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Nowadays, most seltzer drinkers go no further for their bubbly fix than the countertop SodaStream machine or the plastic bottles from the supermarket.
Then there are the customers of Walter Backerman, a third-generation “seltzer man” who drives from house to house, apartment to apartment, synagogue to synagogue, delivering his wares in siphon-topped vintage glass bottles.
Backerman, who turned 60 this fall, has a more sprawling route than his father and grandfather did when they were in the business, back when seltzer delivery was commonplace and a single city block might contain dozens of customers.
Now, dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers, he travels throughout the New York area: to every borough, except Staten Island, to Westchester, New Jersey, Nassau County — even, on occasion, to Suffolk County and Connecticut. Like an experienced taxi driver, he displays a mastery of New York roads: hustling but never rushing, quick to point out the idiocy of other drivers, but only to himself.
While the customer base is far less concentrated than it once was, the competition has shrunk as well: Backerman is one of a handful of remaining “seltzer men,” most of them Jewish, who remain in in New York. Some, like Alex Gomberg, whose family runs New York’s main seltzer-filling station and who is venturing into delivery, are hoping that the same hipsters and foodies who’ve fueled the artisanal foods market and re-invented Ashkenazi Jewish sensations like Mile End Deli and the Gefilteria, will start to discover the old-style glass-bottled seltzer. (See accompanying story.)
Aficionados of the product insist the delivered seltzer — which runs about $35 for a case of 10 — is superior to the store-bought alternative, which they complain tastes like plastic. Many just like the tradition; each bottle is filled and refilled over the years, a vessel not just of seltzer but of New York history.
On a recent delivery day, stopping to make a drop-off at the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center, Backerman said, “People ask me, ‘Are you religious?’ I say, ‘I go to shul all the time.’” Lifting the bottles out of his van onto his moving cart, he said, “Every couple weeks to this one, to that one…”
His grandfather, Jake Rosenbloom, was more religious, but took Shabbat off only because the seltzer shops were closed. On Sundays, the young Backerman would visit him on the Lower East Side. Rosenbloom would read the New York Times cover to cover, bantering now and again in Yiddish with his wife, Annie, who could barely read English. They had both emigrated in the 1890s from Poland. “He could discuss anything about politics in general, but most of the time he kept it to himself. And, other than that, if you brought up a seltzer route…” His grandfather did not like discussing his work.
Rosenbloom started his route in 1919, after World War I. Backerman’s mom, Reba, had just been born and it was hard to find a job. It was a tough route, servicing the Lower East Side. “And that’s why he hated the business, because it was nothing but walk-ups.”
Rosenbloom had a horse-drawn wagon and a horse that knew the route. “If someone quit,” if a customer stopped buying, “you were in trouble because the horse would stop” at the location anyway.
Backerman bristles at the notion that his profession was somehow connected to his family’s Jewish roots. Backerman’s grandfather didn’t go into the business because being Jewish gave him some inherent understanding of seltzer, he says. Rather, it all comes down to what Backerman likes to call the “winky dink,” when one person identifies with another and wants to help him out.
“It follows lines of ethnicity because when most people find a way to make money, they take care of their own.”
Which is not to say it’s a cushy job.
“As my father would say, ‘Once you’re a seltzer man, everything else’s easy because you got to do everything: you got to be the order taker, the deliverer, the fixer, the driver, the promoter.’ So you know, it’s not as simplified as you might think.”
To spend a day with Backerman is to hear a lot about his dad, Al Backerman. Al’s parents both emigrated from Poland. He excelled in school, skipped grades and might have made it to college. Then, when he was 12, in the middle of the Great Depression, his father died. At 16, Al joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, chopping down trees in Idaho and Vermont, sending home every penny to his widowed mother.
He joined the military and rose up the ranks to master sergeant, stationed during World War II on Staten Island. He was being eyed for military school, to become an officer. Then he met Reba at a USO dance and everything changed.
“My mother didn’t like the life of the military, so she dissuaded him from continuing.” Luckily his father-in-law knew of a job opportunity: a seltzer route for sale in the Bronx.
“The seltzer bottles were extremely valuable, the routes were very lucrative,” Backerman said. “When I was born in the 1950s my father was making anywhere from $300 to $400 a week, which was more than the doctors, probably more than the president of the United States.” With a loan of $12,000 from Rosenbloom, Al bought the route, acquiring the list of customers and the bottles.
From then until his death, Al was a seltzer man.
He bought a bright red truck, an International Loadstar. Later he had a Ford tilt-cab. But all of his trucks had the same structure: on the bottom, shelves like rolled steel to slide the bottles out, and, on top, a space for returnable soda. Back then the seltzer men were so important they received kickbacks and incentives to promote different products, like Fox’s U-bet. “They would paint all the seltzer men’s trucks every couple of years, freshly painted, as long as they could put on the side, ‘Syrup by Fox U-bet.’” Like taxis today, the seltzer truck was a form of public marketing, seen all over the city.
Unlike Rosenbloom, Al would talk about the business, sharing tips on how to charm the customers, most of them housewives. He would say, “Doll, that outfit brings out the best in you and the beast in me.” And they would laugh. “They loved Al,” Backerman said, “and all the helpers around the filling shop used to say about my father, ‘If bulls—t was electricity, Al Backerman would put Con Edison out of business.’”
Seltzer has always been part of Backerman’s life. “The first delivery I ever made was the spring of 1953, when I was 6 months,” he said. Backerman was the youngest of four children and business was thriving, for everyone. “You could go down any street, on any given day, and you might see two or three seltzer trucks delivering at one time, simultaneously.” To find new clients, Al had to go where there were no trucks, ring doorbells in Yonkers and Riverdale, and canvas new buildings. And right behind him, as he knocked on doors and greeted potential customers with his “I’m Al, I have a seltzer route, and I’m looking to building my route up,” was Reba, walking past the people sitting out on porches and stoops, pushing baby Walter in a baby carriage.
To Backerman, from the earliest age, seltzer meant community. It meant family. It meant a link to the history. “I feel a kinship to the past. I feel, maybe I’m a reincarnation of some past figure. I feel, every time I see antiques or see old buildings, I feel happy.” So even though Backerman graduated from Queens College, at the age of 20, he chose to buy his first seltzer route.
“If you believe in what you are doing, do the best you can. And you know what? People will come to look at you, admire you and appreciate you.” When Backerman is leaving a customer’s apartment with a case full of empty bottles, many bottles still bear the names of their first owners embossed on the metal heads.
A connection is rekindled with the past, with Jake and with Al. “Maybe by keeping the memory alive, maybe I help them being remembered too.”