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Bubbe and the pimp who lived upstairs 

My grandmother’s neighbor was a skinny, quiet, nebbishy man. But he had a heck of a secret 

When my grandfather died, my Aunt Jenny bought my widowed grandmother a house a few blocks from ours in Queens. It was a two-family: Bubbe lived downstairs, and Mr. Haskel, a single man in his 40s — skinny, nebbishy, quiet — was upstairs.

Coincidentally, Bubbe’s favorite expression had the Hebrew word haskel in it, though it had nothing to do with her neighbor’s name: “V’haskel lev,” which means one should have an understanding heart. Mostly she used the saying to guilt-trip us, suggesting that we should understand how lonely she is, we should visit her more often and we should include her whenever we went to Shimon’s Pizza Platz. But we got to see just how understanding Bubbe’s heart was when we learned what Mr. Haskel was really doing up there on the second floor.

Dangerous neighborhood? Bubbe thought so

I was in charge of schlepping her back to our house for Shabbos lunch after services. Even though we lived in a nice neighborhood, Bubbe also kvetched about her safety. “Too dangerous to valk by mineself,” she would say. But that wasn’t true. She did not “valk” all by herself.

Besides, Bubbe, though a mere 4-foot-10, was built like a battering ram. As women jostled to leave the overcrowded ladies’ section of the Young Israel of Hillcrest through its single exit, she’d use her thick gray-brown shoes to shoo away daintier ladies on teetering heels. Then she’d thunk-thunk-thunk her way down the shul’s grand staircase and stand on the outdoor plaza to receive “Good Shabbos” wishes from the “pipple” she had just mowed down.

Unfortunately, one of those well-meaning “pipple” always asked, “How are you?” And her answer always started with the same word. “Oy.” The bursitis, the phlebitis, the arthritis. Oy. The legs, the back, the stomach. Oy. No one understood what she went through. The pain, the suffering!

When we finally got back to our house, my father would make kiddush, Bubbe would plop her sheitl on the table like a tangled gray mass of roadkill, and my mother would serve the Shabbos soup, which had the power to soothe all of Bubbe’s ailments.

Mr. Haskel’s secret

After Shabbos, my father would drive Bubbe back to her house. I sat in the back seat and always noticed that Mr. Haskel’s light was on upstairs.

But one Saturday night, there were lots of lights — flashing lights from cars circling 169th Street. It seemed like every car was going to Bubbe’s house. Trouble was — they were police cars.

My father rolled down the window. “Officer? This is my mother’s house.”

Turns out, Bubbe had the safest hoyz (house) in the neighborhood. Police officers and detectives had been watching that house 24/7 for two years as part of an investigation.

But the authorities didn’t want Bubbe. They wanted Mr. Haskel. He had been running a prostitution ring. The business was so big, taking in $500,000 a year, that it took them two years to figure out that only one man was running it.

‘What a weirdo!’

He had “girls,” the police told Aunt Jenny, from Connecticut to Kansas. Hundreds of girls working for him every night. Clients in 103 cities all over the U.S. and Canada.

He had 30 telephones on his dining room table. No cell phones back then, just regular old-fashioned phones with the earpiece and mouthpiece, plastic dials and curlicue wires.

He was on those phones day and night; didn’t sleep and didn’t eat. Ended up paying thousands of dollars a month in phone bills.

Our whole family was shocked. It was such a big story it made the papers. Aunt Jenny was quoted on the front page of the New York Post: “Landlady: ‘What a Weirdo!’”

Of course, back then, “Woke” was still sleeping. No one thought about those “girls,” who were the victims of what today we’d call human trafficking. That part wasn’t in the papers. No one blamed Mr. Haskel for anything but getting caught. Back then, it was just an illegal but (some winked) successful business.

‘Vat iz PEEMP?’

The news was the talk of the Young Israel of Hillcrest. All the ladies in the women’s section — all the pipple. The only person who didn’t seem shocked or outraged, was Bubbe.

S’iz take tsum lakhn (it’s really ironic),” she said. “All those politsey. I VASN’T alone.”

She pointed to the newspaper. “Vat iz PEEMP?” she asked.

Mr. Haskel paid some sort of fine and went to jail for about a year. When he got out, he came by Aunt Jenny’s house, and we happened to be there. My sister Dina and I were tongue-tied.

Not so Aunt Jenny. “How was jail?” she asked.

“Great,” Mr. Haskel said. “I had three meals a day.”

Dina and I looked at each other. Great?

Bubbe’s understanding heart

Now, many years later, Bubbe is gone and Aunt Jenny is gone, but I think about them a lot.

Underneath all the kvetching, it seems to me that Bubbe was the one who really had the haskel lev. 

She never spoke badly of Mr. Haskel and didn’t call him a weirdo. Who knows? Maybe after all those years as a rabbi’s wife, she admired a successful businessman.

Or maybe, even though there were 30 phones upstairs dispatching hundreds of girls from Connecticut to Kansas, maybe Bubbe knew that, night after night, Mr. Haskel sat alone in hoyz, too.

And loneliness was something her heart understood.

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