Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family Historyby Helene Stapinski
On a summer night when she was five years old, Helene Stapinski watched out her kitchen window as her Grandpa Beansie was carted off to jail for the last time. Beansie (so nicknamed because he had stolen a crate of beans as a child) had spent the better part of that day in the Majestic Tavern, a dive bar on the ground floor of the Stapinskisí apartment building. As the afternoon wore on, Beansie's usual ranting turned mean. He flashed a loaded gun; a silver .22 glowing in the light from the Yankee game on the tavern TV, and bragged to his drinking buddies that he had a bullet for each of his relatives living above the Majestic. But news traveled fast in the neighborhood, and before Beansie, a convicted murderer and armed robber, could stumble upstairs, the cops had him in handcuffs. The headline in the local newspaper the next day read "Man Seized On Way To Kill 5 Children". As Stapinski writes, Jersey City was a tough place to grow up, except I didn't know any better.
In this unforgettable memoir, Stapinski tells the heartbreaking yet often hilarious story of growing up among swindlers, bookies, and crooks. With deadpan humor and obvious affection, she comes clean with the outrageous tales that have swirled around her relatives for decades, and recounts the epic drama and comedy of living in a household in which petty crime was a way of life. The dinner Helene's mother put on the table (often prime rib, lobster tail, and fancy cakes) was usually swiped from the cold-storage company where Helene's father worked. The soap and toothpaste in the bathroom were lifted from the local Colgate factory. The books on the family's shelves were smuggled out of a book-binding company in Aunt Mary Ann's oversize girdle (or taken by Grandpa Beansie from the Free Public Library). Uncle Henry did a booming business as the neighborhood bookie, cousins did jail time, and Great-Aunt Katie, who liked to take a shot of whiskey each morning to clear her lungs, was a ward leader in the notorious Jersey City political machine.
No backdrop could be more appropriate for the Stapinskis than Jersey City; a place known for its ties to the Mafia, industrial blight, and corrupt local officials, and the author ingeniously weaves the checkered history of her hometown throughout the book. Navigating a childhood of toxic waste and tough love, Stapinski tells an extraordinary tale that, unlike the swag of her childhood, is her very own.
Ann B. Stephenson
“It’s a brilliant book, a darling book. It is the blessedly modest chronicle of a magical consciousness that seems to have been born pulling diamonds out of the muck, hearing angels’ voices in the fiercest thunder. . . . I adored every word of this wondrous book. Get it. Read it.”—Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
“In the tradition of . . . Rita Mae Brown and Amy Tan, Ms. Stapinski is an exciting writer, unabashedly candid, and at the same time unashamedly self-contained. Five-Finger Discount is a must-read.”—Victoria Gotti, The New York Observer
“What [Frank] McCourt did for Limerick, Ireland, Helene Stapinski does for Jersey City.”—The Star-Ledger
“Hugely entertaining.”—The Sunday Times (London)
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Read an Excerpt
The night my grandfather tried to kill us, I was five years old, the age I
stopped believing in Santa Claus, started kindergarten, and made real
rather than imaginary friends.
Because Grandpa was one of two grandfathers in their family, my cousins
called him Grandpa Jerry. For me, he was simply Grandpa. I had only one.
The other--my father's father, the Polish grandpa we called Dziadzia
(pronounced Jaja)--was hit over the head during a burglary in his front
hallway seven years before I was born and died after slipping into a coma.
Everyone in Jersey City knew Grandpa "Italian Grandpa" as Beansie, because
when he was young, he stole a crate of beans from the back of a truck.
Details about his life started to bubble into my consciousness during the
summer of 1970, the year my memory kicked in full force. There were stories
about Grandpa "going away" to Trenton for murder. Being arrested for armed
robbery. Beating my mother, her sister, and her three brothers.
Grandpa was a well-known neighborhood bully and crook, though the only
stolen objects I knew of firsthand were the ones he swiped while working as
a security guard at the Jersey City Public Library and Museum in the late
1960s. The fact that Grandpa was able to get a city job as a security
guard (through an uncle, who knew a local judge, who was connected to the
mayor) says a lot about Jersey City's patronage system and general
reputation. Everybody stole. It was no big deal.
My brother inherited most of the objects Grandpa took from the library and
museum--the shiny, shellacked coins with Indian feathered heads; a
photograph of Abraham Lincoln; small, black Indian arrowheads; a set of
encyclopedias. I always wondered if Grandpa stole them book by book or had
one of his friends with a car pull up to the library and help him load them
The only stolen object of Grandpa's that I possess is a dictionary, a
Webster's Seventh New Collegiate edition, which he inscribed to my sister
the year I was born: "From Grandpa. Hi Ya Paula. Year-1965." The call
numbers on the spine and the blue stamp on a back page, which reads free
public library jersey city, n.j., have been crossed out in blue indelible
marker, his attempt to legitimize the gift. Grandpa obviously had his own
interpretation of the phrase free public library.
Before I started school, my grandma Pauline baby-sat for me while my mother
worked as a clerk at the Jersey City Division of Motor Vehicles office,
three blocks away. When Grandma died in February of 1970, my mother had no
one to baby-sit, so she quit her job. Though I'm sure I missed my grandma--a
saintly woman with a halo of white hair and small, pretty hands--my world
changed for the better. I was suddenly the center of my mother's attention.
With Grandma gone, Grandpa was at the center of no one's.
Because my grandmother had stayed married to Grandpa for four decades, she
died fairly young. She was only sixty. She died on Ash Wednesday, the first
day of Lent. By then Grandma hated Grandpa so much that on her deathbed,
with the smudge of ashes on her forehead, she made my mother promise that
Grandpa wouldn't be buried on top of her when he died. She couldn't stand
the thought of his remains mingling with hers.
Meet the Author
Helene Stapinski began her career at her hometown newspaper, The Jersey Journal, and since then has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, and People, among other publications. She received her B.A. in journalism from New York University in 1987 and her M.F.A. from Columbia in 1995. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.
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