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Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History

Helene Stapinski

Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History

Author:Helene Stapinski
Publisher:Random House

By Jill Sebra | Posted 3/21/2001

Helene Stapinski managed to escape a life of crime. Well, there were the gallons of ice cream she stole every night from her first job, but that little indiscretion pales in comparison to the exploits of the rest of her family. Grandpa Beansie was arrested while on his way to shoot everyone in Stapinski's immediate family. Young Helene's father supplied the lobster tails and prime rib of her childhood dinners by pilfering from the cold-storage warehouse where he worked. Her uncle was the neighborhood numbers runner. Given the possibilities, it seems Carvel got off easy by losing just a few pounds of frozen treats.

Stapinski lived most of her childhood in an apartment above the Majestic Bar in downtown Jersey City, N.J., a town well known for its mob activity and widespread political corruption. Throughout Five-Finger Discount she shares stories about her extended family, including tales of thievery, spousal abuse, embezzlement, political scandal, and even suicide. Apparently, every relative committed some sort of crime on a regular basis. They ate stolen food every night of the week, and the bathrooms were filled with soap and toothpaste lifted from the nearby Colgate factory. The one cousin who escaped the hard Jersey City life by attending Harvard Law School eventually came back, entered politics, and got mixed up with the local corruption.

On the surface, hers would seem to be a miserable family. Desoute all the seediness, Stapinski loved her family and remembers most of her childhood fondly. She didn't realize how thoroughly corrupt her hometown was until she went away to college. When she understood what the rest of the world really thought of Jersey City, Stapinski soon became ashamed of where she came from.

After school, she went home to work as a reporter for the local paper and found herself constantly testing her journalistic ethics against her family loyalty. Should she be the one to write about the latest scandal when her cousin is a major player? Can she use information she obtained from her mother, who worked at the courthouse and feared losing her job? Needless to say, the job didn't last long.

Stapinski gives readers the true history of her hometown, showing how deeply embedded in that history she and her family are. She does it without judging her relatives too harshly and without overblown sentimentality--a rarity in the modern memoir.

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