A Slice of Mafia With Your Sparkling Water?
For those who insist that New York's Mafia is mainly a relic of the bad old past, consider this: The day job of the man currently alleged to be the acting boss of the Gambino crime family is top salesman for the city's largest distributor of healthy and cutting-edge beverages.
That thirst-quenching bottle of Glaceau Vitamin Water you plucked out of the deli cooler? That glass of sparkling Pellegrino? Those cute Adam & Eve juices? Those satisfying Mistic fruit drinks? Those wonderful bottled waters now a staple of a healthy lifestyle—Crystal Geyser? Saratoga Spring? Iceland Spring? Those cool, wacky drinks like Muscle Milk, Tazo Tea, Organic Yerba Maté?
Chances are that the order for these pleasing and beneficial beverages was made through a company known as Big Geyser Inc. that boasts 300 employees and operates out of a mammoth warehouse facility in Maspeth, Queens. And from his desk right there five days a week—or at least until the FBI locked him up back in February on an extortion rap—sat John "Jackie Nose" D'Amico, working the phones to help bring these superb products to you.
He has done so since 1991, according to D'Amico's old friend Irving Hershkowitz, founder and president of Big Geyser. Hershkowitz made this affirmation last week in a letter in connection with D'Amico's request for release on bond from charges that he had extorted a Staten Island cement company.
D'Amico started at a base pay of $24,000, and the salesman has done well enough that his current salary is $71,000 a year, according to Hershkowitz's letter.
The issue of D'Amico's employment was batted around last week by prosecutors and a defense attorney as they sat at a big table with U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein in his courtroom in Brooklyn. D'Amico, who is 71 but looks younger, wore a blue prison tunic over a white T-shirt. Many New Yorkers would recognize him as the good-looking guy with a cheerful smile and a mop of gray curls who was often seen at John Gotti's elbow in newspaper photos, described as one of the Dapper Don's trusted captains.
Despite those associations and a couple of past gambling convictions, D'Amico was still entitled to bail, his attorney, Elizabeth Macedonio, told the judge. "Big Geyser is probably the largest distributor of non-alcoholic beverages anywhere," she said.
Beside her, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Burlingame snorted. "Big Geyser does a lot of legitimate business," he said. "They also happen to employ two members of the administration of two organized crime families, for what that's worth."
D'Amico's co-worker at the beverage firm, the prosecutor said, was another aging and alleged mobster named Matthew Madonna, 72, whose reputed allegiance is to the Lucchese crime family and who was once notorious as the chief supplier of heroin to Harlem drug czar Nicky Barnes.
Prosecutor Burlingame said that it is his belief that D'Amico's is a no-show job that lets him collect health benefits and claim lawful employment. He said that attempts to talk to Hershkowitz about his employees' work habits were thwarted after the businessman asserted his constitutional privilege not to speak with law-enforcement officials.
Indeed, messages left at Big Geyser went unreturned, and a phone listed to Hershkowitz at his Upper East Side apartment went unanswered last week. That's too bad, because, in addition to his savvy business sense about the beverage industry, Irving Hershkowitz (a/k/a Hal Irving, a/k/a "Big H"), 67, is one of those New York City characters who loves to tell a good story and has many of them to tell.
I learned this for a fact in 1993 as a result of a chance encounter with Jackie D'Amico on Second Avenue near the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel. D'Amico was driving a lustrously ruby-red Jaguar, and he stopped when he spotted my then colleague at the Daily News, Gene Mustain, who covered Gotti's many trials. Mustain is a gracious writer and an even more gracious man who won the trust of Gotti's toughest cohorts. D'Amico was glad to see him and he chatted away, ignoring the horns from the traffic backed up behind him. While they spoke, I marveled at the gleaming red car and took note of the license plate.
A search revealed that the auto was registered to something called Crystal Geyser East, which listed Irving Hershkowitz as chairman. Hershkowitz, news clips showed, had been declared "the highest-volume liquor salesman in the world" by industry publications when he worked for Peerless Importers of Brooklyn. He'd switched to peddling water and juices after deciding in the mid-'80s that they were "the key beverages in the new marketplace." A message left at his company was quickly returned by the boss himself, who said he was calling from his car phone and happy to talk.
"Hiya, yeah, I'm Irving Hershkowitz, but they call me Hal Irving. So call me Hal, right?" He rolled off a long list of his company's successes and products. "We're very big. We do about $25 million a year in business."
His patter only paused when he was asked why Jackie D'Amico was driving a $100,000 Jaguar registered to his firm. There was an audible screech of brakes followed by a long silence. I feared that he'd cracked up. His voice finally returned. "He's a salesman of ours," Hershkowitz said. "He's been one for about three years. He works on commission. I know him 30 years. He's a lifelong friend. We went to New Utrecht High School. He was with us when we formed. He went around with me to see outlets; he knew a lot of people. He helped me develop the product."
What Jackie did outside of work wasn't his concern. "His own life has nothing to do with me. My relation with him is strictly business. That's the situation, y'know?"
He then graciously extended an invitation to join him at his club. "See me tonight at the Lone Star Boat Club; it's on West 54th Street." About an hour later, he called back. "Listen, I can't talk to you no more." Had D'Amico told him to cancel the invitation? "No, no. Just forget it, OK?"
But this is a hard man to forget. Hershkowitz showed up in a Times story in 2005 after the death of actor Jerry Orbach, a friend who also belonged to the Lone Star club. There Hershkowitz was known as "Big H," a gruff-talking pinochle player, the Times reported. As Hal Irving, he also showed up as the subject of testimony in 2006, when a former Gambino captain named Michael DiLeonardo took the witness stand against John A. Gotti, the don's son and successor. DiLeonardo described how Irving had supplied Jackie D'Amico with a job that "he could show the government," and a Jaguar.
The informant said he had once sat down in Irving's offices with D'Amico and another mobster to settle "a beef" about one of the profitable sales routes for Irving's beverage business. He also said that Irving had put up $50,000 to invest in Da' Noi, the swanky Upper East Side restaurant that Gotti Sr. had built on York Avenue, and where Irving was a regular.
What did Hal Irving get in exchange for all this help to the Gambino family, prosecutors asked the witness? "Protection," came the answer. "And Hal liked wiseguys. He had bragging rights."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.