Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History

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9780679463061: Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History
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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. 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.

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Review:

Fans of Mary Karr's groundbreaking memoir The Liars' Club will relish the similarly funny, tough-minded tone of Helene Stapinski's recollections centering on her family's petty criminal history in the sordid precincts of Jersey City. But Stapinski is nobody's clone; her autobiography has a tart, distinctively urban Northeast flavor that will ring a bell with anyone familiar with America's aging, deteriorating cities. You can practically smell the soap suds from the local Colgate factory and the stink of the bone-rendering plant in nearby Newark; people didn't settle in Jersey City, writes Stapinski, "they settled for Jersey City ... they settled for less." She was 5 years old in 1970 when her Italian American grandfather was arrested for threatening to shoot her whole family, capping a long career that included armed robbery and beating his children. The Polish American relatives on her father's side included a bookie and an epileptic prone to fits of rage who nearly killed a sibling by breaking his back. None of this was a big deal in Jersey City, notes Stapinski, who deftly interweaves her family's story with the rancid saga of Hudson County's corrupt political machine. She fled to college in Manhattan and a career in journalism without ever really escaping the ties of blood and loyalty; her frank rendering of her mixed feelings as Jersey City was slowly upscaled reminds us what is gained and lost through gentrification. Stapinski's salty, savory account conveys the gritty, enduring legacy of Jersey City: "so tough, I was always prepared for what might come my way." --Wendy Smith

From the Back Cover:

"A book teeming with unruly life. That is, with laughter, violence, early death, buried histories, and much larceny. The reader will never look at New Jersey again in the same way."

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9780375758706: Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History

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ISBN 10:  0375758704 ISBN 13:  9780375758706
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002
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