September 29, 2009
NYTimes article on injured NYC Seltzer delivery man
Thank you to all who made sure I didn't miss this article in the New York Times about the recently injured seltzer delivery man and the impact is it having on his clients. We wish Mr. Beberman a fast recovery.
Be sure to read the article and, afterwards, to click to read it's associated video of the Gomberg Seltzer Works, "the last seltzer factory in New York City" in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
Seltzer Man Is Out of Action, and Brooklyn Thirsts
By COREY KILGANNON
Published: September 25, 2009
The cellphone would not stop ringing. “Ronny, you’re 10 minutes late,” one caller whined.
But Ronny Beberman had a good reason. Having tumbled eight feet off his own seltzer truck, Mr. Beberman, 62, was answering the phone while laid out on West Seventh Street in Brooklyn, bleeding from a head gash and having broken a foot and several vertebrae. The news was also bad for his customers: Ronny the Seltzer Man would be out of service for a while.
Mr. Beberman drives the last real seltzer truck in New York, a wooden-slatted affair with crooked racks and side doors that are stuck open — the easier to strap the worn wooden cases to the side.
For nearly 40 years, he has delivered seltzer in thick, old siphon bottles to thousands of Brooklynites, each customer receiving a case of 10 every other week for $25, cash.
But on Sept. 15, just before the start of the Jewish High Holy Days, one of the busiest times of the year, Brooklyn’s Gunga Din of soda water went down, and now several hundred customers are resorting to rationing or even privation.
“The first couple of days, I was drinking it slow and making it last,” said Joshua M. Bernstein, 31, of Crown Heights, a food writer and a customer of Mr. Beberman’s for three years. “We’re down to our last bottle, so we’re saving it for a special occasion.”
New York used to have hundreds of seltzer deliverymen, but now there is only Mr. Beberman and about half a dozen others who drive modern delivery trucks or vans.
The day of his accident, in Gravesend, Mr. Beberman climbed onto the top of his truck, where he keeps a few cases of soda for certain customers. He located a case of cream soda for an elderly woman but then lost his balance and tumbled to the street.
“First time I ever fell,” he said.
He was in the hospital for five days. But despite orders to take it easy, Mr. Beberman has been pacing like a bobcat, eager to get back to work. He is waiting for doctors to tell him when that might be.
Shortly after leaving the hospital, Mr. Beberman had his wife, Lois, drive him to where he fills his bottles daily: Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie, the last seltzer factory in New York City, where machines nearly a century old filter and fizz up city tap water with 60 pounds-per-square-inch of carbon dioxide.
Mr. Beberman, in torso and neck braces, hobbled into the plant to try to find a temporary driver, which is not as easy as it may sound, since Mr. Beberman does not keep a route sheet of his customers’ addresses.
“It’s all up here,” he said, pointing to his head, with its stitched-up wound. He is still looking for a driver.
This type of compulsive commitment is the mark of the real seltzer man, said Walter Backerman, 56, of Queens. Mr. Beberman and Mr. Backerman, who recently traded in his old seltzer truck for a sleek modern vehicle, are the two deliverymen in the city with the most customers, according to Kenny Gomberg, the third-generation owner of the seltzer factory.
Mr. Backerman said his father and grandfather, seltzer men both, refused to let trivialities like severed fingers and shattered kneecaps impede their deliveries.
“My father, before he died, told me, ‘I can’t stop these dreams — I keep seeing all the people I missed on the route,’ ” Mr. Backerman said.
Seltzer delivery is not for the feeble; Mr. Beberman has a strong, wiry frame and can scramble all over his truck. But his back is bad, from lifting the heavy crates, and he has also had broken ribs, several knee operations and torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders.
Normally, he starts at 5 each morning, driving by car from his home in Bayside, Queens, to pick up his truck in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. He works six days a week, with one vacation week a year. He delivers some 200 cases a week, he said.
“My route is like clockwork,” he said at his home this week. “If I’m not there, they immediately start calling.”
Mr. Beberman does not advertise, and his business is not listed in the telephone directory. The sight of his truck alone brings in more requests than he can handle, he said.
Still, the truck has its limitations. The rattling cases are so precariously perched that he will not risk driving over the Brooklyn Bridge to expand into Manhattan.
Mr. Beberman is choosy about whom he entrusts with his expensive bottles, many of which were hand-blown by Czech and Austrian makers before World War II. Each bottle holds 26 ounces. His customers must be serious about their seltzer and accept his rules. He refuses to carry cases up flights of stairs anymore. There are no half-case options. You order seltzer, you pay for 10 bottles. If you pay late, you do not get seltzer.
“You’ve heard of the Soup Nazi?” Mrs. Beberman said on Thursday. “Well Ronny is the Seltzer Nazi.”
The seltzer route put his three sons through college — they’re triplets, now age 31, and in careers that don’t involve carrying seltzer. Still, Mr. Beberman says he cannot afford to retire and would not dream of leaving his customers dry.
Few if any have called other deliverymen, and almost all of them are spiritually allergic to store-bought seltzer, with its less-than-explosive carbonation and short fizz life.
“It cleans your tongue in the morning,” Mr. Bernstein said of Mr. Beberman’s seltzer. “It’s like coffee without the caffeine. You drink it ice-cold and it shocks the senses.”
(“Real seltzer should hurt,” said Mr. Gomberg, the factory owner.)
Nostalgia also plays a part, Mr. Bernstein said. “It’s a tie to an earlier time in life,” he said. “You feel part of the New York continuum.”
Matt Levy, 29, a tour guide and fourth-generation Brooklynite, said he was rationing the case that Mr. Beberman delivered to him in Bushwick two weeks ago. He had five bottles left.
“We’re in a seltzer drought, and we have to prepare for it,” Mr. Levy said. “We have one of these little seltzer-making machines at home, but nothing is as good as Ronny’s seltzer.”