In early springtime 2001, while living in Missouri, I received one of my mother’s stuffed-to-bursting packages laden with clippings from the New York Times and the Newark Star-Ledger; every word of both she read avidly each day. The top NYT story in that mailing–its headline emphatically encircled in swirling blue ink—reported that families with autistic children were moving to New Jersey from places as far away as Greece, Turkey, and China in quest of the highly-touted educational services found in the Garden State.
I immediately called my mom to inform her: if they can do it, this fourth-generation New Jerseyan can do it too; we’re moving back. Charlie had been diagnosed two years earlier; prospects for appropriate educational services remained bleak.
I am not certain if it was in that package or a subsequent mailing I found another clipping: this one on a book that my mom knew I’d love. I found a copy and spent a day and night reading in the glow of a basement space heater. Five Finger Discount was a Jersey miracle: not only did Helene Stapinski’s family/historical narrative help inspire On the Irish Waterfront—then mired in a swamp of confusion—the book also convinced me we could always make it, somehow, in New Jersey; as we always had before across eight counties and equally numerous personal dispensations. Or so I assured Dr. Chew at the time.
By July of that year we’d found a rental condo in a once-remote corner of Somerset County, in a school district reputed to provide what Charlie so greatly needed: a highly structured, self-contained classroom led by a profoundly skilled teacher. Thank you always, Miss Kathy!
I met Helene Stapinski that same month at a reading in Jersey City. As I held open my copy of Five Finger Discount, Helene asked if we had met before, did I know her from someplace; a query to that effect, and one that nobody had asked me through seven years in the heartland of America. It was good to be home. The reading was memorable, the crowd energized to the edge of raucousness.
Wednesday evening on the West Side, I told that story to my Religion and the American Self class for the fourth consecutive year. The students change each year, of course, but there was Helene in front of the class again, for the fourth annual go-round treating Five Finger Discount, her Jersey City stories richer, warmer and funnier than ever: students afterwards ecstatic as always. It was a very good night, a good decade later.