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Helene Stapinski: Keeping it in the family

What should you do when you discover that your cousin works for the Mafia? Helene Stapinski, who had been fighting corruption in New York's crime central, decided to write a book about it. By Clare Longrigg

Thursday 30 May 2002 00:00 BST

Most families contain a bad apple somewhere along the line: the distant cousin sent down for fraud, perhaps, or the addict who steals to fund his habit. Helene Stapinski's family tree bears remarkably rotten fruit: there's George the violent burglar, Henry the family bookie, Mike the mafia lawyer, Gerri the fraudster, great-grandfather Peter who beat his wife to death, great-great-grandmother Vita who killed a man in a card-game brawl back in the old country. And there's Grandpa Beansie.

Stapinski begins her story on the night her grandfather got a gun, intending to kill her whole family. Beansie was a man so bad, his wife of 40 years begged on her deathbed not to have him buried in the same grave: "She couldn't bear to think of her remains mingling with his."

Beansie was mean, drunk and violent. He spent five years in prison for clubbing a man to death in a brawl. He beat his children and threatened to kill them if his wife ever left him. He smashed the furniture and the children's toys. The only food he ever put on the table was a crate of rotting oranges stolen from a fruit vendor. When he worked as a security guard at the museum, he stole encyclopedias, arrow heads and coins. He stole milk from the neighbours' doorsteps.

Grandpa was a product of his birthplace, the miserable streets of Jersey City. The many beatings Beansie, a "dirty guinea", received from the racist Irish police brutalised him. But he was also the product of a crooked family. "Crime floats from one generation to another like a defective gene in a dirty pool," Stapinski reflects in her gritty, thoughtful and often funny memoir. In this account of her family's struggle for survival in America's least promising city, she wrestles with the question of whether her bloodlines are tainted or whether badness seeps in from the stinking landfill, pollution and filth all around them.

The often witty narrative is underscored with regret for the cursed bad luck that brought her antecedents here in the first place. Jersey City was the first stop for immigrants, a sort of "waiting room, where people stopped before catching a train to a better life". Those who hadn't the money for a train fare, stayed. These included Irene, a 15-year-old mail-order bride from Hungary, engaged to a man she didn't know. He was 10 years older than she, ugly, mean and nasty, but she stayed and raised a family with him, and he beat her to death when she was only 44. Their daughter, in turn, fell for the mean and nasty Beansie.

Growing up in Jersey City was tough. The doorway of the Stapinski family home was used by drug dealers. The nuns at the Catholic school were as corrupt and violent as the police. Crime festered not just among the poor at ground level, but also at the top. Mayor Frank Hague ran Jersey City for three decades, part of an Irish mafia that ruthlessly suppressed opposition. Corruption was in the fabric of City Hall: even the voters sanctioned it. Given a choice, they backed a politician on the take. And why not? Everyone else was at it: "It didn't feel like home without a criminal in office."

In such a place, you learn to survive. Helene's life lessons from her favourite aunt included how to fend off a rabid dog (wrap your coat around your arm and when it lunges, kick it in the balls) or a drunken, violent husband (something similar). Helene's father worked in a cold-storage plant, so his family feasted on stolen frozen steak, lobster tails and fancy cakes. But that wasn't stealing, that was swag. Swag was a way of life in Jersey City.

But survival is one thing, and escape quite another. "In Jersey City, when someone mentions that a relative has 'gone away', it means they've gone to jail or to the crazy house." There are the cautionary tales of those who tried to leave. There was Aunt Julie, who made it as far as Arizona but was forced to come back after her husband was shot dead. And the lollipop lady who won the lottery and moved to a smarter suburb, where nobody spoke to her and she died of a heart attack.

And then there's Helene Stapinski. We meet in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, where she has settled with her husband and baby son. She hasn't gone far, it's true, but as she explains, Brooklyn may have many of the same problems as Jersey City, but at least she's not related to them. As a crime reporter on the Jersey Journal, she came across members of her family in many of the stories she covered. It was while working there that she discovered that her cousin Mike, a clever, educated man with great ideas about tax reform, was working for the Mafia. "He was going to change things. And he couldn't. Jersey City was just unchangeable. If you're living in Jersey City and you are a lawyer, who are you going to work for? Are you going to work for small-time people or the Mob?"

As a columnist, Stapinski tackled corruption in politics and the police, schools and hospitals – and pollution. The gentrification of Jersey City exposed mounds of toxic waste on which the town was built. In return, the citizens of Jersey wrote her hate mail saying, "Why aren't you a nurse? Why aren't you a teacher? How dare you?" It was the hate mail that finally sprung Stapinski from Jersey City. She went as far as she could, to a place she thought would be different, alien and pure. Alaska.

Suffice to say, Alaska had its own share of ugliness and corruption, and after a year she was back, writing about Jersey City. Researching the book brought home why she had left: "One day I was with my mother, and I wanted to take a look inside Murdoch Hall, this great building in the heart of town. I parked the car right outside the building and left the keys in the ignition. I run into the building to take a look and come right back out. And there's this guy with his head inside the window, ready to steal my car. With my mother and my baby. Of course my mother was hitting him over the head with the wheel lock..."

Helene Stapinski laughs a lot. One gets the sense that laughter has jolted her out of the dark places in her past. She has given up journalism for the time being, but one gets the feeling that her raging sense of injustice will drive her back. The pages of the Jersey Journal carried letter campaigns about her book, for and against. It reminded her of the days when she had her weekly column. "People were horrified. People went crazy. It was great. I actually miss it. I miss that whole scene. Good old Jersey City." She laughs. "I miss it."

'Five Finger Discount' (Bloomsbury, £11.99) is out now in paperback

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