"The Seltzer Man" by Helene Stapinski

IMG_0683by Helene Stapinski

I finally fired the seltzer man. It was a long time coming. But I feel awful.

My husband had seltzer delivered when he was a kid growing up in Park Slope. This was the 70s, not the 40s, so seltzer delivery was retro even then. So when my husband saw the seltzer man making the rounds ten years ago in Red Hook, where we lived, it took him back to his childhood and he insisted we sign up.

I loved the idea of getting the old-fashioned green, blue and clear squirt bottles with their chrome spigots – like the one Lucille Ball was doused with in that famous “Slowly I Turn” episode.

They evoked simpler times, black and white televisions, sitting in my footie pajamas on the couch, watching reruns of I Love Lucy. And they were eco-friendly, since the bottles were recycled with each new round.

Most importantly, they made great highballs – not just in the old movies in the fictional bars of stars like Robert Mitchum and Ray Milland. But in our own living room, providing the true fizz in that Ramos Gin Fizz or just the right sparkle in that Old Fashioned.

Every two weeks, the seltzer man – let’s call him Johnnie — would come to our apartment building with a big homemade wooden and metal box filled with ten thick glass bottles. It cost $20. For an extra $5 Johnnie would bring a plastic bottle of U-Bet chocolate syrup, for egg creams. My kids were the envy of all the other kids in our building.

The box the seltzer came in seemed to date back to the industrial revolution, with pieces of rusty bent metal hanging off the corners, but in its way, it was cool looking. Johnnie’s truck resembled Tom Joad’s, ancient and toppling over, piled high with boxes and bottles tilting every which way, except without the big Oakie family inside.

I got stuck behind the wooden, slatted truck once in Gowanus and worried that the rattling, bubbling contents would come crashing down onto the hood of my car. But somehow, the truck held together.

Though the bottles were old and grimy, the seltzer inside was always clear and crisp, and shot to the back of your throat with a satisfying burn when you took that first swig. But there were troubles. The bottles were so old that, invariably, there was at least one that didn’t work. The malfunction came in two varieties: Either the bottle would emit a few pathetic drips and then a hissing sound, (sometimes shaking it vigorously like Tom Cruise in “Cocktail” remedied this) or the seltzer would shoot out full blast, in a burst, soaking the counter and the drinker.

I considered cancelling delivery after a few too many soakings, but I’d quickly grown fond of Johnnie, an old timer with bad hearing and, I could only imagine, a shrinking customer base. (Like the knife-sharpener, who rang a tinkling bell when his truck was on the block, or the old guy with the donkey and flower cart who disappeared a few years back, Johnnie was part of a dying breed.)

Besides, everybody loved our seltzer. Whenever we had guests over, they oohed and ahhed about the cool syphon bottles we placed on the dinner table. We gave several friends Johnnie’s number so they, too, could get fresh seltzer delivered. We gave Johnnie a key to the front door of our apartment building so we wouldn’t have to buzz him up every other Tuesday morning. We’d leave his 20 bucks inside an envelope in the old wooden box outside our apartment door.Seltzer

Then one morning, our 9-year-old neighbor, Sabina, was out playing in the hallway with our own kids and scraped herself on one of the sharp rusted metal edges of the box. She was bleeding. I feared she would need a tetanus shot, but she was up to date. Her parents, our friends, politely suggested we not leave the bottles in the hallway anymore. So I made sure to bring them in as soon as Johnnie arrived.

I told Johnnie about Sabina’s injury, and soon after, he built some brand new boxes, with fresh clean wood. And soon after, the price went up to $25. ($2.50 a bottle, or $2.75 if you added in the cost of the guaranteed bad egg.)

Usually we’d run out a week into the seltzer cycle, and I would buy plastic bottles of seltzer at the supermarket. They were environmentally unsound, and the seltzer wasn’t as good, but cost only 89 cents. During a slow seltzer consumption period, we’d actually run the risk of giving Johnnie back full bottles of seltzer for which we’d already paid. This I couldn’t abide, even if it meant spraying it into my children’s mouths on the eve of delivery.

This, plus the malfunction, prompted me occasionally to curse Johnnie and threaten – to my husband and children – to end the deliveries. But then Johnnie broke his back falling off his truck. He somehow managed delivery. And I didn’t have the heart to pull the plug.

Johnnie’s back healed, but his hearing got worse. Whenever he called to tell me about a change in delivery, I would have to shout into the phone, or get him to put his wife on the line.

And then we bought a house.

Moving seemed to be the perfect opportunity to ease Johnnie out of our lives. I did it kindly, but sneakily, saying things were crazy with the move and that I would contact him once we got settled in Windsor Terrace. Johnnie seemed crushed. I experienced terrible waves of seltzer guilt.

The week after we moved in, Johnnie’s truck rattled past on a weekday morning just as I was going out to collect the mail. He spotted me and waved and then came running over, as if he hadn’t seen me in three years. It had been three weeks.

“Hey, congratulations on the house!” he said warmly. “I’m on your block on Saturday mornings around 5:30. Should I come by next week?”

I didn’t have the guts to say no.

So Johnnie was back.

Since 5:30 on a Saturday morning was too early for anyone – anyone except Johnnie — we would put the seltzer out Friday nights on our basement stairs. And every Saturday, from bed, we’d hear that massive Grapes of Wrath truck idling outside and then the clanking sounds of Johnnie hoisting the box onto his shoulder (each weighs at least 50 pounds), swinging open the gate, placing the new crate on our stairs, and taking the empties with him. We cringed and worried our new neighbors could hear the racket as well.

After a few Friday nights of our forgetting to put the bottles out, Johnnie started calling to remind us.

Every other Friday, during family movie night, the phone would ring around 9 p.m. and Johnnie’s last name would pop up on our tv screen. “It’s Johnnie Seltzer!” he would shout.

“Hey Johnnie! We’re putting it out,” I would say, as my husband ran down in his slippers and bathrobe to haul the case out onto the stairs.

Around this time, one of the bottles decided to spontaneously void itself in the middle of the night, dripping down into the produce drawers and forming a small swimming pool in which stray grapes and vegetable detritus now swam. Seltzer delivery seemed more trouble than it was worth. But we still couldn’t part with all the adulation. We bathed in the reflected glory of the blue and green bottles. At cocktail parties to show off our new townhouse, our guests marveled over the vintage contraptions.

And then this winter arrived.

Johnnie had to call to confirm whether or not he’d be delivering at all, since the bottles – even in just the freezing hallway – could crack. We decided to leave the basement door open, so he could bring them in and out.

But then it snowed and snowed and the basement stairs became treacherous and we told Johnnie to hold off until it warmed up. We didn’t want to be responsible for Johnnie breaking his back again.

Then last week, while my husband was at a funeral, Johnnie called and spoke to my 14-year-old son, whose voice has lowered several octaves since Johnnie started coming to visit. Johnnie naturally thought it was my husband and reminded him to leave the basement door open. My son forgot to tell his father. And so on Saturday morning, around 8:30, the phone rang. I was still asleep. I jumped bolt up straight and grabbed the receiver, sure someone in my family was dead.

But it was just Johnnie, politely complaining that the door was locked when he came at 5:30.

Maybe it was an early morning clarity – like that cool, fresh seltzer that greeted us with each new delivery. But I suddenly had to end it with Johnnie. The kids were getting older and no longer made egg creams. Life was getting more and more busy and complicated with each passing day. I was tired of using paper towels to soak up the seltzer from the counter and produce drawers. Something that was supposed to make life simpler was just too much trouble. I knew the relationship was over. I had to have the courage to let him go.

“You know what, Johnnie? I think we’re going to cancel delivery. It’s too much of a hassle.”

There was no argument. Though if Johnnie had launched one, I’m sure I would have caved. Like a jilted lover, Johnnie just said, “Alright then. If that’s what you want.” When my son woke up a few hours later, I told him Johnnie was out of our lives.

“Ohh,” he said slightly disappointed. Then he smiled. “I bet he’ll be back.”


Helene Stapinski is the author of the best selling memoir, “Five-Finger Discount” as well as, “Baby Plays Around,” a book about playing drums in an indie rock band on the Lower East Side in the 1990s. “Five-Finger,” the story of growing up in a family of small-time crooks and swindlers, is currently in development as a documentary. She writes regularly for The New York Times, has contributed to dozens of magazines, blogs and newspapers, and has been a featured performer with The Moth. She has also worked as a radio deejay, adjunct professor, cocktail waitress and lecturer at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. 

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Midlife Drinking: Part 1

imagesby C. Anne Roberts

I do not have a drinking problem. There have been mornings where my head is explosive, barely holding itself. And there have been nights that I barely remember. But there have also been afternoons that were incandescent. Dinner parties that were magical. I’ve seen groups of people who could not be in the same room join together in song (although I have also seen people who completed each other shatter into a million pieces after a drunken battle.)

After a couple of drinks I am as witty as Dorothy Parker and as beautiful as Sophia Loren. When I open my mouth to sing, I wonder why I am undiscovered. And when I type out a message on Facebook, I am a sage who deserves a book deal.

So why am I putting my wine glass down? Because like so many women my age – an age of second chances and encore performances – my problem isn’t so much with drinking, it’s with the reasons I drink.

We are a social lot. We gather for book clubs and dinner parties, both themed around food and drinks. Our volunteer meetings end with plans to reconnoiter at the wine bar, if the meeting wasn’t originally held at a wine bar. We drink at fund-raisers and we drink at funerals. We meet our girlfriends for lunch and conspiratorially order drinks, like we never ever drink at lunch. Ever. Just one glass. OK, two.

Vacations include wine-tastings. Trips to vineyards. We read the Wall Street Journal for Lettie Teague’s wine articles, showing off what we’ve gleaned that evening at a friend’s dinner.

There aren’t kids to get out of bed in the morning, so OK, I’ll have another drink. There’s nothing big on my calendar tomorrow. Pour me another glass, please. And there it begins. I have nothing to do, nowhere to be. I’ve become no one, so I’ll drink to fill that hole and that hole becomes bigger because that’s what alcohol does, it makes you needy and sad and covetous. It was fun in the beginning, but soon enough you’re not looking in the mirror because you don’t like that bloaty face staring back.

A recent study shows about 10 percent of us – us being women over 50 – binge drink during any given month. That’s 5 drinks at one sitting, although I question those numbers because who keeps counting after the first two? Besides a spouse, I mean. Your BFF is right up there with you, matching you wine glass for wine glass. Medical Study, I question your accuracy.

But I can’t question the aftermath. Several studies, ones I believe because I’ve witnessed the same results, say our metabolism slows as we age. So that one glass of wine hangs around in our liver for-freakin’-ever. Hangovers linger on and on and on, the refrain to a song that you loved the first time but now switch stations when it’s on. (I’m looking at you, Phillip Phillips.) One glass of wine hits me like two. Two hit me like six.

I could drink like that in my 20s. Even in my 30s. But by my 40s I was slowing down. It took more than another decade to wake up, look in the mirror and wonder who was looking back.

C. Anne Roberts is a Midwest-based journalist. She blogs at Midlife without the Madness: Women and Sobriety.

*This post originally appeared on


Drinking Diaries is An Audiobook!

audible drinking diariesWe have some great news! Our book, Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press), is now available in audiobook format from Audible. Of course we’re biased, but we think it’d make an excellent holiday gift. Many people prefer listening to books over reading them.

This is what one listener had to say about Drinking Diaries: “One of the most honest, non-judgmental books about women and drinking I’ve ever come across. Women’s relationships with alcohol are many faceted, and this book hits all the angles.”

If you’re interested in learning more, just click this link to Audible.

Let us know what you think!


In Her Closet

walk-in+closetLast week, I prepared to enter my mother’s walk-in closet. Over the past several months, I’ve been going to her house—my childhood home—a couple of times a week, sifting through piles of papers, plastic containers and desk drawers. Discarding trivial things, such as my school bus form from seventh grade and dried out pens, is a snap. Figuring out what to keep is not.

When I was growing up, my mom kept her closet locked and alarmed—the kind that would alert the police if someone tripped it. She showed me regularly where she kept the key and how to disarm the alarm (there was a small hidden switch in a different closet), meant to protect her precious jewelry inside. There were shelves too, with old Lord & Taylor boxes overflowing with piles of papers—newspaper and magazine articles, old theater Playbills, etc.—and lucite boxes holding an abundance of photo envelopes stacked from front to back. On the highest shelf, there was a row of large round hat boxes, housing those wide-brimmed beauties that my mom sported only at special events, like springtime weddings (mine) and bar mitzvahs (my brother’s).

Born in France, my mother was the epitome of chic. A business executive by day, she dressed for work in a tailored skirt or slacks, with long strands of pearls strewn over a blouse or sweater. She favored dresses for evenings out, particularly those with a plunging neckline to highlight her décolleté. She rarely emerged from the house without her preferred fashion accessory, a silk scarf tied around her neck or the strap of her handbag.

Her closet still contains all of these things—not to mention dozens of Charles Jourdan shoes—and being inside those four walls stirs up childhood souvenirs of my lying on her bed, watching her primp and prepare for a Saturday night on the town with my dad. She’d come out of her closet, looking like a movie star, and make her way to her vanity table to put on her maquillage. There was always red lipstick. And perfume.

Life was in rapid motion for her then—busy with kids, husband, work, a home, a dog, and aging parents. Those IMG_2747hectic and happy days are long gone, and now in her late 70s, my mom suffers from acute anxiety and depression. My father’s death in 2006 voided her of vitality, leaving her lost and sad, and I can’t get her back. My mother has tried therapy and medication, but a different sort of French accessory—wine—became her choice for self-soothing. Eventually it became vodka.

When my father was sick in the hospital, my mother used to lie beside him in his hospital bed. He would talk to me and occasionally rest his eyes; hers were closed too because she was passed out and drunk. During that time, I went to their house and into her closet to move her jewelry out and into a bank safe. When my arm touched the wall, I heard a clank. I reached over to the side of the safe, a beige metal box bolted to the floor, and felt a round piece of glass. It was an empty bottle. I reached back again, further this time, and pulled out a half dozen more. She hid the wine bottles in the safety of her closet, where I imagine she escaped to take a swig or ten, and left the empties behind.

It’s been seven years since I found those bottles. My mom now lives in an assisted living facility just ten minutes away from her house. She no longer has access to alcohol and instead takes a daily cocktail of meds, yet she still suffers from anxiety and depression.

In my effort to clean out her house and ready it for the real estate market, I knew I’d have to spend time in that closet. Fearful of how I may feel in there, even with the comforting presence of my shaggy goldendoodle, I decided to bring a glass of wine along with me. I knew it was bad to drive there with open wine in my car, but I did it anyway, saving those few ounces of liquid courage it for the hours I’d need to sift through her things while enduring the memories they would trigger. I realized the irony—here I was bringing wine into the tiny room where I found my mother’s empty bottles, once replete with the substance in which I was now seeking solace. But I did it anyway.

Cleaning out my mother’s house has been both painful and eye opening. Her photos, keepsakes, and written words remind me of the amazing woman she once was, and highlight the glaring contrast between her then and now. It won’t be much longer until her closet is clean, her clothes donated, her photos digitized. But the next time I go, I’ll leave the wine behind. Because no amount of alcohol can strip away the memories, not hers or mine.

–Caren Osten Gerszberg is a co-editor of Drinking Diaries. You can read a selection of her work at www.carenosten.com


AA Asana

yoga asanaBy Kate Robinson

In 19 days I will have a year sober.

In 19 days it will be one year since I was lying on the couch at 4:30 in the afternoon with the two bottles of wine I would mix with diet Ginger Ale and vodka until I would gently pass out around six pm before my boyfriend could even walk through the door to talk me out of it.

It become clear to me now that I was trying to kill myself, but wanted to choose a method that a) wouldn’t hurt, b) wouldn’t take my air and c) would give me plenty of opportunities to back out. Alcohol met all three requirements, with the added benefit of anesthetizing my brain into a white room of quiet equanimity where I was able to simply exist.

That first drink of the evening (or morning) felt as if I had taken a steady slow inhale, the second drink was a warm and gentle yawn, and the third drink was the sweetest exhale I have ever known.

It must be excusable, I must forgive myself.

I had good reason to drink.

Things happened. I was born.

This is where I could undress my pedestrian traumas, and otherwise… but instead choose to trust that human suffering is human suffering.

I had good reason to drink.

I say this again in order to assuage my sense of guilt, my shame, I say this because saying “I drank my medicine” feels self-indulgent. Maybe it isn’t, but still I must take responsibility for all the times I chose oblivion over waking.

In this past year, I have painfully and reluctantly come to believe that my agency is to be preserved and protected, and when I drink I am forfeiting the reins hitched to what sense of self I have. But I do miss being an observer, I miss the quiet-passivity, stillness and warmth of being drunk.

I have given myself brain damage. I do not know if it will heal.

I can’t remember the exact moment I decided not to drink until my breath slowed and my heart gave out. What I do remember is that I prayed to the saints of my childhood for help.

They were bashfully mute.

I have a picture of myself at two years old on my mother’s lap, sharing my complete joy and surprise over the jack-in-the-box I was holding performing its one function, and performing it well. My mother’s face was of a feigned surprise, that sweet half opened mouth with eyebrows vaulted in pride that she had made me, and I was on her lap—safe and round and hers.

A treasured shrink of mine once told me to think of myself as a mother, and imagine how I would treat my two-year-old self. Would I put stale wine and vodka in a bottle and feed this theoretical baby this poison everyday until the child would sweat and tremor in the elixir’s absence? I can say with certainty, No.

Like a hologram, I projected an image into the future, as my present was walking on razors.

It stands to logic then, that I should be able to transfer this sense of protecting and cherishing of a theoretical baby to my actual grown-ass self.

That worked, to a point.

I must pause for a minute to mourn my loss of memory. Not just the memory lost from a blackout, but the brain damage I suffered from long years of binge drinking.

There are holes all over my life, and at times this is a simple mercy, because perhaps my heart could not bare the damage I have done. At this moment it is an albatross, because I cannot conjure moments from my recent past that matter.

My heart fills with what feels like a heated vinegar and I must arm wrestle my tears for sovereignty over my eyes. When I salvage what memories I still have I do remember something–either a yoga teacher, a therapist, a friend, a book, a commercial, a box of tampons. I remember hearing the advice that what decisions you make today will either bring you a step closer, or a step further away from the version of yourself you want to become.

What would that person say to this sick, hurting lady on the couch?

What is her life like? What is she wearing? What does her average day look like? How does she make a living? Get as specific as possible…(This came from the brilliant Ana Forrest’s book “Fierce Medicine.” All that tear grappling for nothing.)

Anyway—I did what she said, and I am slowly crafting myself into the adult woman I would most like to be.

I was surprised at what I saw.

She was roughly my height (thank Jesus) she had long straggly hair (done!) She was near the ocean, with a big rescue dog. She put food on the table with her words and as she walked towards me she folded forward corking her hands into the sand, and lofted her feet into an effortless handstand.

It was as clear as a painless stigmata, that if I intended to be whole I was going to have yoga in my life.

In Fierce Medicine, Ana talks about her sun-salutations being her 12 steps. My relationship with AA is hot and cold. It did me so much good in the beginning, but as time passed I began to find my steadiness in other packages. I have not quit AA, I do not bemoan it, I merely accept that we are in the throes of a constant lover’s quarrel.

One of those land-angels who wears a lot of black.

The reality is less pastel, and surviving long enough to have an opportunity to heal was, in short: rigorous.

My detox was long. My post-acute withdrawal symptoms were many and they were vocal. Getting on the T to get to yoga, or my job, or the facility I attended a day program for addiction took all of my strength.

It took about seven months before I could travel without going pale and feeling nauseous to the point of salivating. When I think of how much heavier I was in both my physical and spiritual body, I shudder.

I was lucky that the day I was released from detox, I signed up for my first sober yoga class at Back Bay Yoga. I walked into an afternoon Forrest class taught by Nicole Clark. I was scared. I took whatever piece of literary fiction I was attempting, and read until class started. I kept a book, any book near my mat at all times. Nicole became, in short order, one of the people that (if you are lucky) arrive in the landscape of your life and change the backdrop.

What I am clumsily trying to say is, I found a teacher who made me feel safe and welcome, and that in some way I belonged on the mat, that I would not always sweat vodka.

The Gift of My Hand Tremor.

I am not all better.

I still crave getting wasted. I still get weepy when I think of what I have done to myself, and the people around me.

I have started to find some quiet warmth and a touch of oblivion on my mat. The more I practice, the better it gets.

I am only almost sober for a year, and they say the first year is for your body, the second for your mind. I don’t appreciate that breed of algorithm, but it is useful for me to think that it can always get better, that I am not done getting better.

I am not finished healing.

My hands wear a tremor.

Whenever I lift them to my partner’s face, grip a pencil too tightly, or hold a gesticulation too long, it is noticeable. For me the trembling is a gift.

It’s what gives me away to people with vivid imaginations. It’s what keeps me honest, and prevents any cockiness about my sobriety. It is a reminder of what I have done, and where I have been, and how important it is to stop trying to jump off every bridge made of steel, or words that I cross.

I know my addiction hasn’t gone anywhere, that she is just lifting weights in the basement of my brain. I know I still can’t execute a graceful handstand, and that my apartment won’t allow dogs. I know that there is work to be done and mistakes to be made.

I know I do not have to fret about most things. That if I can just be here, now—not forever fleeing—that my future will take care of itself. I know that staying awake is my one function, and I am just beginning to perform it well.

Kate Robinson is a yoga teacher in and around Boston. She received her certification at Back Bay Yoga. She also is the author of the book “Darling Angel Meat” from Shoe Music Press and has her MFA in Poetry and Literature from Bennington. She doesn’t fit in most Lululemon clothes, and frankly could give a damn. You can read more of her musings on Facebook.

 Note: Reprinted with Permission of the author. This piece originally ran online in Elephant Journal