I ran into Walter on Bleecker Street.
Amid the flurry of high-end super-shoppers, parked among gleaming BMWs and SUVs, Walter guarded his rickety delivery truck while his helper ran seltzer bottles in and out of buildings. Walter watches the truck because the traffic cops love to give him tickets.
Maybe it's the truck itself that attracts the traffic cops. It's no beauty queen, but a beat-up step van filled with character. The cab's back panel is lined with photos, autographs from the famous (Sarah Jessica Parker and Whoopi Goldberg), clippings from the many newspaper and magazine articles on Walter, and faded snapshots from the old days of seltzer hauling.
"This'll be the last picture taken in this truck," Walter told me as I snapped his photo for the blog. He's getting a new truck. A sleeker, roomier model. But the old shelves will go with him, as will the wooden crates made by a customer--and the bottles, of course, those gorgeous antique bottles, some the same as his father and grandfather used to schlep.
Walter is friendly and chatty, and he likes to tell stories. He recalled the old days, back in the 1970s, when he delivered to dangerous neighborhoods and kept a gun stuck in his waistband to fend off thieves. Today, in Bloomberg's New York, it's the traffic cops he has to fight.
"So what was better," I asked, "the traffic cops or the muggers?"
"Same shit," said his helper, Derek. "Only difference is, you can't touch a traffic cop, but the muggers you can fight back."
Walter agreed, laughing, "The sneak thieves. I could take 'em. They put a gun on me, I'd take out my money, like this. I was arrogant, counting it out slow, one, two, three. Right in their face. I'd tell 'em: You better shoot straight, 'cause if you miss, I'm gonna make you eat that gun."
Nobody messes with the seltzer man.
Walter Backerman, back in the day
- Hear Walter on Radio Diaries
- Read about him in the New York Times
- Read more in Imbibe
- In Walter's own words: "...I remember loading the truck in the Summer of 1964, and seeing another seltzerman with a tall multi-paneled forest green bottle in a case of ten, next to me. I pulled it out to admire it. It was cold, having just been filled, and in the heat, it seemed to be sweating. I held it to the light, and spun it around in the air, and as the sun reflected off its dazzling brilliance, it looked like a jewel ablaze. It was at that defining moment, that I fell in love with seltzer bottles..."