By COREY KILGANNON Published: April 26, 2013 NYTimes
Eli Miller, 79, New York City’s senior seltzer man, hoisted crate after crate of seltzer — weighing 70 pounds apiece — into his van and then draped himself over them.
“I’m running on fumes — the reason I work is, I just can’t stay home,” said Mr. Miller, who has been delivering seltzer in Brooklyn for more than a half-century.
He can afford to retire, but that would mean his customers, many of whom have been with him for decades, might have to resort to store-bought seltzer.
“I don’t want them to have to drink that dreck you buy in the supermarket,” he said, using the Yiddish term for dirt. “So I guess I’ll retire when Gabriel blows his horn.”
Mr. Miller said that when he began delivering, on March 10, 1960, there were perhaps 500 seltzer men in the city, and a half-dozen seltzer bottlers. Now he can count his delivery competition on one hand, and they all fill up at the last seltzer factory in the city: Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie.
A gritty old machine there pumps its effervescent, bubbly elixir into Mr. Miller’s thick glass bottles, made in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, hand-blown and hand-etched, with pewter siphon tops.
“You drop one of these, it will explode,” he said, holding one up. “Inside here is triple-filtered New York City water with 80 pounds of carbonic pressure.”
Mr. Miller jams wooden shims between the 10 rattling bottles in the beat-up wooden cases, which he delivers for $31 each.
On a recent weekday morning, he pulled his van up to the seltzer works and exchanged his empty bottles for full ones. He said hello to the owner, Kenny Gomberg, and his son, Alex, 25, who last year started his own seltzer route.
“I’m the oldest seltzer man in New York and he’s the youngest,” Mr. Miller said as Alex Gomberg loaded his van next to Mr. Miller’s. “I’m passing the baton to him.”
In quieter moments, Mr. Miller allows that he might consider retiring in a year, and that there is no one to pass the route to. He has about 150 customers, many of them sporadic, which is about half what he once had. He works two or three days a week, delivering to brownstones in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, and to restaurants in Williamsburg.
His seltzer always sold itself — he includes the sound of a spritzing bottle on his answering machine — but these days, new customers seem as enthralled by the deliveryman, as much a throwback as his product.
“I rely on mouth-to-mouth recommendations, but I’ll only take new customers if they’re near my other ones,” said Mr. Miller, who will turn 80 in June.
He used to be able to carry two full cases of seltzer up four flights. Now he asks his customers to bring them up themselves from the lobby.
His lanky frame is still strong, and he can still hoist a crate to his shoulder, but usually he lugs them at waist level. Some days, back pain prevents him from working.
But he declared, “Old seltzer men never die — they just lose their shpritzer.”
Mr. Miller, a lifelong bachelor, has lived in the same apartment in Bensonhurst since 1977.
“My customers are my family,” he said. “They feed me dinner, and I’ve watched their children grow up.”
During a recent delivery to a brownstone in Park Slope, a housekeeper let him in and then left Mr. Miller alone in the place.
“You see?” he said, picking up the empty bottles. “They give me the keys to the kingdom.”
Mr. Miller grew up in Coney Island. His three siblings became professionals. He worked as a dividend clerk on Wall Street but wanted to make more money. He began a beer delivery route in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which turned into a seltzer route in other neighborhoods.
His father, Meyer Miller, began helping Eli after retiring from his house-painting job. In 1976, his father, then 72, died of a heart attack while carrying a case up to a customer.
“This customer, she used to give him a glass of schnapps, so he liked to deliver to her,” recalled Mr. Miller, who had run up from the truck but was unable to resuscitate his father.
To this day, he keeps copies of his father’s yellowing stationery in the front seat of his van as a keepsake.
“My father died on the route and I’m going to die on the route,” he said, and resumed stacking the old, clattering cases of seltzer into his van.