Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History By Helene Stapinksi

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Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History by Helene Stapinski is a sad at the same time funny true-to-life tale based on the author’s life.

At the start of the story, Helen Stapinski watched as her Grandpa Beansie was being brought to jail for the last time.  Her grandpa was called Beansie for a reason and it’s because he stole crate of beans when he was a child.  Beansie was in the Majestic Tavern which was below the Stapinski’s apartment building.  He had a loaded gun and bragged that he had a bullet for all of his relatives living above Majestic.  After his bragging, when Beansie tried to climb the stairs, he was caught by police. Next day, the local paper wrote down “Man seized On Way To Kill 5 Children”.  This is Helen Stapinksi life – full of scary moments but she was fond of her family just the same.  

Helen Stapinski gives a clear story on her life as she grows up among swindlers, bookies and crooks.  Even though she tells her story as she sees it, it is easy to tell that she loves her family despite their kind of job.

The memoir tells life as she sees it.  Obviously, tales about her family have been spread around the neighborhood because they seem strange. Her relatives have been the object of rumors.  In this story, Stapinski set the record straight and recall her life the way she sees it. She also recalls how she managed to live in a place in which crime was a usual thing.  To begin with, the dinner that Helene usually ate actually came from the cold-storage company where her father worked.  Often, her mother would serve them prime rib, lobster tail and fancy cakes during dinner.

The soap and toothpaste they used were also stolen. They got it from the Colgate factory. The books they had were taken by Aunt Mary Ann from the book-binding company where she worked. She puts them on her girdle so she won’t be caught. Sometimes her grandpa Beansie would take books from the public library.  

Her relatives had other interesting jobs. Her Uncle Henry was doing well as the  neighborhood bookie, her cousins often go to jail, and Great-Aunt Katie — who liked to take a shot of whiskey each morning to “clear her lungs” – worked as an area leader for a Jersey City political machine which has bad reputation.

Growing up in this environment it is not hard to imagine that Helen Stapinski would grow up like the rest of her family. But somehow Helen Stapinski was able to stay away from crime. Although she did steal gallons of ice cream on the night of her first job. Compared to what her relatives had committed though, that was a very minor thing.  

Stapinski spent most of her childhood in the apartment above the Majestic Bar in downtown Jersey City, N.J. This is the story’s setting for most part.  In the story, Stapinski tells us a sad tale of stealing, abuse, scandals in politics and even suicide. Her only cousin who was able to escape the life of crime in Jersey City by attending Harvard Law School came back and became a part of the corruption in their area.

Helen Stapinski seemed to be doomed if you read her story.  But you know that even though her family committed a lot of misdeeds, Helen Stapinski loved them all and still looked back on her childhood with fond memories.  She did not really know how corrupt her hometown became until she went to college. As Stapinski said in her story, “Jersey City was a tough place to grow up, except I didn’t know any better.”

It was during this time that she realized how the world looked at her Jersey City. And what kind of life she really led.  She began to feel ashamed for her family and for her place.  When she graduated, she went back to Jersey City and became a reporter for a local paper.

It became a constant conflict for Helen Stapinski to write about her family.  Sometimes conflicts arise between her ethics as a journalist and her loyalty to her family.  She had to face difficult choices such as writing about the latest scandal that involves her cousin.  Or, reporting the information she received from her mother who worked at the courthouse and didn’t want to lose her job. Helen Stapinski’s inner conflicts between job and family  made her give up her job.

Stapinski gives readers a true account of her hometown and how they lived. Even though she had reasons to become harsh about her relatives, Helen Stapinski was able to tell the story without any sign of bitterness or being too emotional about it.  She tried to separate from her relatives because of the shame she felt. But she found out later that even though she started a new life away from home in Nome, Alaska still she is related to them by blood. Even though there was distance between them. She went home. And despite what happened, she was still grateful for her family because they taught her how to survive and most of all gave her love.

Five Finger Discount by Helen Stapinski is not an ordinary story.  She tells some extraordinary stories which we sometimes found amusing. The corruption of local politicians in Jersey City was famous then. During the 1980s, mayoral candidates used off-duty cops to stop the blacks and Latinos from entering polling booths. During these days , “Justice at the end of a nightstick” was the campaign slogan.

Stapinski did not like almost everything about Jersey City, even some of her relatives who lived a life of crime. She is half-italian, half-Irish.  Stapinski learned about life from her actual experience instead of in school. She said in her book that  “By first grade” – at about six years old – “I knew how to spell indictment and subpoena.”

She tells her story with directness and humor.  And she said that good thing that she has both comedy genes as well as street-fighting genes. But given the kind of life she led, it was easy to imagine why she appeared to be unconcerned about it. One needed to be in order to survive in such a stressful situation. There was a part of the story where a murder suspect’s description was circulated. Helen Stapinski said about it : “5ft 6in, 130 pounds, with a stubby black moustache and a big diamond ring on the second finger of his left hand. Every Italian in Jersey City fits that description, even some of the women.”

In the book, Helen Stapinski was able to talk almost about everything – family history, local history and personal history.  It would be hard to overlook that part of her life knowing that her family tree has several prison sentences or been the object of thrashings from the Democrats’ hired thugs.

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