by Shayla Love
A Dodge Man with a Mercedes Grill
Pia Lindstrom had a great pair of legs, but that wasn’t what Walter Backerman remembers about her.
After an interview with Walter’s father, Al, she looked into the Channel 4 WCBC-TV camera and said, “It’s a shame that after 55 years of continuous service, that Mr. Backerman senior will be the last seltzer man in the family. His young son Walter is enrolled to start law school in the fall.” She flashed a smile. “It’s a shame. There are too many lawyers out there and too few good seltzer men.”
That was 40 years ago. Turns out, the world was spared another lawyer.
I met Walter on the corner of 7th Avenue and 22nd street after he dropped off his son, Joey, at school a couple blocks away. His seltzer truck is an advertisement, photo album and scrapbook, all at the same time. The sliding doors are printed with images of seltzer bottles from television, 19th century France, and recycling bins.
Like other aspects of his life, this truck started one way and became another. This is a 1995 Dodge Sprinter, but you’d never know it, since Walter fixed a Mercedes grill to the front. Walter is good at adding a little glamour to everyday things. Like a Dodge, or a blue collar delivery service job.
The front seat of his truck is filthy. It looks like a space where coffee has been spilled and a lot of life has been lived. The wall behind the driver’s seat is covered with pictures of celebrities. There are autographed head shots and faded news clippings. Like all good photos, they carry a thousand words per picture, per star, of where and when Walter met them, and how they became his friend. A poster from “The View,” is signed by the whole cast.
“Barbara Walters is like a faucet,” Walter said, as he stirred sugar into his coffee. “You know what the faucet does? It runs hot and cold, you follow me? My wife said to me, let’s be real. This woman could pick up the phone and call the president. How important is Walter the Seltzer Man in the scheme of things?”
Pretty important. Walter might be the most connected man this side of Hudson Street. His stories jump from news anchors, to movie stars, to investment bankers, to that time he tried to give Mayor Bloomberg an antique seltzer bottle—the kind he delivers everyday—and almost got arrested. When detectives showed up at his Queens home later that day he said, “You guys came all the way from city hall, you’re lookin’ for a big story and all you found was Walter the Seltzer Man. Are you relieved or disappointed?”
He gave bottles to Whoopi Goldberg and to Alec Baldwin. He knows where any movie star lives in Manhattan because he’s been inside their homes. He’s enamored by the stars, and pins their names on his stories like award ribbons. We were driving south on 6th Avenue, past the old Air America station, when Walter blurted, “Rachel Maddow, I’m mad at her. I still like her, but I’m mad at her.”
After Air America went out of business and Maddow moved to MSNBC, Walter never got his bottles back from her. This is one of the few things you can do to get on his bad side.
Walter is protective over his bottles. They are his livelihood, his passion and his personal collectibles. Most of them are as old as he his, 60. Some are older. Still, he doesn’t charge deposits; he operates on trust. When a bottle comes into your home, it’s a loan of faith directly from the seltzer man, to you. This big man with big stories, has a big heart.
“From time to time, a bottle breaks,” Walter said. “I got a kid, last stop on 23rd. One time, he took all my bottles and threw them down the incinerator. A case of blue bottles. He said it was fun. I told the old guy who takes care of him, 30 dollars,”—when the real value was hundreds. “I did it because I felt for the guy.”
Walter’s green eyes are tired from fatigue, but they light up a little each time he begins a new anecdote. I ask him about other difficult clients he’s had, partly because I’m curious, partly because I see how much joy it brings him. Walter tells me he delivered to Calvin Klein’s mother.
“At the beginning, Flo Klein was nasty,” Walter said. “I turned her on a dime.” Soon she was giving him a bottle of cologne for every holiday, be it birthday, Christmas or Chanukah. It isn’t his style, but he valued the gesture. Mostly, he thinks it’s important to be able to make a friend out of an enemy.
We reached our first stop; Peter Cooper village on 1st Avenue and 20th street.
“What’s up baby? I’m delivering seltzer.”
A guard walked out of a gatehouse. “To who?”
“What do you mean to who? I’m the seltzer man, you never heard of me?”
Walter had been to Peter Cooper Village that morning. But he was coming back for an older woman.
“She’s a nice old lady, she wanted to sleep,” Walter said. We had come from the west side, and Walter had made an unnecessary loop in morning rush hour to return.
We parked on a service road. Walter pushed down on the tops of the bottles in short jabs, to test the pressure. He was listening and looking for the spurts of seltzer that come out and the sounds of the hiss. He won’t give out a bottle he isn’t happy with.
Walter delivers in a modern vehicle that runs on gasoline. His radio plays top 40 hits and he had a coffee that morning from 7/11. But when he slides open that door and puts that wooden crate on his shoulder, he may as well be climbing out of a horse and buggy. There’s something beautiful about an anachronism walking down 1st Avenue; he takes the whole street along with him.
The Fountain’s Head
A seltzer delivery man used to be as common as a milk delivery man. Each seltzer man had his own route that he inherited from a father or an uncle. They got their seltzer from seltzer fillers in Brooklyn, Long Island, or the Bronx. There used to be hundreds of fillers, and even more seltzer men. Now, the number of seltzer men can be counted on one hand. Only one finger is needed for the fillers. Gomberg Seltzer, run by Kenny Gomberg, third-generation seltzer man, is the only place to fill an old, pressurized bottle in New York City.
It’s hard to imagine a time when these antiquated bottles were as present in every home as a stick of butter or a frying pan. Soda water was invented in 1802 in Dublin, and made its way into restaurants and businesses, eventually being mixed with syrups and liquor. The individual “soda siphon,” a version of which Walter sells today, brought seltzer into personal residences. A Harper’s magazine article from 1872 recommends that the summer seltzer drinker enjoy it ice cold, and speaks favorably of adding lemon. Hot seltzer, usually chocolate or coffee flavored, was not as popular, and has not stood the taste test of time.
The production of bottled sparkling water, busier professional lifestyles, and large soda corporations caused this business to lose its fizz over the last 50 years. I asked Kenny what his grandfather would think, if he knew that he was the last seltzer filler. Kenny couldn’t come up with an answer, it was that unfathomable. Like Walter and Al, his is a family affair. His son, Alex, just joined the legacy.
Compared to the loud trucks and bustle of the city, the nondescript factory building is a kind of oasis. The bottles are filled with New York City tap water and carbon dioxide. The valve is sealed immediately, so that no pressure leaks out. A bottle can retain it’s carbonation for years. But these are active bottles, and they all visit the Gombergs on a weekly basis. It’s a cycle that’s been happening at Gomberg Seltzer since 1953.
After another hiss and the spray of overflowing carbonation, a hard working bottle gets a little rest before it’s sent out again with Walter.
We left Peter Cooper and drove west, along 9th street and stopped in front of a brownstone right before 3rd Avenue. Walter and I walked into a beautiful townhouse with a Japanese style garden in the back. An elderly woman came to the door.
“I’m glad you’re here, glad you’re in town,” Walter said. “Where are the kids? School?”
“No, they’re at a museum today,” she said.
“That’s nice. You got beautiful grandkids, both of them.” Walter put the seltzer down and admired renovations that had been done in the kitchen. “Myles is getting real handsome. It’s nice that they’ve got you to come visit. I’m real glad you’re here today, don’t worry about paying. I’ll catch up, I always catch up.”
“Don’t work too hard!”
We left. He didn’t get paid for that delivery. He said he’s not worried.
“The seltzer man always gets paid.”
“In the South Bronx in the 1980s, a black man fired a shot gun into the air.”
I am riveted, and so is the deli man making our sandwiches. Walter continues his story.
“I is Sweet George,” the man yelled, in front of a seltzer filling factory. “Now I runs this shop!” This show of power would help protect Sweet George’s property, money and delivery men. One of those men was a young Walter Backerman. They had to fill at odd hours to have enough time to make all their stops. Walter, and his assistant Frankie, would carry two loaded guns with them at all times to ward off thugs and robbers.
When Walter made his route in tough neighborhoods, he would call a meeting of all his helpers. He said, “Anybody comes to stick you up, just call my name. I’ll shoot em in the back, I’ll flip ‘em over to make it legal, and I’ll pull my money outta there.”
It’s hard for me to believe these stories, as I watch Walter chat at the register and tell the cashier to have a nice day. He’s never hurt anyone in his life. He told every old lady we’d seen on the route how nice they looked. He will buy anyone a coffee. When his assistant, Frankie, got old and senile, Walter couldn’t bear to fire him. Frankie was so run-down that when he stood on the corner holding a coffee cup, a passerby threw a quarter in, thinking he was homeless.
“You don’t understand, I didn’t want him,” Walter said. “I pay him good money. I just can’t cut him loose. When someone gives you that devotion, I can’t cut ‘em loose.”
Walter showed me a stack of wooden crates an 80 year old customer used to make, six a week. At that time, Walter didn’t need them. But he kept buying them because he didn’t want to discourage an old man who needed the money.
“I’d rather give the guy 30 dollars for the boxes and keep him working,” he said. “Cause I want someone to keep me working.”
That’s what it comes down to these days. Kenny, Alex and Walter just keep going. And by doing so, they support each other.
“Looks like I’m not working today, cause I’m just bullshitting with you,” he said. We were parked in the West Village and had delivered to two more apartments and a restaurant. “I’m tired. Some days you get up and you’re all perky, and some, the week just gets to you.”
We ate our sandwiches and Walter took the opportunity to show me around the memorabilia-laden truck. He pointed to a photo of a young man with long curly hair and white bell bottoms.
“That’s me when I was my son’s age.” Walter said. “I was there helping my father. I was going to start law school, going to go that summer. Then, my father got emphysema and he almost died. So I started helping him. I was supposed to help for six months. Take a leave, go back. It just was never the time.”
When Walter talks about his father, all the celebrities and name-dropping disappears. Al Backerman becomes the only famous man in the world. I wondered earlier how a young man could give up law school and the promise of a comfortable life. It was for the chance to be with the biggest star of all. Al died in 1998 from lung cancer.
I picked up a bottle at random. It was heavy and the glass was thick all around. The top said, “Al Backerman 1952.”
“That’s the most beautiful bottle in my whole route,” Walter boomed. “Al Backerman, that’s my father. And the date, 1952. You know what’s important about that bottle? That’s when I was born. So I was in diapers and that bottle was making money for the family.”
I’m starting to realize that the seltzer route, at every stage, is an homage to heritage. An homage to the past, from the present. To fathers, from their sons. The reusing of the bottles, and the repetition of the route, echoes its respect to tradition.
We drove up to our last delivery, in Alphabet City. It was my last stop too.
Walter gives me some things to take with me, before I go. He gives me a worn tour guide of Manhattan based on film shoots and celebrity homes, an open invitation to knock anytime on the door of his truck, and a photo of him and an old woman wearing a Superman shirt. It’s his favorite celebrity he’s met.
“That’s Noel Neil,” he said. “In the original adventures of Superman that I used to watch when I came home from school, she was Lois Lane. She’s 92 years old. And I still like her.”
I looked at the photo, which was carefully labelled with a name and date in blue ink.
Noel Neil is not the superhero in this photo, I thought.
Walter has no cape, no a body suit. He is a just man with trouble paying the bills, two kids and wife on disability. He is a man who has an injured shoulder, a long delivery route, 70 pound crates of seltzer to carry up three floor walk ups, and no heir to his throne. You could say that he has super strength.
Walter has no regrets about giving up law school to work with his dad. He didn’t lose much, he only gained. He became tied to a lineage that goes back to his grandfather, who drove a horse-driven seltzer buggy in 1919. It’s a place for men to teach lessons, and Walter received a full share of them.
“They used to say if bullshit was electricity, Al Backerman would put Con Edison out of business,” Walter said.
Our sandwiches were eaten, the seltzer was delivered, and all that was left was for Walter to teach me one of his father’s lessons. “People don’t always need hear the truth. When my Aunt Stella at 65 was dying of stomach cancer, my father went down, took a week off from the routes and he went down to say goodbye to his sister. At the end, she was frail, falling apart, nothing to her, she put lipstick on. She had a couple days more to live and my father said, ‘You know Stella, I have a crazy feeling you’re gonna get better cause you look great.’ And she said, ‘Oh Al, I just put some lipstick on. But do you think? Maybe you’re right. Oh, thank you.’ And that’s the last time my father saw his sister. She died right after that.
“In 1998, my son Jonathan was three months old and Joey was a year and four months old. My father had lung cancer. I remember looking out the window of the hospital and knowing that my father was never going to make it down to the street. So I took my sons, Jonathan in my hand and Joey in my arms. And I wanted—even though they would never remember—I wanted them to see their grandfather.
“My father had a morphine drip, but for some reason he got up. He took the mask off and he saw the kids and he said, ‘Walter, what are you crazy? What are you bringing kids to a hospital for? All they got here is sick people, you’re crazy, you shouldn’t have brought them here.’ And I said, ‘You know Al, I think you’re getting your energy back. I think you’re gonna be perfect, and you’re gonna be all right, and I miss you on the route. I want you outta here.’ My father looked at me and he said, ‘All I do is dream about the route. I wish I could rest already.’”
I hopped out of Walter the Seltzer Man’s truck, looking up at him from the sidewalk. I wonder if he will ever get to rest. Walter took my hand in his and couldn’t resist giving me one more piece of advice. “The most important thing is just being a human being, and saying the right thing for a person who needs it at the time. And that is my last story for today.”
Shayla Love is a journalist and storyteller living in New York. She is a reporter for the Norwood News and has been published at BKLYNR.com, Gothamist, and iMediaEthics.