"The Seltzer Man" by Helene Stapinski

by Caren on July 2, 2014

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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