Eli Miller’s Seltzer Delivery Service
In Brooklyn’s best bubbly, I found a link to my borough’s storied past
For most of my life, I was a consumer of bottled seltzer from the supermarket. Store-bought seltzer was what my parents served me when I was growing up, the child of two unaffiliated Jews in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s; it was what I came to like. It was also, importantly, what my father used to make an egg cream, the iconic Brooklyn drink: a little chocolate syrup (traditionally Fox’s U-bet, which is made here in Brooklyn, though my father used Bosco, New Jersey’s version of Fox’s U-bet), a splash of milk, the rest of the glass full of plain seltzer. The milk and soda give an egg cream the froth of a root-beer float, but it isn’t so sickeningly sweet; in fact, the seltzer gives it a slightly metallic tang. People are adamant in their opinions about how to make one. My father says the ideal method is to mix a little milk and a dollop of chocolate syrup in the bottom of a glass, then spritz seltzer from a siphon, using high pressure to raise a good head, then ease up on the pressure to fill the glass. This, of course, presumes you have a siphon. We never did, and the egg creams came out fine, but my father assured me the siphon would have made them bubblier. Fox’s U-bet’s website tells you to put the milk and syrup in the glass, spritz the seltzer onto a spoon in the tilted glass (which also makes a good head), and stir it after. Either way, and probably any other way you make it, it’s delicious.
When I was little, egg creams at home were a treat, but they were also a way to tide me over till I could get the perfect egg cream out in the world. (Another such item was a sandwich made with an English muffin, an egg, American cheese, and Taylor ham, much like an Egg McMuffin, but perhaps marginally healthier because my mother had prepared it. This was treyf twice over—pork, and meat with cheese—but my parents weren’t observant. They sent me to Hebrew school for three weeks in 1976, and when I complained that it was boring, they never made me go back.) I adored my father’s egg creams, but I lived for the ones you could get from sidewalk vendors in Manhattan, from silver carts like those that sell hot dogs, undercooked and oversalted pretzels, and, if you’re lucky, roasted chestnuts in wintertime. An egg cream and a pretzel rod—the perfect combination, smooth and sweet with salty and crunchy—cost a dime or a quarter in 1980, the kind of money a kid would have in her pocket back in those days when kids sometimes got mugged in broad daylight. And the egg cream you’d get from a vendor was very, very good. It would come in a blue and white waxed paper cup, sort of like a gigantic Dixie cup, whose taste complemented the drink in the same way green glass bottles used to make Coke taste better. As my father had promised, they were frothier than the ones at home, because the vendors made them with a siphon. The bubbles were fresher and springier. I don’t know if there’s any scientific basis for this observation, but ask anyone who’s tried egg creams made both ways; she’ll concur.
Although I knew that siphon seltzer was better, it never occurred to me that I could procure it, so I became an avid drinker of the supermarket kind. Sitting with an open bottle—or sometimes two, sequentially—on my desk enlivened the workday, which gives you some idea of how uneventful a writer’s day can be. But it got to the point where my husband and I were going through three or four bottles a day—that’s a minimum of twenty-one liters a week to schlep home from the supermarket and up the four flights of stairs to our apartment. And we also had to dispose of the empty bottles, either by recycling them or by wrangling them down to the grocery store to collect the deposit, something few people do in this city. It began to seem not only a hassle but embarrassingly quixotic.
But after a time I realized that New York City is one of the last places where you can still get seltzer delivered in those old-fashioned glass siphon bottles, which are beautiful, convenient, and more ecologically sound than plastic because they’re washed and refilled again and again. I never saw them in use in my own childhood, but I remember (or imagine remembering) them vividly because I inherited the memory from my father and from others of his generation. At some point in the 1970s, when my father worked in Midtown, he saw a seltzer delivery truck on the street and bargained with the driver to sell him one of the empty siphons, which he eventually got for ten dollars—enough money, at the time, for two full tanks of gas. He still has it in his kitchen. Ask people of his generation who grew up in the New York area about seltzer in their childhoods, and they will wax poetic about the delivery truck, the wooden crates—“the sides were no more than four inches high,” my father says, as if amazed that something so small could hold something so beautiful—the glass bottles, which were clear, blue, or green, and the shiny metal siphon heads. My Aunt Edie remembers her grandmother getting seltzer delivered; my father and my Aunt Linda remember the seltzer in blue bottles coming to their own home. (They spent a lot of time with their grandparents, so any of them may have had a blurry understanding of whose house was whose.) If my grandparents—one from Flatbush, one from the Bronx, one from New Jersey, and one from Yorkville, when it was still home to Russian immigrants—were alive, I bet they could tell stories about their own parents getting soda delivery. My Uncle John recalls that in the 1940s and ’50s his family’s seltzer was delivered by the Blume Seltzer Company here in Brooklyn; their neighbors in Borough Park owned the company. When his parents were out, he and his siblings waged epic battles, spraying each other with the siphons. This was, of course, also a time when all kinds of things got delivered: milk, ice for the icebox, eggs, though my father went down to the local chicken farm with their empty cardboard box and brought the week’s eggs home himself. Sometimes he’d also have to buy a chicken, which a worker would kill and pluck for him on the spot; it would still be warm while he carried it home. The Fuller Brush man came to your door, as did the Avon lady, the salesman who offered encyclopedias, and a Bible salesman, with any luck less creepy than Flannery O’Connor’s Manley Pointer.
Though such salespeople are mostly gone, big cities are the last refuge of their more antiquated trades. Once, in my twenties, I rode the train to New Haven with my manual typewriter, because the best typewriter repairman on the East Coast was there. Last year I learned how to set moveable type and run a letterpress at the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan, a miraculous loft in which they teach all the lost arts of bookmaking—flatbed cylinder and platen press, paper making, bookbinding; the hulking nineteenth-century machine for cutting paper is called, charmingly, a guillotine. My neighborhood, like much of brownstone Brooklyn, still has a guy who drives around in an old green truck, ringing what sounds like a bicycle bell to call people from their homes to have their knives sharpened. He usually arrives on a Saturday, and six or seven of the women on the block will line up with eight-inch kitchen blades, meat cleavers, and paring knives in their hands, as if it were normal to stand around chatting with neighbors while holding dangerous implements. He has sharpened my grandmother’s desk scissors for me as well as my ice skates. You can still have your laundry washed by hand in Brooklyn, if you’re willing to pay for it; and our local cobbler, a Russian immigrant whose gruff exterior belies a sweet personality, can make an exact duplicate of your shoes, if you want him to. So it’s no surprise that, given this city’s legendary tolerance for the mildly odd and nostalgia for its own past, you can still get seltzer delivery here.
**pagebreak next=”That first delivery, all the bottles were clear, inscribed with the names of the various local factories where they’d been made.”**To try to arrange it, I left a message for Walter Backerman, who I knew delivered in Manhattan and the Bronx, asking if he came out here. It was Friday afternoon when I called, and I assumed Backerman was a Jewish name, so I also wished him Shabbat shalom, a good Sabbath. My phone call was returned an hour later, not by Walter but by his colleague, Eli Miller, who’s been delivering seltzer in Brooklyn for forty-seven years. He arranged to bring by a case the next afternoon, and asked why I’d wished Walter Shabbat shalom when my name wasn’t Jewish. (When you’re Jewish but not a Stein or a Rabinowitz, you keep answers to that on hand, along the lines of “It is a Jewish name, just not one you’re familiar with.” In my case, I can also remind people that those sticky Almond Kisses that pass for candy at Pesach are made by Barton’s Chocolates.)
The next afternoon, Eli drove up—not in the seltzer truck I’d been imagining, the open vehicle with bottles clanking that my father had bequeathed me from his memories, but in an old gray station wagon. He brought the seltzer up the front steps in the four-inch-high crate my father had recalled so fondly; that first delivery, all the bottles were clear, inscribed with the names of the various local factories where they’d been made back when my father was a child. (Our most recent delivery was two cases of cobalt blue bottles, except for one that was dark green and another a pale, soft green, like sea glass. That one, Eli told me, was a safety bottle, completely encased in rubber so I could drop it and it wouldn’t break. I didn’t try it to see.) Eli is in his seventies, but he’s tall and strong, with a friendly smile and the kind of outgoing personality you’d predict for a deliveryman. His accent is pleasantly rough and guttural, part Brooklyn—he was born on Twenty-seventh Street in Coney Island, and grew up in Borough Park—and part Yiddish. (Recently he said to me, “I’m going to see my sister this weekend; she’s coming to stay by my brother,” a locution my grandparents used, but which now only seems to exist in the camped-up Yiddish world of movies like The Hebrew Hammer.) That first time he came, he brought a folder of articles that had been written about him for me to look through, and told me about a children’s book, The Seltzer Man, that local writer, artist, and teacher Ken Rush had published about him in the 1990s. I ordered the book as soon as I finished hauling the seltzer upstairs—it was only ten bottles, but you have to be a big guy like Eli to carry them all at once. The book’s lovely, sun-drenched illustrations in oil are a rhapsody on the vanishing world of seltzer delivery.
Eli grew up in a Conservative Jewish family. His father, Meyer, went to synagogue for all the holidays, and Eli’s grandfather owned a butcher shop, so they had a ready supply of kosher meat. Meyer was a housepainter and his wife, May, worked at Ratchik Bakery on Avenue J, but like many families of their generation, they stressed the importance of education, and their children are all highly literate. Eli’s older brother became a teacher and an engineer; his younger brother is a computer graphic engineer for Dow Chemical; his sister is a professor at the University of Haifa and has twice been a Fulbright scholar. Eli himself wanted to be a schoolteacher, but when in 1952 he approached his favorite high school teacher, Mr. Hellerbogen, and asked if he should enter the profession, Mr. Hellerbogen said, “Eli, teachers don’t make any money at all. You’d be better off driving a truck.”
When Eli got out of the service, he went to work on Wall Street. He worked his way up from dividend clerk to cashier, and found himself making $125 a week by 1960—a living wage, but no better than he might have made as a teacher. When he told this to his friend Seymour Kooperman, who drove a soda route, Seymour bragged that he made $300 a week. Eli challenged him to show him how, and Seymour drove him around to prove it. “He was right!” Eli recalls. “There was money in this business.”
Not long after, he was sitting around in his cousin Lowell Wexler’s collision shop on the corner of Ralph and Remsen near Eastern Parkway, wondering what he should do about his future. “You see that soda shop?” Lowell said, pointing to the place across the street. “All the black guys in the neighborhood go in and buy a beer called Copenhagen Castle. You like to sell; you should go get a truck and sell that beer.”
The shop was owned by two brothers, Harry and Jerry Hittelman. Eli went over and asked about buying maybe ten cases to start a business in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which none of the beverage delivery men served. Harry told him he was crazy to think about going into Bed-Stuy to sell; there weren’t any soda men there for a reason. “Whatever you do,” Eli remembers him saying, “sell for cash. Don’t give credit.” Eli bought thirty cases for a total of sixty dollars, which he didn’t have on him, but his Uncle Irving across the street vouched for him. Then he needed a truck. He found a used van, a black 1949 Chevy, “the old-fashioned kind, with the two doors that opened in back,” for $190. Eli’s savings, after buying the beer, amounted to $150, so he went to his mother and asked to borrow forty dollars. “I don’t have it,” she said, “but if you need it to go into business, you could take my silver dollars.” Eli didn’t want to take them—many were from the 1870s, and he knew they were valuable—but he didn’t have any other way to get the money, so he accepted. (“And I still feel bad about it,” he says. “I paid her back tenfold, but those silver dollars had been special to her.”) He paid for the used truck with $150 in cash and the forty silver dollars, went out with his thirty cases to Bed-Stuy, and sold all of them, half on credit.
When he went back to Harry Hittelman to report his success and buy more, Hittelman said, “You gave those blacks credit on fifteen cases? You’ll never see that money.” Eli disagreed. “They were honest people,” he told him. “They’ll be very appreciative that I came around to the neighborhood and trusted them. You’ll see.” To me he adds, “And wouldn’t you know, when I went back the next week, I got every penny.”
Eli built up a good route in Bed-Stuy, first with the Copenhagen Castle, which he describes as “similar to a Miller, but less expensive,” and later with soda water and the flavored syrups to make Italian sodas. By 1963 he had to sell the van and buy a big clanking seltzer truck like the one my father remembers. But soon after John F. Kennedy was shot, some black kids broke into his truck. When he asked them why, they told him, “We don’t want whiteys in our neighborhood,” and that they thought the assassination was a white conspiracy. This was an isolated incident; “My customers were good people,” he says. “People weren’t like that.” But soon after Martin Luther King’s assassination, a group of young men broke into his truck when it was parked at the corner of Park Place and Bedford, and these kids wanted to fight with him. Eli ran to a nearby drugstore, told the druggist what was going on, and the man came out to the street to defend him. “The drugstore man had been in the neighborhood a long time, and he knew the kids. When he told them he’d turn them in, they ran away.” The truck was mostly empty, but Eli felt lucky that no one had been injured. After this, he decided he had to stop working in the neighborhood. When he went around to tell his old customers that he wouldn’t be coming anymore, he felt awful. Some offered to come meet him at the curb, so he wouldn’t have to come up to their apartments and leave his truck unattended, but it made more sense to move into more middle-class neighborhoods like Bensonhurt and Bay Ridge. Later he also started coming up to Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. Over time, even as business has dwindled, he’s also had many customers in Brighton Beach, where there are lots of Russians and older Jews—people who consider seltzer important. He gets his bottles sterilized and refilled by Kenny Gomberg at G & K Beverages in Canarsie, the last seltzer bottler in New York City.
Eli’s seltzer is more expensive than the kind we got in the store, so we don’t drink it with the same abandon, and the taste is different: saltier, more metallic, sharper. Learning to control the pressure was trickier than we’d expected; we had a few days of wet countertop before we mastered it. Even with soy milk, it makes phenomenal egg creams. But more important, we like having the crates and bottles in our kitchen, a tie to this city’s past. I like the connection to my father’s childhood, my aunts’ and uncle’s childhoods, and a world that was based around neighborhoods, where you knew the people who lived next door and ran the shop around the corner. I don’t kid myself that Eli is my friend, but I really like him. Not since I was a child and my parents took me to Al at National Shoe Rebuilders so they could have my shoes resoled and I could pet Al’s dogs, Lucky and Jenny, and his cat, Snowy, have I so been able to look forward to seeing someone I know so little; and it’s a welcome relief in this world in which we do much of our shopping on the Internet, much of our communicating with family and friends on e-mail, to sit on the stoop with Eli and talk politics. He’s a lifelong Democrat—a huge supporter of Barack Obama’s bid for the Democratic nomination, “though I’m not sure the country is ready for him yet”—and sharp in his critique of the Bush administration. “Eighty percent of Americans want us to get the troops home from Iraq,” he says, “and he won’t do it. Which makes him a murderer—boys are coming home missing arms, missing legs; more are going to die just because he’s pigheaded, not to mention all the Iraqis who are getting killed. And for a trillion dollars! He could have given health care to every man, woman, and child in America for that. He could have given housing to four hundred thousand low-income families. And instead he’s going to go down as the most reviled president in our history.”
Eli’s work life hasn’t always been happy; the robberies were small incidents, but one terrible day, his father, who used to help him with deliveries, died on the route. “He’d gone up to visit his favorite customer, an old Argentine lady on Avenue Y and Ocean Parkway. He was up there five o’clock, five fifteen; at five thirty I started to get worried. The super of the building came running out to tell me my father had collapsed on the stairs on the second floor. I tried to revive him, but he was gone. That was the saddest day of my life. Or the second saddest, second after the day my mother died. I was very close to my mother.” Despite this, and despite that his job is physically demanding, he takes an overwhelmingly positive view of his work. “This is a hard life,” he says, “not an easy vocation. But what has made it wonderful is the people. I deliver seltzer to some of the most beautiful people. And despite the hard work, when you do this, you have independence, no fear of being laid off, and the door is open to work as hard as you want and make as much money as you want. I know it’s a little bit of an anachronism, though.”
In Ben Katchor’s graphic novel The Jew of New York, an 1830s seltzer aficionado named Francis Oriole concocts a business plan of tremendous, kooky grandeur: he dreams of carbonating Lake Erie and piping fresh soda water to New York City. Seltzer must have seemed like a miraculous remedy in 1830, and still a relatively novel one—Joseph Priestly, who is credited with stumbling on the happy accident of carbonated water, made his findings known in the 1770s. In Oriole’s plan, seltzer would run—or spritz, I suppose—from every tap, and no one would suffer from indigestion. (Many of the book’s characters appreciate a good burp, which Katchor refers to by its wonderfully onomatopoeic Yiddish name: greptz.) I’m not certain Oriole is Jewish, but he does repeatedly wipe his nose on a “handkerchief embroidered with kabbalistic symbols”; and most of his patrons seem to be Jews, who have long had an affinity for seltzer, I’m guessing because of what many of us traditionally eat. Is there a diet more fat-laden and full of white flour than that of the descendants of shtetl Jews? Though living in New Jersey and not in Minsk, my grandmother fed her three children old-country foods like gedempft meat (brisket) and potatoes, latkes, matzoh brei, kuegel, kasha varnishkas, challah with schmaltz, and, my father’s favorite, gribbinis, the burnt fried skin left over after rendering chicken fat. She also kept a vat of oil in the oven and would take it out to deep-fry potatoes for an evening snack. Her house was full of candy—M&M’s, Kraft caramels, one-pound Hershey’s bars, and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. I love seltzer, but if I ate like that every day, I’d probably need it to settle my stomach, too.
Eli thinks about seltzer more ecumenically. “The Italians like to mix it with wine or with juices. But people of all faiths and religions like seltzer. At this point, most of my customers are gentiles.”
I am generally suspicious of the desire to romanticize one’s own childhood—after all, we had few responsibilities then: it was easy to feel the world was benign—as well as of the Luddite tendency to prefer antiquated technologies to those we have today. I still think my manual typewriter is an elegant machine, but it’s no match for the ease of the computer on which I’m typing now; and to say that the world was better off without cell phones would be partly true and partly to forget how frustrating it was not to be able to reach someone when you were lost or running late.
When Eli Miller retires, which he hopes to do not long from now, I doubt anyone will take over his route. He’s one of only five soda men left in New York City. I’ll be surprised if the business exists anywhere in twenty years, when everyone who still remembers it from the 1940s is too old to heft the crates of bottles into their apartments. The siphons will be something I tell my children about, something from another time, the way I know about iceboxes; the Dictaphone; my grandfather’s first apartment, here in Brooklyn Heights; and my Uncle David’s dental office in Woodside, Queens, so close to the El tracks that his hearing suffered, later in life. I am glad to have experienced this piece of Brooklyn and New York history before it vanishes. Eli is right that his profession is becoming an anachronism; this only makes his seltzer deliveries seem more like a gift.
This essay is excerpted from the anthology Brooklyn Was Mine, edited by Valerie Steiker and Chris Knutsen.
Illustration by Vanessa Davis.