Friday, June 19, 2009

Seltzer Man

For years, I have had this dream about running into Walter Backerman, the seltzer man, the best in town, third-generation schlepper of fizz, and owner of the oldest seltzer route in the city (dating back to 1919). Well, you walk the streets of New York long enough, and eventually some of your dreams come true.

I ran into Walter on Bleecker Street.



Amid the flurry of high-end super-shoppers, parked among gleaming BMWs and SUVs, Walter guarded his rickety delivery truck while his helper ran seltzer bottles in and out of buildings. Walter watches the truck because the traffic cops love to give him tickets.

Maybe it's the truck itself that attracts the traffic cops. It's no beauty queen, but a beat-up step van filled with character. The cab's back panel is lined with photos, autographs from the famous (Sarah Jessica Parker and Whoopi Goldberg), clippings from the many newspaper and magazine articles on Walter, and faded snapshots from the old days of seltzer hauling.



"This'll be the last picture taken in this truck," Walter told me as I snapped his photo for the blog. He's getting a new truck. A sleeker, roomier model. But the old shelves will go with him, as will the wooden crates made by a customer--and the bottles, of course, those gorgeous antique bottles, some the same as his father and grandfather used to schlep.

Walter is friendly and chatty, and he likes to tell stories. He recalled the old days, back in the 1970s, when he delivered to dangerous neighborhoods and kept a gun stuck in his waistband to fend off thieves. Today, in Bloomberg's New York, it's the traffic cops he has to fight.



"So what was better," I asked, "the traffic cops or the muggers?"

"Same shit," said his helper, Derek. "Only difference is, you can't touch a traffic cop, but the muggers you can fight back."

Walter agreed, laughing, "The sneak thieves. I could take 'em. They put a gun on me, I'd take out my money, like this. I was arrogant, counting it out slow, one, two, three. Right in their face. I'd tell 'em: You better shoot straight, 'cause if you miss, I'm gonna make you eat that gun."

Nobody messes with the seltzer man.


Walter Backerman, back in the day
  • Hear Walter on Radio Diaries
  • Read about him in the New York Times
  • Read more in Imbibe
  • In Walter's own words: "...I remember loading the truck in the Summer of 1964, and seeing another seltzerman with a tall multi-paneled forest green bottle in a case of ten, next to me. I pulled it out to admire it. It was cold, having just been filled, and in the heat, it seemed to be sweating. I held it to the light, and spun it around in the air, and as the sun reflected off its dazzling brilliance, it looked like a jewel ablaze. It was at that defining moment, that I fell in love with seltzer bottles..."

17 comments:

EV Grieve said...

Long live Seltzer Man.

The New York Experience said...

Nice piece. I was worried you were going to say he'd vanished. I grew up on this stuff and hope my children have the same opportunity.

Bowery Boogie said...

those classic seltzer bottles are so damn awesome. tastes much fresher than the crap in plastic bottles.

perhaps the coop neighbors could use as water guns?

Anonymous said...

We have seltzer delivery man on Long Island. Paul Hoppe delivers everywhere in Nassau and Suffolk. I take about two cases per month. Paul also uses the ancient blue, green and cleara glass bottles, and his cases are similarly old and weathered. It's fun to read the legends on the bottles. Nothing else make a real egg creme.

Madtexter said...

You are blessed to have met the selzter man.

I can still dream.

Merrim said...

Great story , love your blog and even though I am so far from New York city I fell closer each time I read your posts about it/her.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing like a schpritz of ice cold seltzer to tingle your tongue and lift your spirits. I consider myself lucky to get seltzer delivered from Walter and his helper Eddie. They are such great guys and true New Yorkers holding up great tradition. And it's true, you can't make a real egg cream without the pressure from a real seltzer bottle to get that foam that is essential for it to be a "real" egg cream.

Melanie said...

I used a different seltzer man when I lived on The Upper West Side--I sometimes see him sitting in the park-he looks the same and has gone on to other enterprises.

Jill said...

So does this mean that I could actually have seltzer delivered to my house? It would be like channeling my grandfather who could wax poetic for hours about the merits of seltzer. And then try to scare me with the eyeball of a whitefish.

NYCRhymology said...

Hope my using the pic of the bottles, with credit & link, for NYCRhymology is OK... At any rate, being a seltzerholic I long for such home delivered seltzer. A year ago I bought a small gadget for making seltzer... Delicious, but too costly and I gulped it down too fast. On one hand I'm drawn to the old school NYC romance of home delivered seltzer, but more than that I yearn for the taste. (Takes another swig of "the crap in plastic bottles.")

Jeremiah Moss said...

sure, no problem.

Anonymous said...

I would like a phone number where I can reach Paul Hoppe. You all have made me so thirsty!

Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Walter Backerman is MY seltzer man and I thank god for him every single day. He is just the best person around. Funny, bright and cheerful all the time. Plus he brings me my wonderful seltzer that I don't know what I would do without.

Elissa said...

While I've met Walter, I am a die-hard fan of Marty the Seltzerman, in effect, the only competition. Marty has started to walk his handtruck to his customers, a sign of his continued vitality (he should only live to be healthy to age 120), and due to his persistant annoyance at being ticketed. Feel free to click here to see some pictures of Marty at work. I did note that the NY Times had a magazine article way back when noting that Marty did fire more of his customers; it's hard to also get him to take on someone new. But all of this is part of the pleasure of dealing with the last guy to actually make seltzer bottles, meaning design them in the Czech Republic, not just deliver them.


http://picasaweb.google.com/ejswoo/GimmeSeltzer#

Yenta Laureate said...

Marty the Seltzerman also is an artist who has designed seltzer art including t-shirts, postsers, and bottles.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Elissa, please drop me a line at jeremoss(at)yahoo(dotcom)--i'd like to ask you about your photos.

Anonymous said...

Walter Backerman - if you read this, I would be interested in buying all your old seltzer bottles and crates and equipping them with Fizz Giz caps & Fizz Giz dispensers. I know they are near 'n dear 2U, but I would like to see their useful lives extended. Kind regards, MrFizz@FizzGiz.com and you can find me at http://www.FizzGiz.com - or call me at (409)FIZZ-GIZ.