Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Seltzerman

The recent thread reminded me of this slide show that I made using the original audio
and finding images images that I thought matched. I think it goes back to 2003. I remember the seltzerman we had in Knickerbocker Village, he was Abe Berg. Years and years later I would spot Abe Berg bottles at flea markets or still in use with the few people left that had seltzermen. This article from 2002 describes the show and the wonderful series it was part of.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; Hearing Heartbeats of Eccentrics and Troubled Youths
Published: January 22, 2002

Walter Backerman is a particular kind of New York character. But let him tell you.

''Let me start from scratch,'' he begins. ''My name is Walter the Seltzer Man. This is my truck. It has a little bit of everything. A bunch of old, old bottles. Office supplies. I've got some aspirin in case anyone who comes in the truck's got a headache. I've got flares. I've got a digital movie camera. I've got guide books, I've got tour books, in case I'm curious when I'm driving by I see an old building and I want to know a little bit about the history. I've got a truck that's extremely chaotic and to anyone else would appear to be a shambles. But to me it's semi-organized.''

Once this endearing eccentric would have been a New York cliché, but now -- not yet 50 years old -- he's as anachronistic as the seltzer bottles he delivers. ''The bottles are worth so much I'd be better off pulling all my bottles out of every customer's house and selling them slowly as antique collectibles,'' he says ruefully. He reports that his wife has told him, ''You're just a novelty.''

Mr. Backerman is a natural storyteller, perfect for radio, because the story inside the story inside a story can be hard for a camera to capture. He's part of a series of profiles called ''New York Works Stories,'' about people in vanishing professions, including a woman who runs a custom bra shop and a man who builds water towers. These charming portraits, produced by Joe Richman, will be playing weekly on public radio, through the end of February, weekends on ''The Next Big Thing'' on WNYC in New York (820 AM and 93.9 FM) and Wednesday afternoons on ''All Things Considered'' on National Public Radio).

Mr. Backerman's seltzer bottles may be, as he says, ''worth more dead than alive,'' but radio itself is more like the seltzer man himself, curious and still surprisingly vital. Personal stories, in particular, feel both more intimate and less intrusive on radio than on television, conversational rather than voyeuristic.

Mr. Richman has done more than his bit to keep the form kicking. He's produced more than 25 radio documentaries, including series in which teenagers and prisoners record their feelings in affecting glimpses of lives.

Mr. Richman will be sharing the public radio airwaves over the next several weeks with Sound Portraits, David Isay's radio documentary company, one of the few other entities that specialize in such audio intimacies. The latest Sound Portraits offering is ''Youth Portraits,'' the producer Stacy Abramson's swan song for the company. Ms. Abramson recently left Sound Portraits to become an executive producer at WNYC, where this series will begin on Jan. 28, at 4:30 p.m. and continue through Feb. 1.

This poignant collection of short features was reported, narrated and edited by young people from troubled backgrounds; all but one of them has done time at Rikers Island. Ms. Abramson found them through Friends of Island Academy, an organization connected with the high school on Rikers Island, whose purpose is to help lower the recidivism rate for its youthful alumni.

The novice documentary makers wrestle with making the hard facts conform to their desire to find redemption and hope in their stories. They bravely confront the most disturbing parts of their lives.

''I never write about my parents,'' says Bernard Skelton, a 24-year-old who loves to write rap music, adores his little boy and spent much of his own boyhood robbing cab drivers and deliverymen. ''They weren't there for me.'' When he does interview them, during a party for his son's third birthday, he is struck by the profound loneliness and sense of dislocation he's felt since their breakup, when he was a baby. When he says he wants to spare his son that feeling, his desire is palpable.

In his broadcast, Ariel Corporan, 22, takes his mother to task for not stopping his stepfather from beating him. She's unapologetic and unsympathetic toward her son, who became a schoolyard bully because, he says, ''at home I was alone and weak.''

Mr. Corporan offers a gripping description of his indoctrination into gangster life. He was sent as a teenager to a juvenile detention center, where he learned the art of being a delinquent. Back in school at 17, he met a boy in the cafeteria named Harold but called Bigs. ''If you'd seen the roll of money this guy pulled out, you'd have melted,'' Mr. Corporan says. Soon he had become a kind of Mr. Big himself, selling crack until he found himself facing several policemen and a barrage of bullets.

Yovani White, 20, describes how she'd go to school with a razor blade next to her gums to fool metal detectors. She became expert at talking with the blade in her mouth, so when she got into fights, she says, ''You spit the razor right out into your hand and you cut 'em and they won't know what happened.''

Ms. White and her friends chat about the process of cutting other girls in the park as casually as they might discuss a new CD. But eventually she touches her own vulnerability, as she talks about learning that her beloved grandmother had died while Ms. White was in jail.

The stories resonate with memories of abandonment -- actual and emotional -- but also with humor and romance, as the novice documentary makers interview their brothers, sisters and lovers. Andre Vaughn, 21, asks his sister to recall the first time she found their mother smoking crack (when Andre was 9). The sister also remembers when, exactly, she suspected her brother had started to steal. It was one Christmas when expensive gifts appeared in the house even though he didn't have a job.

Mr. Vaughn speaks with warmth, style and sincerity, and you want to believe him when he puts his criminal days in the past tense. His radio documentary is cut and polished, but he and the others remain works in progress.

1 comment:


If I remember correctly, the seltzer man who delivered to KV had a red truck. The bottles, kept in wooden crates, were held in place by a rope, since the truck was open -- not like the Pepsi or Coke trucks of today.