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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Seltzer...The Agony and the Ecstasy

"Good seltzer should hurt."
The most lethal weapon in our house was the seltzer bottle.  More so than all the knives in the drawer next to the stove.  I lived in fear of a dropped bottle causing an explosion that would level the entire block. 

But, did you ever know anyone who actually dropped one?  I'm not talking about the urban legends.  You know, where your cousin dated a girl whose brother had a classmate who dropped a bottle.  I'm talking first-hand knowledge.  Rumor had it that Herbie was a victim of a dropped, or thrown seltzer bottle - a crime perpetrated by his mother upon learning he was well on his way toward failing every class in the eleventh grade - again.

In any case, Herbie manned the last booth in Dave's Sweet Shoppe and Luncheonette, often carrying on an animated conversation with himself ending in disgust when he was unable to convince himself that he was right.  The neighborhood kids would sometimes screw up the courage to ask what happened to his left eye and all he's mutter was 'seltzer.'

Did they really explode? If one bottle could level a block, I estimated a case of ten packed the same wallop as an atom bomb.  For all we knew, the Enola Gay could have dropped a case of seltzer bottles over Hiroshima. 

(This ain't no history class, but the Enola Gay was the name of the B-52 bomber that dropped the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  During the Second World War pilots painted the name of their planes on the fuselage.)

Had it been a crate of seltzer bottles it would have been called the "Brooklyn Project" not the "Manhattan Project."

To prepare for the honor of carrying a seltzer bottle I practiced carrying my cousin's new-borne infant. "OK.  If he could carry Little Warren, maybe we could trust him with the seltzer."  "I dunno, Nat.  An infant is one thing, but a seltzer bottle?" 

I got my first opportunity somewhere around the time I got into junior high school. By this time my parents had no problem with me crossing Utica Avenue, Linden Boulevard and Church Avenue  or carrying a dozen eggs and a bottle of milk by myself, so I guess they figured they'd give me a shot at carrying the seltzer bottle from the refrigerator to the dining room table.  The second time I saw my parents show how proud they were of me was at my Bar Mitzvah- although in retrospect, I think the seltzer incident won first place.

Let's take a break for a minute.  I'm not talking about what passes for seltzer in those puny plastic bottles with the screw-off caps and I'm not referring to the imported 'sparkling' water hand-crafted by monks in the Alps. I'm referring to the real stuff in thick glass bottles with metal siphons.  The bottles that look like fire extinguishers, but more powerful.  (C'mon, you gonna tell me you never aimed a seltzer bottle out the window to see how far the stream would go and then have Mrs. Schneider rat on you to your mother because you got her laundry wet.)  The bottles that now sell for upwards of thirty bucks on E-Bay.  The bottles that all the me-gens have been converting to table lamps.

Ok.  Wanna be a hit at your next social gathering.  What's the derivation of seltzer?  like, where did it come from?  No, to the wiseguy in the back of the room who said it came from his grandmother's icebox. It was actually named after Niederselters, a small town near Frankfort, Germany that began producing carbonated tonics in the 16th century, but it wasn't until 1809 that Joseph Hawkins patented the machinery for carbonating spring water and the hermetically sealed bottles became a staple in our 20th century diet.

(Bear in mind, the seltzer you now buy bears no resemblance to that which came in a siphon. The sense of adventure is gone; the new seltzer is like drinking tap water. Why bother?)

Every block had a seltzer man.  Our block had Sol.

Sol delivered them in crates of ten Good Health seltzer bottles on his shoulder which he removed from his open-top truck. Ponder this, buckeroos: Piled as high as they were on the truck they never fell off on sharp turns and, equally impressive - no one ever stole the bottles from the open truck.  At age 10 you're not particularly good at judging age. Your teachers were all about 70 so it only figures that Sol, who looked old enough to be their father, had to be close to 100 and still schlepping those cases up three flights.

On special occasions he would deliver Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup. In a nod to healthy living, we also consumed Cott diet soda, also delivered by Sol in his attempt to corner the beverage market. Being first with a product does not guarantee quality. "It's Cott to be good" was about as far from the truth as one could get. But, if you wanted sugar-free soda, it was the only game in town, even before Tab. Boy, did we know how to live!!! 

To the few unaware of the lethal power in a glass of seltzer: Pour a glass of real seltzer, let it sit for 8 hours. That has as much punch to it as a freshly opened bottle of Coke. Let the real seltzer sit for 12 hours, you're coming close to the fizz quotient of a freshly opened bottle of sparkling Perrier.

Here's a brief seltzer vignette.  I admired my father for a lot of reasons.  Interestingly, the older I got, the more reasons were added to the list.  But there was one that I vividly remember from my childhood.  He would sit down for dinner and pour himself a glass of seltzer.  Now, I'm not sure what the proper action verb is.  It seems that the word 'pour' is too gentle a word for what comes out of a seltzer bottle.  In any case, the seltzer made it from the bottle into his glass.  And then he would take a big long gulp, and I mean a really big gulp. No puny sissy sip for my dad!  Based on my limited experience with the beverage, I waited for the belch.  Nothing.  Not even a hiccup.  Sometimes a sigh, but nothing more.  And we would begin to eat as though nothing happened.

I, on the other hand, would pour a small quantity into my glass at the beginning of the meal and then hoping most of the fizz would evaporate into the atmosphere, just before dessert was served I would slowly sip the liquid - not unlike what I later learned to do with fine wine, including the swishing around in the mouth before swallowing.  Regardless of how long I waited, the exercise always ended with at least a hiccup.

But, if you're old enough to read this you know there is always a subtle contest between you and your same-sex parent.  To prove my manliness on several occasions I would attempt to chug a freshly poured glass of seltzer, always with the same results.

With the first gulp your brain is already on emergency alert frantically sorting all the messages to determine the best method for minimizing the devastation that is about to unfold. First, you feel as though your eyeballs are going to pop out of their sockets.  In retrospect that would be a blessing because the seltzer is trying its best to escape your body  through any orifice it can find.

At this point, it ain't too choosey.  As sailors stuck in a storm say: "Any port in a storm."  Picture sneezing through your ears, for example. Failing the obvious escape routes, it will try some unconventional outlets.  Fearing that it may try for your brain you hold on to the top of your head to prevent your scalp from being ripped from your head because once that first line of defense is breached the brain is sure to follow.  Now, bear in mind that it's critical that you continue to appear ultra cool throughout this.  But it's difficult to do when you realize your toes are separating like they do when you get a cramp in the sole of your foot and for the first time in your life you actually feel your toe nails tingling.  At the same time your throat is going into gag reflex so that even if you wanted to you couldn't spit it out.  The damage has already been done.  Even your nose gets into the act.  First with a little twitch; then something that resembles the equivalent of a nasal mambo and it is through this orifice that the remnants of the gulp shoot out with such force that even Grandma Jenny, who rarely notices anything, looks up startled, frantically moving the pot roast from the path.

Ah!  That's good seltzer, Dad.

Now, as cool as you want to be, your father is even cooler.  He knows what's going down.  But he won't let on, other than to ask if you'd like some more.  Hey, don't you think he tried the same thing with his father?

Every block had a seltzer man. 

No more.  According to a Times article about ten years ago there was only one guy who still had the last remaining seltzer route. There's one family-run business on Avenue D and East 92nd Street that still fills seltzer bottles, and oddly enough, the trade refers to his business as a 'filler.' He lives in New Jersey and schlepps to Canarsie to continue the business started by his great grandfather.

How will  you explain the ecstasy of seltzer to your grandchildren?

As a bonus, I've included a recent article from the New York Times:

As Old as the Bottles

Name Eli Miller  Age 79
Where He’s From Coney Island
What He Is The city’s longest-working seltzer deliveryman
Telling Detail Keeps a copy of “The Seltzer Man,” a 1993 children’s book about him, on the front seat of his delivery van; it was written and illustrated by a longtime customer, Ken Rush. 
“I’m running on fumes — the reason I work is, I just can’t stay home,” said Mr. Miller, who has been delivering seltzer in Brooklyn for more than a half-century.
He can afford to retire, but that would mean his customers, many of whom have been with him for decades, might have to resort to store-bought seltzer.
“I don’t want them to have to drink that dreck you buy in the supermarket,” he said, using the Yiddish term for dirt. “So I guess I’ll retire when Gabriel blows his horn.”
Mr. Miller said that when he began delivering, on March 10, 1960, there were perhaps 500 seltzer men in the city, and a half-dozen seltzer bottlers. Now he can count his delivery competition on one hand, and they all fill up at the last seltzer factory in the city: Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie.
A gritty old machine there pumps its effervescent, bubbly elixir into Mr. Miller’s thick glass bottles, made in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, hand-blown and hand-etched, with pewter siphon tops.
“You drop one of these, it will explode,” he said, holding one up. “Inside here is triple-filtered New York City water with 80 pounds of carbonic pressure.”
Mr. Miller jams wooden shims between the 10 rattling bottles in the beat-up wooden cases, which he delivers for $31 each.
On a recent weekday morning, he pulled his van up to the seltzer works and exchanged his empty bottles for full ones. He said hello to the owner, Kenny Gomberg, and his son, Alex, 25, who last year started his own seltzer route.
“I’m the oldest seltzer man in New York and he’s the youngest,” Mr. Miller said as Alex Gomberg loaded his van next to Mr. Miller’s. “I’m passing the baton to him.”
In quieter moments, Mr. Miller allows that he might consider retiring in a year, and that there is no one to pass the route to. He has about 150 customers, many of them sporadic, which is about half what he once had. He works two or three days a week, delivering to brownstones in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, and to restaurants in Williamsburg.
His seltzer always sold itself — he includes the sound of a spritzing bottle on his answering machine — but these days, new customers seem as enthralled by the deliveryman, as much a throwback as his product.
“I rely on mouth-to-mouth recommendations, but I’ll only take new customers if they’re near my other ones,” said Mr. Miller, who will turn 80 in June.
He used to be able to carry two full cases of seltzer up four flights. Now he asks his customers to bring them up themselves from the lobby.
His lanky frame is still strong, and he can still hoist a crate to his shoulder, but usually he lugs them at waist level. Some days, back pain prevents him from working.
But he declared, “Old seltzer men never die — they just lose their shpritzer.”
Mr. Miller, a lifelong bachelor, has lived in the same apartment in Bensonhurst since 1977.
“My customers are my family,” he said. “They feed me dinner, and I’ve watched their children grow up.”
During a recent delivery to a brownstone in Park Slope, a housekeeper let him in and then left Mr. Miller alone in the place.
“You see?” he said, picking up the empty bottles. “They give me the keys to the kingdom.”
Mr. Miller grew up in Coney Island. His three siblings became professionals. He worked as a dividend clerk on Wall Street but wanted to make more money. He began a beer delivery route in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which turned into a seltzer route in other neighborhoods.
His father, Meyer Miller, began helping Eli after retiring from his house-painting job. In 1976, his father, then 72, died of a heart attack while carrying a case up to a customer.
“This customer, she used to give him a glass of schnapps, so he liked to deliver to her,” recalled Mr. Miller, who had run up from the truck but was unable to resuscitate his father.
To this day, he keeps copies of his father’s yellowing stationery in the front seat of his van as a keepsake.
“My father died on the route and I’m going to die on the route,” he said, and resumed stacking the old, clattering cases of seltzer into his van.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 28, 2013, on page MB4 of the New York edition with the headline: As Old as the Bottles.

1 comment:

egg said...

Same lovely memories of selzer and of the bottle delivery. Flatbush water was foul and we only drank selzer.

Live in Toronto and have it delivered again. The bottler delivers it himself and you have to sign a long list of do's and don'ts before he will deliver, including such gems as: "No one under the age of 12 may spritz" and "....not to be used for water fights."