Given back
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Given back

First Person

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A 1986 Buick like the author’s which a homeless woman used for shelter.

What would you do if you found $98,000?

No, it wasn’t a miscalculation in a stock portfolio. It wasn’t left to you by some distant relative.

No, the money was in your house, in your hands, and for that matter on your dining room table.

Rabbi Noah Muroff, a teacher at a New Haven, Conn., yeshivah, needed a desk, so he did what many of us do. He searched for a gently used item on Craig’s List.

He found one, for $150.

He bought it

The desk’s top was too wide to fit through the door, so Rabbi Muroff and a friend, Yehudah Estes, took it off and then wrestled the heavy piece of furniture into his study. When Rabbi Muroff and his wife, Esther, looked behind one of the drawers, they spotted a plastic bag filled with cash. The bag had been hidden behind it.

When he took the bag to his dining room table he poured out the stacks of money.

His wife and their friend stood there and stared.

So here’s the juncture that many of us might have faced if we have found something of value.

For me, it was a $50 bill I saw on the floor at the base of a hotel check-in counter. I picked up the cash and gave it to the cashier. He took my name and room number and said if nobody were to claim it, it would be mine.

Of course, no one at the front desk ever contacted me, and I didn’t even bother to ask the young man about it before we left. I hope the right person connected with his money.

The only other time something like this happened to me was when, as an 11-year-old, I walked home from school to find our semi-detached home’s front porch cluttered with shipping boxes. In one brown cardboard box was a bicycle, the kind we called an English racer. God, I wanted that bike. There was a TV in another box. Yet another held a product called a “Hot Dogger,” some sort of frankfurter oven. There was no return address on any of the boxes.

Sometimes my late father, a furniture salesman, would win prizes for having sold the most mattresses or televisions, so I hoped that these boxes would prove to be prizes for him. When he came home, though, he had no clue about what all of this was. All that he kept hearing was, “Can I keep the bike?” “Pleeeze, can I keep the bike?”

My father called the post office, and the next day he brought everything back there.

He explained that the stuff wasn’t ours to keep, that someone had made a mistake.

Back to the desk.

Rabbi Muroff called the woman who sold him the desk and told her what he had found in it. According to articles online, she gasped and told him that the money was an inheritance that she had hidden – and then she had forgotten the hiding place.

He returned every penny of the $98,000. She gave him a $3,500 reward, and she refunded the $150 he had paid for the desk.

He didn’t want either the money or attention from the media. (The story was made public by an unnamed someone who had become familiar with the story.) So this is a stretch, but bear with me on it.

One hot August day, when I could see the heat coming off the blacktop parking lot in waves, I came out of my office to keep an appointment.

Then I stopped in my tracks.

I saw a woman’s head draped over the plastic gray steering wheel of my 1986 Buick. (My car was so new then that it still had the new-car smell.) I approached the car slowly; I saw that she had shocking red hair, that part of her head had been shaved, and that she had stitches.

I thought she was dead. I really did.

I went back into my office, and reported, “I think there’s a dead lady in my car.”

A colleague called 911, and two emergency medical technicians came to my car in an ambulance. One of them opened my car door, and we all were nearly floored by the alcohol smell that hit us.

The EMT said to me, “Mister, I want you to meet Geraldine. She’s not dead – she just needed a safe place to sleep off her alcoholic binge.”

Geraldine was wearing pale green hospital scrubs. Her stitches obviously were new. An EMT told me she was homeless. When they awakened her, she could barely stand up. But she still managed to give me a hug because, she said, “You let me sleep in your car. It was like a present.”

The EMTs told her to apologize to me for “breaking into” my car, even though I had left the doors unlocked, so it wasn’t really a break-in. Then they put her in the ambulance and took her away.

After Geraldine left my car, I went on a homeless binge of my own, finding out everything I could about the city’s homeless people, and even getting a formerly homeless woman to act as sort of a tour guide for me.

I asked this woman, whose name was Deborah, if there were any homeless Jewish people in the area.

“At least five,” she told me.

I paid her $100 to take me to each one of them.

One of them, Philip, lived outside, behind a train station that had been turned into an art school. Philip and I recognized each other immediately. His mother and my mother had been co-Cub Scout den leaders when we were children. The reunion was shocking, but rewarding. For me it was like finding $98,000 in the back of my desk. I had lost this friend, and I was looking for homeless Jews I found him tucked away behind a seedy-looking building.

The difference, though, was that I did take ownership of my find. I made some phone calls, and while my social worker friends couldn’t discuss any of his history, I learned from Philip that he “probably had a file with the then Jewish Family and Children Service an inch or two thick.”

My wife and I began contributing to organizations that help the homeless and the mentally ill. Philip’s reward to us was that he was able to find an apartment and worked at finding a job.

The value my wife and I put on helping Philip: priceless.

But again, getting back to Rabbi Muroff. My daughter DeDe had a completely different take on all of this.

For her, this was more about ridding Jews of the stereotype of money-grubbing. Students in my religious school class have told me in past years that they often are taunted by classmates who will throw pennies on the floor in front of them. Yes, this still happens. This incident, my daughter felt, showed us Jews in a better light.

Bottom line, be it $98,000, an English racer bike, or a stranger finding comfort in our car, our answer has to be to give back what we can, sometimes all that we can.

Rabbi Muroff gave back to this woman who had misplaced her inheritance. My father wanted to show me that every effort had to be taken to find the owners of the bike and the “Hot Dogger.”

A month or so after I met Geraldine, I was sitting in my storefront street-level office, looking out onto the street. I saw a nicely dressed woman walking along by herself.

She was talking to herself – or to no one in particular.

Her hair was bright red.

It was Geraldine.

She knocked on my glass door, waved, and said “Thanks again.”

I waved back sheepishly in return.

Geraldine was given back.

She reminded me of the stashed-away money. Only I found her in the front seat of a Buick. The EMTs took her back. And with the help of city social service agencies, she was back in circulation. At least that’s what I hoped.

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