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Book Review

A Look Back at the Days When a City's Crime Was a Family Affair

March 29, 2001|PAULA FRIEDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FIVE-FINGER DISCOUNT

A Crooked Family History

by Helene Stapinski

Random House

$23.95, 239 pages

*

"The night my grandfather tried to kill us, I was 5 years old, the age I stopped believing in Santa Claus, started kindergarten and made real rather than imaginary friends."

This powerful sentence opens "Five Finger Discount," journalist Helene Stapinski's unflinching look at life in the gritty and corrupt town of Jersey City with her ethnically mixed family--Italian on her mother's side and Polish on her father's side. Arrested on an August evening in 1970 for waving his gun around in the Majestic Tavern, a bar directly below the family apartment, Stapinski's Italian grandfather said he planned to kill the whole family. In Jersey City, where small- and big-time crookery commingled, these sorts of crimes were, in fact, a deeply ingrained way of life.

Stapinski's descriptions of Jersey City capture all the teeming grime and plain old, ugly architecture that characterize the town for her. Comparing the city to a modern-day Mesopotamia, Stapinski says that it's not uncommon, especially for East Coast folks, to have a relative who once lived in Jersey City. She ponders the topic with good comic bite:

"Coming to America through downtown Jersey City was like entering a big, beautiful restaurant through the service entrance. You passed the garbage and the stockroom along the way. You were ignored, and if you were lucky you got to sneak a few scraps from the kitchen before your shift was through."

Stapinski's first introduction to Jersey City's seamy side came from her grandfather, called "Beansie" for the crate of beans he stole from a truck when he was a kid. Frequently arrested, Beansie was a neighborhood bully and crook, who also served jail time for theft and murder and threatened to kill his family members if they ever left him. Stapinski's grandmother unhappily suffered the marriage until her death at age 60.

Stapinski's father, something of an underachiever, was a far milder guy than her grandfather. A Teamster who worked at the Union Terminal Cold Storage, he routinely brought "swag" home to his wife and three children. Family dinners usually featured some form of frozen meat, "Steak-ums or prepackaged chicken cordon bleu . . . that fell off the truck." But food, clothing and other household items were small-time game in Jersey City, where the "dirt ran deep." Corruption so permeated city politics that it was generally accepted that "you might as well vote for the person who could help you or your relatives get a job on the city payroll."

Stapinski devotes a good deal of attention to large-scale city corruption, focusing primarily on Frank Hague, a man the age of Stapinski's grandfather, who figured big in city politics. Stapinski seems intrigued by the similarities--especially the impulse toward crookery--between Hague and members of her family, particularly Beansie.

Hague shared Beansie's aversion to physical labor, but while Beansie spent most of his life stealing and working at menial jobs, including that of janitor, Hague managed to rise from boiler maker on the Erie Railroad to city constable, then deputy sheriff, eventually becoming mayor of Jersey City.

But while Beansie and Hague had much in common, Beansie suffered under Hague's rule, unable to get a break. Stapinski attributes this in part to the fact that her grandfather was Italian, and Hague was Irish; hostilities between the two groups ran high.

She details the often-violent corruption of the Hague "machine" (with rubber-hose beatings by Hague or his henchmen being all too common) and disdainfully tells us that "more than 50 priests, rabbis and ministers were in on the city payroll."

Stapinski's family members were never among those Hague-assisted residents of Jersey City. Though her cousin Mike eventually (and unsuccessfully) tried to enter city politics, most of Stapinski's relations remained small-time crooks, frustrated by their inability to gain the slick status of real mobsters.

Eventually, when Stapinski became a reporter and then a columnist for the Jersey Journal--writing on town corruption--the family's crimes would place her credibility in question, contributing to her decision to leave home.

She left Jersey City in 1992, heading for Nome, Alaska, where she had accepted a job as a radio station news director for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Ironically, Stapinski came to view Nome as "the only place in Alaska that was as ugly as Jersey City."

Still, she used her free time to explore surrounding wilderness, trying to puzzle out what to do with her future. The last chapters of this lively memoir bring welcome relief, as Stapinski comes to terms with Jersey City.

In the end, she realizes that she genuinely misses certain sights, smells and tastes of home, and eventually settles in Brooklyn, which was "closest to home"--or at least, she carefully qualifies, closest to its "good parts." After reading such a relentlessly thorough indictment of Jersey City, readers may find Stapinski's newfound sentimentality about the town just a wee bit unsupported.

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