To many native New Yorkers seltzer is the wonderdrink of the Lower East Side and a source of gastronomic nostalgia comparable only to Marcel Proust’s chocolate madeleine. It is a carbonated gestalt, an unsurpassed conjurer of half-forgotten ghetto memories, the peptic panacea which helped generations of Middle European immigrants cut through the leaden delights of Jewish cooking. The ubiquitous seltzer siphon, which was a kitchen-table staple in the boyhood apartments of future governors, senators, mayors and merchant millionaires, was equally at home on the stage of Minsky’s Houston Street burlesque, where comedians used to splash away the minutes while the girls got dressed. Somehow, even the youngsters denied a ghetto childhood grew up with a sense of the seltzer mystique. Perhaps some of seltzer’s attraction is based on its power to release repressions as well as heartburn. Seltzer, as many New Yorkers recall, came (and still comes) in hair-trigger siphons ideal for drenching chesty friends and rival siblings.
For the city’s early Jewish community—and there were 1.4 million people jammed into the Lower East Side in 1910—seltzer was not a luxury. It was the only palatable, non-dyspeptic, poison-free drinking water available. Tenement water faucets were not only exposed to great filth, but were often five and six flights down, in the rear yards, broken in the summer and frozen in the winter. Even the poorest ghetto dweller had to somehow find enough loose change around to bring a few siphons of seltzer into the apartment. The early photographs of squalid Delancey Street flats taken in 1910 by Lewis Hines often show a few siphons amid the jumble of wrinkled clothing, iron bedsteads, quilts and frightened, dark-eyed children.
Today, however, the vin ordinaire of the tenement is facing bad days. Urban renewal, working wives and a change in Czechoslovakian trade policies are all conspiring to flatten what was once a profitable and highly charged business. Some seltzermen have even sought refuge in Chapter Eleven of the New York State Bankruptcy Act, and as a result their siphons have begun turning up on more decorator shop shelves than kitchen tables. Bottles which once served the poorest tenement families on the Lower East Side have now been transformed into $40 table lamps by one Fifth Avenue department store. A cosmetic firm has pressed miniatures in plastic, filled them with manly shaving lotion and called them “Scotch ’n Soda.” A fashionable Third Avenue bar uses a siphon bottle as its trademark, and some of the city’s classier boites have found that the siphon’s quiet sprish adds just the proper timbre to their image.
Unfortunately for the surviving seltzermen this sudden-found favor as an upper-income curio has not really aided them in their present plight. Volume seltzer drinking is essentially a habit of the Lower, rather than the Upper East Side, and the occasional call for a case of “so-ta” from the owner of a fashionable townhouse will never be able to sustain 200 heavy-eating, Lower East Side families.
Plans, however, for putting the splash back in seltzer, as one official of the Seltzermen’s Association described their unofficial campaign, are characteristically disorganized. Seltzermen are highly individualistic characters with streaks of stubbornness as wide as their trucks. Once, in a rare burst of unanimity from which many members have never recovered, the association launched a weekly Yiddish-language radio soap opera. Called Die Umglikliche Kale von Suffolk Street (the woebegone bride of Suffolk Street), it starred Jennie Goldstein and Joseph Buloff, then the Lunt and Fontanne of the Second Avenue Theater. The program continued for well over 10 years, far past the point where it appeared to be doing much good for seltzer, but as one association member explained, “A good Jewish bride doesn’t run out of umgliken, and anyway, when they get started it’s hard to shut them up.” The bitterness left in the minds of many seltzermen as a result of disagreements about whether or not to withdraw sponsorship of the “seltzer opera” have since made all efforts on the part of the association to map out a mutual plan of action for seltzer’s revival almost impossible.
The seltzer siphon is as perfect an invention as man has ever made. Its life expectancy from constant and rough handling is between 40 and 50 years.
Aside from a general lack of mutual concern, aside from the constant dissolution of the older Jewish communities which have traditionally been seltzer’s greatest market, aside from the fact that since 1957 Czechoslovakia stopped making the specially blown siphons and as a consequence their value has quintupled, aside from all of these woebegones, the main problem facing seltzermen today, their most repeated complaint, is simply that more and more housewives are working at jobs which take them away from their kitchens during the day, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make home deliveries and pick up the empty siphons.
“Today there just aren’t any more housewives,” one seltzerman said. “The only people home in those new, fancy apartment houses in the daytime nowadays are the burglars, and they’ll only open the door for United Parcel.”
George Schaikowitz has been a seltzerman for almost 40 years and, typically, owns about 10,000 bottles, a huge red truck and a small house. He is also one of the remaining seltzermen clever enough to make a comfortable living from what many others consider a dying business.
“The whole trick in seltzer is that you have to watch your bottles,” George explained. “You’ve got to control those bottles. You can’t just leave them outside any doorway or under any stoop, but you’ve got to know where and when you can.
“A lot of the real old timers are like the old patriarchs. You know—stubborn. They make up their minds ‘I don’t leave under no stoops!’ and then even if President Johnson himself asks them to leave a case under the stoop at the White House, they won’t.
“You’ve got to go with the business now, but at the same time keep control. Do you know how you lose control of your bottles? You lose it little by little, that’s how. A case in this man’s closet, a case in that lady’s cellar, a case taken to the bungalow in the summertime and never brought back, a case lent to a cousin from Philadelphia, a case here, a case there, little by little you’ve got less and less until one day you find yourself driving around with an empty truck.”
Today, according to the Association, there are fewer than six neighborhoods in which seltzer delivery routes can be patched together, and one of the new plans suggested to the seltzermen is that they load their trucks with flavored soft drinks, beer and various mixers as well as seltzer, and cater to other ethnic groups besides the Jews. For instance, though very little seltzer is ever sold in an Italian-American community, cases of cream soda—used to sweeten their wine, association members theorize—can be sold in great amounts whenever seltzermen have the foresight to bring it along. In predominantly Negro and Puerto Rican areas most families prefer what seltzermen describe as the “shocking colors” like orange and lemon and lime. In Irish and Scandinavian neighborhoods, especially around Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where the two groups actually adjoin, large beer, ginger ale and Seven-Up sales are made through home delivery. Even in Jewish neighborhoods, where seltzer was once the exclusive drink, the younger generation seems to have acquired a taste for raspberry, grape and cherry classified by the seltzermen as “the reds.”
Seltzer itself is made today in what amounts to almost absolute secrecy.
Seltzer is named after the naturally carbonated water of Setter Spa, near Weisbaden, Germany, where before 1750 it was considered as fashionable a drink as any cupped in Vichy or Perrier, France or Bath, England. In 1777 Antoine Laurent Lavoissier produced the first artificially made seltzer in the United States and by 1809 the first commercial patent was issued to a Philadelphia firm. When the great German and Jewish migrations of the late 1880s began, a constantly expanding market of preconditioned seltzer fans started arriving in the U.S. by the thousands every day. It was sold then in the same kind of siphons in which it is sold today. The seltzer siphon, according to most of the men who own them, is as perfect an invention as man has ever made. Its life expectancy from constant and rough handling is between 40 and 50 years. It is the only bottle ever devised that can keep the full charge in the carbonation even after the first drink has been poured. It is sturdy enough to withstand the 100 pounds per square inch pressure which is packed into seltzer as compared with the 31 pounds of pressure in regular bottled soda water and the 18 pounds of pressure exerted by the home-siphon capsules. The specially blown siphons, unfortunately, are no longer made in Czechoslovakia (seltzermen don’t know why) and as a result their value has risen from 23 cents new to about $1.50 each, used. Their value today in fact is such that the Seltzermen’s Association has hired a 72-year-old seltzerman to patrol the city and make sure every seltzerman is carrying his own siphons.
“George Trianski is kind of a seltzer cowboy,” Schaikowitz explained. “He goes around and visits all the filler shops and garages and when he sees a stranger on your truck—that’s a bottle that doesn’t belong to you—he is authorized to take it off. At the end of a day he takes them to a basement the association rents for him in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and twice a year they are sorted and returned to their real owners.”
Schaikowitz is in obvious awe of the seltzer cowboy.
“The man is amazing. He remembers every name on every bottle and who their real owners are and that’s not easy in seltzer. For instance, my original bottles were acid-etched under my own name of Schaikowitz, but when I decided a few years back to quit the business, I sold my Schaikowitz siphons to another man. Then when I decided I wanted to continue selling seltzer I had to buy another man’s bottles with his name. So today I got Lashinker on my bottles, Schaikowitz is on Gelman’s bottles, his name is on Dietzman’s bottles and the Grossman brothers have bottles with Schleiger, Hantan, Morrisey, Rodman, Paramount, Fordham and S&L etched on them. Trianski, at 72 years, remembers everyone of them and where they belong.”
Trianski is not as impressed with himself.
“It was rougher in the beginning. Now they all know me and when they see me coming they don’t run so hard. In the beginning I used to jump out of my car and grab bottles off their trucks when they stopped for red lights.”
During his first year on the job Trianski managed to salvage 1,780 siphons from junkshops and junkyards alone. It is a New York State law that a junk man in possession of any siphon without the written consent of the seltzerman to whom they are registered in Albany is guilty by “preemptive evidence” of a violation of General Business Law, Section 336.
Seltzer itself is made today in what amounts to almost absolute secrecy. There are about 20 siphon filler shops scattered about the city, and they are invariably behind boarded-up storefronts in rundown neighborhoods. At 121 Broome Street, near Pitt, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Louis Miller, who used to be a mailman, fills about 700 seltzer bottles a day. He fills these bottles on a noisy, 60-year-old, English-made Barnett & Foster “Monitor” siphon filling machine for about a dozen independent seltzermen, including George Schaikowitz. There were once well over a hundred filler shops in the City, and Lou Miller’s shop had three times as many seltzermen as customers. The store is long, narrow and dark. Against one wall are stacks of wooden cases filled with seltzer bottles, which bear names like Rippling Waters, Rock Creek, Laurel Club and Glenmore. The older bottles, that is those older than 50 years, are usually designed grandly, with acid etchings of eagles, flags, pennants, crossed spears and rampant lions with rakish crowns. Under each etching the proud names of the original owners, most of whom have long since died or sold their bottles, are lettered.
“Joan Fontaine, she calls and says ‘Hellew, this is Joan Fontaine, send me up two cases,’ just like that she asks. She’s a regular person.”
Lou Miller inherited his filler shop from his father-in-law and, according to him, since that day he has had to set his alarm for 3:30 a.m. five day a week.
“The seltzermen arrive before dawn, and to be ready for them I have got to be here an hour early.”
Miller is a tall man with a large, round face and thinning sand-colored hair combed straight back. He wears rimless glasses that slice across his temples, and he gives the resigned impression of someone who has become addicted to his own weariness and rumpled discomfort. Lumbering about his shop during the pre-dawn hours, splashing across wet floors, checking the copper refrigeration tank that contains the filtered water used in making seltzer, Miller reached up to turn on the overhead lights in the hope of brightening the windowless store. He pulled a strand of twine and a backbone of dangling, unshaded light bulbs filled the store with more dim-watted shadows than light.
As the seltzermen arrive they unload their own trucks and run their cases into the store along metal rollers. In the filler shop all rollers lead to the siphon machine and, when the filling begins, Miller the craftsman stands before his clanging, belching, splashing, exploding, seltzer-spraying contraption like the Vulcan of wet. Miller’s machine is about six-feet high, three-feet wide and crowned with a moist tangle of copper tubing and pipes which serve to join the filtered water and carbon dioxide in a noisy fusing somewhere inside the machine. By hand Miller began to insert siphon bottles, one at a time, and upside down, into a rotating series of cradles which passes an exposed face in the front of the machine. Seltzer bottles are filled through their spouts and the metal siphon heads are not removed. A lever on each of the machine’s cradles simply depresses the bottle’s handle as one might to fill a glass with seltzer, except when the siphons are being filled they are upside down. As the bottles rotate on the cradle around toward the back of the enclosed machine a nozzle fits over the bottle’s spout and fills it with seltzer.
While working his wondrous machine Miller explained that each filler shop has a few retail customers as well as the seltzermen.
“I’ve got some people. There are still some people who occasionally they call up. Mostly you inherit them from your no-pay Chapter Eleven guys.
“Like Joan Fontaine, she calls, she says” (affecting a high pitched voice): “ ‘Hellew, this is Joan Fontaine, send me up two cases,’ just like that she asks. She’s a regular person.”
Pearl, a short, stoop-shouldered seltzerman with a Marine Corps fatigue cap, was standing a few feet away from Miller. Though intently counting his bottles as they went, one by one, into the machine, Pearl would occasionally interrupt Miller’s monologue with a critical comment.
“No pressure,” Pearl would say in the middle of Miller’s imitation of Joan Fontaine.
“You call that a fill?”
“Here, it’s all talk and no pressure.”
Miller went on paying no attention to Pearl.
“I’ve got others besides Joan Fontaine. Toots Shor I’ve got, I send to him. Sylvia Sidney calls me up whenever she’s in town. Judge Bayer likes a case in chambers.”
The pun went unnoticed by Pearl, who just followed his last case of filled siphons out of the shop and into his truck.
“You think the new burlesque shows they don’t take my seltzer? And a few cases for fancy uptown parties…”
Miller was now filling George Schaikowitz’s bottles.
Suddenly, and for the first time, Miller took his head out-of the-siphon filler and faced the room. His glasses were wet, the front of his stiff rubber apron glistened, and the seltzer spray dripped from the end of his nose.
“He’s gone,” George answered.
“Gone?” Miller yelled, and then squinting his eyes and baring his teeth, “the sonofabitch is gone.”
“What’s the matter?” George asked calmly.
“He sneaks away without paying me, that’s what’s the matter. Every week he does it to me. I’ve got to take this from him?”
Miller began pawing through a memo pad he drew with wet hands from his hip pocket.
“You shouldn’t let him upset you,” George said. “Get rid of him if he owes you all the time. He’s not worth the aggravation.”
Miller turned back to the machine and began inserting bottles into the cradles, but his ears and neck remained red with anger for several moments.
“Get rid of him? I’d love to, George,” Miller said finally. “But I can’t afford to lose him.”
“Lose him?” George answered. “You can’t afford to keep him, and if you want I’ll talk to him.”
“George, please. Listen to me. Don’t talk to him. He’ll make out it’s an excuse and then I’ll lose him altogether. It’ll be a total loss.”
“Look if you don’t want, I won’t, but if you want, I will,” George said.
“Ah, George,” Miller sighed. “If they were all like George it’d be a different business.”
Then, addressing the whole room without missing a siphon in the machine, “George. When I lose George, it’ll be my death blow. I’m a dying shop.”
[Featured Image: Molly Mizilu via flickr; photo via Wikimedia Commons]