukkah.

“Sukkos is over; let’s take down the bushes.”

She did it because the bushes were both bigger than our backyard and dead. They were never great to begin with. We planted regular, kosher aravos that we’d bought from an official aravah dealer in a little plastic two-pack, and for a few years, we used whatever grew from those bushes for Hoshanna Rabbah. But what I noticed in shul was that, while everyone else’s aravah leaves were growing out of the branches at an upward angle, ours kind of just grew outward, like we’d stuck the end of the aravah into an electrical socket. They were a little embarrassing before we klopped them on the floor.

But the aravah bushes have been slowly dying and getting bigger at the same time, somehow, and they were threatening our little backyard ecosystem of falling-apart garbage cans, more can covers than we have cans, and dead cats.

So now we have this huge pile of branches in the backyard. My wife filled up our garbage cans with branches and put them out near the street, but the garbage men didn’t take them. So now I have no can in which to put our kitchen garbage this week, and it’s building up in the kitchen. I can’t even push it down with my foot anymore. I have to brace myself against the ceiling.

So we figured that maybe the branches are recycling. After all, recycling turns paper into new paper, and paper comes from trees. But then recycling day went by, and they took only some of them. I really don’t understand the rules.

So now:

  • Option #1 is to keep the cans out there until the week the garbage men decide it’s okay to take the branches. We don’t know when this will be.
  • Option #2 is to start buying more garbage cans.

Maybe we should save the branches until Pesach and burn them with the chametz. But that’s kind of a huge fire hazard in our tiny backyard. I guess we can bring them to the neighborhood fire. Are we going to have to get the whole tree into the back of our van, using our feet? Can we rent a garbage truck?

I don’t think any are available that morning. v

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of five books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to

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