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  Brooklyn Bridge, February 1999

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Seltzer Man


"S-s-s-s-h-h-h-t. I love that sound," says the second-generation seltzer man Barry Walpow. He's at the Seaview Diner in Canarsie, simulating the joyful noise of seltzer squirting from a glass siphon bottle, before heading off to make an end-of-the-day delivery in Williamsburg. The tall 51-year-old, wearing a battered black baseball hat and glasses as thick as the bottoms of the seltzer bottles he shoulders all day, is one of the last survivors in his trade. The sound brings him back to his father’s time, when seltzer bottlers were scattered all over Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, and the term two cents plain (a glass of naked seltzer) was a part of the vernacular of the city.

Walpow purchases his seltzer at Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie. Established in 1953 by Mo Gomberg and now run by his grandson Kenny, the company creates its bubbly offering with a Barnett and Foster Siphon Machine, built in London in 1910.

"Good seltzer should hurt," says Kenny of the mixture of tap water and carbon-dioxide gas (no salts or minerals added). "The term we use is 'bite.' When you swallow it, you feel the bubbles in your throat and it's, like, painful."

At Gomberg Seltzer Works, New York tap water is first triple-filtered, making it conceivably the purest water anywhere, and then cooled, which facilitates carbonation. Once in the carbonator, the water is beaten with a series of rotating paddles so vigorously that its molecules bind together. The bottles are filled in an upside-down position at 70 pounds per square inch; a machine depresses the lever on the siphon, forcing seltzer to rush upward through the nozzle.

Gomberg does not claim his product is superior to the numerous store-bought seltzers that have taken over the market, nor does he deny it. Instead he grabs a newly filled seltzer bottle from the sputtering machine. It's a special one: old, dark-green, hand-blown in Czechoslovakia, seamless, with half inch sides and a bottom almost an inch thick--antique dealers have been known to pay as much as $40 for a classic bottle. He raises the bottle high above his head and sprays a stream directly into his mouth, as if to ask, "How can a 22-ounce plastic bottle possibly compare?"

Walter Backerman of Queens, a third generation seltzer man and a factotum for all things seltzer-related, puts it more explicitly: "Look, when you open store-bought, there's pressure leaking out--it's flat by the time you hit the bottom. With seltzer squirted out of a siphon, the valve is only open long enough to let it out--no excess gas escapes." He pauses. "Besides, you think the flimsy bottles they use can handle serious pressure?" (Pressure is a very important word when you're talking to a seltzer man.)

Backerman goes on to expound on the finer points of his trade, but he keeps returning to the main theme: "Don't ever underestimate the power of nostalgia." For seltzer men and for others who relish drinking seltzer the old-fashioned way, it's about connecting with your roots.

In the 1920s in New York, soda water gradually became known as seltzer--two different names for the same product. The word seltzer originates from the German word Selterser Wasser, meaning mineral water from Nieder Selters, Prussia. Immigrants from Eastern Europe brought the word from their homeland, and it stuck.

There has always been a strong association between seltzer and Jews, who were often the purveyors of seltzer. One explanation for its popularity among Jews is that it complements the rich foods found in kosher diets. This may be a polite way of saying that it makes you belch. In the old days, seltzer was called "Belchwasser" or "Jewish Champagne." But the ethnic makeup of customers ran across the board: Polish, Irish and especially Italian.

Back when everybody drank the stuff, Barry Walpow's father, Sam, delivered seltzer with a horse-drawn wagon before graduating to a truck with a hand-cranked engine. Sam, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, was like any other young man in Brooklyn at that time, hungry to get ahead and willing to work as hard as it took.

"My father was a workaholic," Walpow says, taking in the old, peeling walls of the Seaview Diner. "He never took a day off, even on the holiest holidays." Then, one Yom Kippur morning, when Sam went to spin the hand-crank on his truck, it kicked back and broke his arm. He saw it as an Act of God. From then on, he rested on Jewish holidays.

"In summer, as a kid, I used to ride shotgun while my father drove his route," Walpow remembers. "I learned all there was to know about seltzer from him. We covered every corner of Brooklyn--everybody was buying then." The elder Walpow even provided seltzer to a family in Flatbush with a little girl named Barbra Streisand.

The demise of the local seltzer industry occurred in the 1970s, when soft drink companies began to produce and market seltzer and club soda (carbonated water with sulfates), and designer mineral water became popular. Walpow doesn’t quite buy it. "You wanna know what killed seltzer?" he says, poking at his rice pudding. "When the wives started working. No one was home to receive the order. The seltzer men couldn't leave their valuable product out in the open. Not that I got anything against women's lib," he adds carefully, "but it spelled the end for us."

The waitress places a glass of water in front of Walpow. He holds it up, examining it in the afternoon light, as if looking for bubbles that aren't there. "Now, I think everything's like fast food." He frowns, putting the glass down and pushing it aside. "Things have become less personalized."

Walpow has a loyal network of customers who rely on his product and appreciate what he's doing. Ke Wilde, a painter living in Williamsburg, says he's been getting his seltzer from Walpow for 10 years. "Barry's such a nice guy and a classic character, you want to support him," says Wilde. "I got a daughter who is a little less than two, and now she calls for seltzer at every meal. She wants you to squirt it into her cup. She likes the whole experience."

Walpow rises up from the booth slowly. As he walks over to the cashier, his right shoulder slopes down, from several decades of schlepping seltzer crates. He heads outside toward his van, a decaying brown Econoline with the company name, Lots of Seltzer, Inc., printed on its flank. He climbs inside for his Canarsie-to-Williamsburg run.

Walpow parks at the corner of 79 Berry Street, in front of Oznot's Dish, a restaurant with a bohemian feel to it. The seltzer man and Oznot's seem an odd pairing at first, but inside the hip restaurant Walpow's bottles line a mosaic-tiled wall, exuding a retro-cool. He looks around at some of the chic, young patrons who are drinking his product like old-timers.

"One thing I know for sure," Walpow says with a smile, "you can't beat a little spritz of seltzer on a hot summer day."

 

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