In the time between The Godfather and the Sopranos the world was in a kind of collective denial about the mafia. We now know there are worse things. The Columbian drug mob. The Nicaraguan rebels. Rudy Giuliani had cleaned house as attorney general. Gotti was behind bars. Vito Genovese. Carlo Bonanno. All the biggies were forced into hiding or legitiimate businesses. For the rest of us there were worse things to worry about, like the Gulf War and the economy.

In 1990 my father co-owned a company called REI distributors. REI expanded New Jersey's first medium-scale recycling service to cover most of the northern and central parts of the state. At this point in history, there was no curbside recycling. People interested in being environmentally conscious would separate their trash and deposit any glass, aluminum, and paper into large bell-shaped containers strategically located in shopping centers. In addition, the state mandated recycling for all containers upon which a deposit had been paid. So REI received its "raw material" also directly from grocery and package goods stores as well as from the voluntary deposit centers.

We always knew the Teamsters were run by the mob. It was an obvious fact of existence, and it went completely unquestioned. The effect of the mafia on trucking was unnoticed by the general public. Things worked how they always worked, which was how we defined "smoothly". Stuff got from point 'A' to point 'B' largely on time. With the exception of an occasional strike, the whole thing was invisible to John Q. Public.

REI, as all New Jersey waste management businesses must, relied exclusively on Teamster-run trucking services for their business cartage. It was another byzantine fact of east coast existence.

I can remember my father saying to me, "I never want you to have deal with the people I deal with every day." He said it when I was young. He said it to me pretty much till the day he sold his interest in the company on the NASDAQ and retired on the proceeds.

See, as it turns out, investment banking isn't all that far from the mafia, either in practice or personnel. But that's a story for another writeup.

The perrier incident was the first time I had any tangible notion my father's business had contact at all with the so-called "cosa nostra" (which means "our thing"--my grandfather called it the more colloquial la mano nera, which means "the black hand").

It started with my father sitting at his desk in his office in Piscataway, doing whatever it was he did when he sat there. The phone rang. It was a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. They wanted a statement from the old man on his impending arrest.

At first he thought it was a practical joke. But the guy managed to convince him that indeed, the gendarmarie was on its way to pick him up to drag him down to the hoosegow.

"On what goddamned charge?" my father wondered.

"Possession of stolen property."

"Stolen? What the fuck? What's stolen?"

"Milk crates."

"What?"

"Milk crates. Land O' Lakes milk crates."

In those days the Wall Street Journal had a running column that appeared in the lower left hand corner of the Marketing section of the newspaper. It was sort of a business version of "the news of the weird". My father had just become weird news.

You see, someone somewhere in America discovered trace amounts of benzine in Perrier's bottled water. When the U.S. Government told the Perrier company they had to pull their product from grocers' shelves for the protection of the populace, grocery stores weren't given much time to comply with the edict. Perrier, after all, had just gone from "designer water" status to "class 'III' hazardous waste". It was illegal to proffer hazardous waste to the public. Every store that stocked Perrier water was now committing a felony and needed to rectify the situation quickly.

The reason this is significant is that hazardous waste cannot be sold--by law, it can only be accepted. The holder of any substance deemed hazardous waste cannot dispense or dispose of it until someone else takes responsibility for it. Usually, nobody is happy to take responsibility for hazardous waste, which is why the hazardous waste disposal business is so lucrative.

The grocery stores were completely freaked. They couldn't just throw away the cases of Perrier they had stocked unless someone agreed to take them, and who was going to do that? Soon the FBI would come in and arrest all store management. Everybody was going to jail as if they were selling drugs to minors.

My Dad and his partner descended upon the situation to save the day. They agreed to take all the Perrier water from all the grocery stores in Northern New Jersey. Nobody was going to jail.

Within hours, trucks loaded with Perrier water were streaming into my Dad's warehouse in Newark, New Jersey. Within a day, all the Perrier water in northern New Jersey had been collected in that warehouse. Everybody would be happy with a couple of minor exceptions.

One exception to global happiness was the Environmental Protection Agency. Dad's company was not a hazardous waste disposal business. They ground up glass and paper and aluminum for sale as raw material to people who made newspapers and coke bottles and polystyrene CD holders. Though a mountain of old beer bottles and coke cans may smell disgusting and attract rats and seagulls, it is a far cry from a couple thousand gallons of benzine-laden fizzy water. Getting rid of hazardous waste was not their business and so the EPA wanted to know what my Dad intended to do with all that terrible, cancer-causing Perrier water.

The other exception to the happiness game was the Land O' Lakes dairy company. Despite appearances, most grocery stores are not awash in intact cardboard boxes. With the volume of products that flow through a modern supermarket, there'd be no room for all the boxes stuff comes in. So typically, they crush, shred, and otherwise destroy any carton they have laying around. So when the word came in they had to ditch their Perrier, and not break a single bottle for fear of huge class action lawsuits (which would inevitably blame them for every birth defect that occurred for the next twenty years), they used whatever was laying around to transport the bottles safely.

What they used were those big heavy milk crates--the same ones that have been pilfered and used by college students as dorm room furniture since the inception of plastic. Because they're relatively expensive, and because of their attractiveness as an item of home decor or home storage, every single milk crate is stamped with a warning threatening legal action against anyone holding the milk crate who is not accepting a milk delivery or a business unit of the dairy itself.

In fact, the expense of losing milk crates was so impactful to its businesses, the New Jersey dairy companies got the state legislature to pass laws to back up the warnings on the crates. The fine for illegally possessing a single milk crate is outrageously high in New Jersey. In fact, criminally speaking, you'd be better off stealing someone's car or their house than taking a milk crate in New Jersey.

Imagine if you suddenly find yourself in possession of a hundred thousand or so.

This is what happened to my Dad, and why the marshalls were speeding toward his office at the moment of the phone call. The Land O' Lakes people found out the grocery stores had dumped all their Perrier water onto my dad's company in their milk crates, and were not only suing my father for the trucking fees necessary to have all those crates sent back to them, but they were also invoking the state laws which required my father's arrest and personal prosecution for possession of their property.

My father was an easily irkable man, and what irked him was a couple of things. First, the milk company was not going after anyone in the grocery stores for misappropriation of their property, even though it was the grocery stores that had shipped the crates to my father's warehouses. Second, the milk company expected my father not only to go to jail for receiving the crates, which incidentally he hadn't asked for, but to pay to have all of them shipped back to the milk company, an expense which would normally be borne by the grocery stores and the milk company itself.

Clearly, the milk company was worried it would tarnish its relationship with its distributors, who now expected the milk company to bear the expense of retrieving its property because the distributors freaked out because the government told them they'd be arrested for selling water from France which was found to contain benzene.

By the way--at that time there was less benzene in a bottle of Perrier water than there was in the Newark city tap water. This was the conclusion of a joint investigation between the city of Newark, the EPA, and the Perrier company. In addition, this information was KNOWN at the time the government of our fair country declared Perrier water a menace to American society.

It was possession of this info that led my father to agree to accept the Perrier in the first place. What he was going to do was to simply take every single bottle of Perrier and put it into his recycling crushing and sorting machines. All the water would sluice out of the machine and go where everything else went--down into the sewers of Newark, which had more benzene in them than the water being dumped, in addition to alligators and countless human bodies, which were not found in Perrier water.

After the call from the Wall Street Journal (to whom my father gave a lengthy statement--he was not a "no comment" sort of guy), my Dad called his lawyer. Apparently Dad's lawyer had connections to the right people in the city, or maybe he was just connected. At any rate, the marshalls turned around and never arrived at my father's office.

Several weeks later my father was due to appear in court to face charges by the Land O' Lakes company that REI had misappropriated their milk crates. And he probably would have had to appear and he probably would have been found guilty, despite the ridiculousness of the situation, because the law was written to favor the dairies. And it all would have gone terribly for my family and my dad's company were it not for the ultimate hubris of the CEO of the milk company who in his unbridled, power blinded zeal, decided it would be a good idea to include the Teamsters in the suit along with my father.

Let's review.

This is New Jersey. Even though nobody (including Rudy Giuliani) says anything, all trucking is run by the mafia. Nobody complains. Everything works. It's the way it is.

And the CEO of Land O' Lakes, one imagines drawn into a sense of power and comfort because bad mafia-related things haven't been in the news for years, decides to sue the Teamsters because they were doing their job.

There are a lot of stupid things one can do in life, and this is indeed, one stupid fucking thing. Because not only is suing the mafia a bad idea when they deserve to be sued, but it's a really bad idea when they didn't do anything a normal person would say was wrong, but rather, violated a law designed to apply excessive force to keep a dairy's product out of college dorm rooms and individual garages.

When the day came for my dad's court date, I called him and asked him what he was planning to do and what he thought would happen.

Very smugly, he replied, "Nothing." He explained that his lawyer had teamed up with the Teamster lawyers, and they managed to get the CEO of the dairy to drop all the charges and to pay the Teamsters full, undiscounted rates to bring all his property from my dad's warehouse back to the milk company.

When I wondered how they had done that, my dad initially said something bogus about the guy having a change of heart, but with a little probing explained that the day before two men had visited the CEO unannounced during his lunch break. They spread pictures of the man's family across the table. His kids going to and from school. His wife having her nails done in a beauty parlor.

And that was that. I have no idea how my dad knew that was what happened, but I never questioned him about it.

The next challenge was with the EPA. The federal government wasn't as easy to intimidate as the president of Land O' Lakes, and as the Teamsters were not involved, Dad couldn't rely on external muscle to press his point--which was that by dumping Perrier into the Newark sewers he was doing the city a favor. All that fizzy water was cleaning out the pipes.

This attitude didn't sit well with the feds, who replied to Dad's arrogance with lawsuit after lawsuit.

All of it went to court. After weeks of protracted battles, it was my dad's lawyer using the joint EPA/Perrier study that proved conclusively there were more contanimants in the Newark city water than in Perrier's product, and that if the judgement went against Perrier, the city could expect a huge class action suit made on behalf of citizens poisoned by city water for the history of the existence of New Jersey.

So the judge ruled in favor of my father. The EPA lost, though the legal fees made the whole Perrier incident a net wash for REI. They didn't make money on the deal, but they didn't go to jail and they didn't lose any, which is no way to run a business, in the end.

In retrospect, some very big things happened businesswise as a result. Foremost is that Perrier, which had formerly held a near monopoly on the "designer water" business, lost their market share and never regained it. The void was filled with numerous companies, few of whom would claim quality control standards better than Perrier. The EPA relaxed some of its rules regarding the definitions of hazardous wastes. And as far as we know, nothing untoward ever happened to the president of Land O' Lakes or his family. The mafia still runs trucking and waste management in New Jersey.

REI became Pure Tech International in the early 90's and went public. After the principals cashed out, the company tanked in the late 90's and ceased operations. When it folded, it was no longer a recycling company, but rather, a company that sold designer jeans, rubber tubing, and polystyrene CD holders. (Claudia Schieffer modeled their jeans in the Victoria's Secret catalogue--subject for yet another writeup.) My brother closed the company doors, an act for which he was pursued by Nicaraguan rebels up the North Carolina coast and into my home where he hid for a couple days waiting for the heat to clear. (Yet another writeup.)

All of this was written up in the Wall Street Journal. The story was later picked up by a number of business news magazines. (doyle had seen it in Playboy...)

True story.

Per"ri*er (?), n. [OF. perriere, perrier, F. perrier. Cf. Pederero.] Mil.

A short mortar used formerly for throwing stone shot.

Hakluyt.

 

© Webster 1913.

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