Ephi Zlotnitsky landed in Washington as a 22-year-old immigrant from Israel on a July Saturday in 1989.
The next day, the former Israel paratrooper, who barely spoke English, walked into a local kosher deli and got a job. As he recalls it: "The owner said, 'I don't have a job for you.' I said, 'I'm not leaving.' He asked me, what can I do?"
"Whatever you want," Zlotnitsky replied. "Wash dishes. Clean floors."
He did all that - and also made a mean Israeli salad.
Fast forward 28 years. The peripatetic Zlotnitsky, now 50, has started several companies, including a real estate company and a Maryland-based software firm.
But it's his foray into airline travel that got my attention. His latest mission is fixing sleep problems for travelers. I thought Zlotnitsky's little project to bring peaceful sleep to airline travelers was timely. The entrepreneur has helped invent an airplane pillow with the kitschy name of JetComfy.
JetComfy reminds me of those wacky late-night ads hawking offbeat contraptions like the Veg-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman and Inside the Shell Egg Scrambler.
The airspace for plane pillows is as crowded as the skies. The horseshoe pillow has been around for decades. A former Virgin Atlantic flight attendant, a few years back, invented a J-shaped pillow.
Zlotnitsky and a business partner have invested three years and $350,000 to create the JetComfy. The pillow is the size of a purse and sells for $39.99.
About 10,000 units have been sold since it went on sale in January. Zlotnitsky said he has plans to open the first JetComfy comfort sales center in Dulles International Airport in August and hopes to expand to 25 locations at larger airports in a year.
The pillow is available now on Amazon Prime and at Luggage Plus stores and will be offered online by Walmart later this month.
It weighs less than a pound and measures 9.5-by-5.5 inches. It looks nothing like a pillow - more like a foam headrest attached to a foot-long pole supported by the arm of your seat.
Zlotnitsky is betting that, among the more than 3 billion people who fly every year, there is enough of a market for him to sell millions of JetComfys. "We plan to sell over 350,000 units by mid-2018 in the U.S. alone," he said. "We are working to start distribution is Europe, China, Australia and the Middle East."
JetComfy all started on a diving trip with his wife to Bora Bora in 2014. As they were exiting the Air Tahiti jet, he heard a passenger named David Brecht, a battery engineer from San Diego, call it the "worst flight ever."
At the hotel bar later, the two decided to team up to bring restful sleep to those who can't afford to buy spacious first-class seats. Zlotnitsky's idea was to re-create the comfort of your chin resting in the cup of your hand with your elbow resting on the desk or table.
"That's the natural position," he said. "You tell somebody to rest their head, and that's what they are going to do."
They created mock-ups out of cardboard. They drew designs on toilet paper. They bought "selfie sticks" for the pillow stand. They Skyped between Maryland and San Diego. They bought a used 3-D printer for $2,300. They bought used airline seats on eBay to test their designs. They bought foam, aluminum, plastic. They pulled all-nighters.
They tried out several names: EZ Rest (using Zlotnitsky's initials); EasyComfy. Their wives came up with JetComfy.
The low point came on a factory-hunting trip to China in March 2016. Zlotnitsky arrived in Shenzhen, an industrial city of 12 million, in the middle of the night, meandering for three hours in a cab with a driver who did not understand English.
" 'That's it,' I thought," Zlotnitsky said. "I'm not coming back from this one. It was like a movie."
But he did come back after finding a small factory that could build most of the parts for his pillow. By last summer, they had nine test pillows that they asked friends and family to try. They sent samples to the Hallmark Channel and media outlets. They got a write-up on the HuffPost's website and a profile by a San Diego television station.
Zlotnitsky sent me a free sample. My wife, Polly, took it with her on a trip overseas last week to serve as my guinea pig.
"JetComfy is a plus," she reported back from Europe. "Not nirvana, but a definite improvement. It has earned a return ticket."