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Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History

Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History

by Helene Stapinski

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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.


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.

Editorial Reviews

Growing up above a tavern in Jersey City, New Jersey, surrounded by unruly, insane, and even criminal family members, Helene Stapinski quickly learned how to avert trouble and look the other way. Eventually escaping across the Hudson River to New York University, Stapinski went on to become a writer for The New York Times and New York magazine, and she now shares her remarkable family history in this brutally honest memoir. Alternately humorous and heartbreaking, Five-Finger Discount is both an emotional family portrait and a scathing look at the oft-forgotten culture of the urban working class.
John Farmer
What [Betty] Smith did for Brooklyn and [Frank] McCourt for Limerick, Ireland, Helene Stapinski does for Jersey City in Five Finger Discount.... Anyone seeking a succinct history of Jersey City's polluted politics will find it's all there in Five Finger Discount.... She tells a good story, like so many in Jersey City.
Newark Star-Ledger
In her touching memoir, Stapinski chronicles her Polish family history and provides, by extension, an insider's guide to her version of Jersey City's past. Stapinski claims that growing up on "swag," (a little theft here and there) was the norm in Jersey City; that the typical resident was either a "quick-witted crook" or someone who "sat back and blended into the ugly scenery." The book is structured around the author's colorful stories: most notably, the time her grandfather, Beansie, tried to kill the family. Beansie was eventually locked up, but his image repeatedly haunts the author's story. Stapinski oscillates between disdain for Jersey City, with its tough and crooked ways, and her passion for her family heritage. In spite of her riveting stories of crime and scandal, the book's most tender moments unfold when Stapinski explores the naive perceptions of youth, including the charming observation that the Statue of Liberty was mad at her because she had her back to the entire state of New Jersey.
—Ann B. Stephenson

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"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." This chatty and often engaging memoir of growing up among a rogue's gallery of tough characters may leave readers thinking Stapinski might have been better off with an imaginary family. Reminiscent of Michael Patrick McDonald's highly praised All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, but without that book's overwhelming moral force, this is the sad, often funny story of Stapinski's extended family of grifters, con men and women and petty crooks. At its best, it's a vivid portrait of working-class life in Jersey City, N.J. But too often it veers uneasily between disarming anecdotes (Stapinski's grandfather steals books from the public library where he works as a security guard) and terrifying details of lives out of control (her father almost loses his legs because of untreated but obvious diabetes), and doesn't sustain dramatic intensity. Stapinski, who has written for the New York Times and New York magazine, can be funny--as in her descriptions of attending New York University, where she meets Jews, punks and lesbians, and reads the Village Voice--and even illuminating, as when she describes the Machiavellian, if mundane, workings of the multitude of patronage systems that have corrupted Jersey City politics. Though she has a good eye for the details of family and community life, too often the emotions in this memoir feel imagined, not real. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The author weaves a fascinating tale of growing up amid the decay and corruption of 1970s-80s Jersey City, NJ. Using her family's story as a mirror for the best and the worst the place has to offer, this journalist goes beyond the family to frame a distinct history and sociological description. She begins with the family legend of the night her grandfather threatened to kill her entire family, then goes on to tell stories of corrupt mayors and bookie uncles, embezzling DMV officials and embezzling cousins, sadistic nuns, and "swag" that fell off the truck and found its way home from work each night. Although Stapinski uncovers family skeleton after family skeleton, her writing never turns maudlin. Just as she couldn't reject her family, she is still connected to her hometown. Her imperfect family comes across as a loving, tight-knit clan, and Jersey City, while built on toxic wastes, comes across as a compelling place where marvels hide in decay. Of interest especially to sociology/ urban studies collections, this well-written, heavily researched, thoroughly enjoyable read is highly recommended. --Karen Sandlin Silverman, Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A humorous yet unsettling look back at a minor-league grifter family in a major-league crooked town—pre-reform Jersey City. Stapinski's debut invokes sensitive questions about class, domesticity, and the tolerance of corruption essential to machine politics. She artfully reconstructs her hardscrabble 1970s childhood above a tavern, and her close-knit, rambunctious family, entangled by the graft-ridden Hudson County government (her mother worked for the DMV, and an aunt was a longtime "fixer"). But to a large degree she portrays her family, like her native city, as cursed—and she explores veins of darkness behind the hearty façade: the community's reliance on stolen goods (and the endorsement of criminality that implied), her taciturn father's dependence on alcohol, and the violence embodied by a hate-filled grandfather (whose madness was tolerated in the community until he tried to murder members of his own family). Throughout, Stapinski uses her family-based narrative to portray an urban political culture that encouraged theft, election fraud, industrial pollution, and a looting of the tax base, while pacifying underclass residents with city-payroll jobs and mob-mentality hedonism. Along the way, she constructs a vivid picture of pre-gentrification Jersey City: a "scary" place where teenagers attended decaying movie palaces, the streets were full of deformed pencil-sellers and midget news-dealers, stolen goods were sold in the municipal buildings, and loose joints and "the numbers" were available on any street corner. Although evoking the crowded, colloquial feel of "outsider" writing, the author has a fine sense of narrative line and of relevant observation; as a result, her work simultaneously captures the street-level conviviality of the urban working class, and the desperation and violence lurking beneath. Equally reminiscent of Samuel Fuller's filmed melodramas, Springsteen's My Hometown, and Patrick MacDonald's All Souls (1999), this is an unusual and relevant urban family history.
From the Publisher
“By turns hilarious and alarming, [Helene Stapinski’s] book reads on the surface like something by Damon Runyon and Elmore Leonard, with a dark undertow of real-life pain and disillusion.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“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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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Majestic Memory

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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