By Trudy Whitman
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Since he lived to the age of 99, my father had many years to regale his family with stories of growing up in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century. So that both parents could work, as a toddler, he was babysat by a vegetable cart driver and a cart horse named Pfeffer. My dad, a practiced raconteur, delighted us with his vivid memories of making the rounds with these unusual guardians. Our family misses the stories of the vegetable man and of the coalman and the iceman and the milkman who schlepped their loads up steep flights of tenement steps. But my father and the colorful deliverymen of the past are gone.
Or are they?
In April, The New York Times ran a story by Corey Kilgannon entitled “As Old as the Bottles.” It was a character study of Eli Miller, an 80-year-old seltzer delivery man, who has been bringing the fizzy stuff to thirsty Brooklynites for over 50 years. Miller relayed that at one time there were close to 500 seltzer guys in the city. That number has shrunk to fewer than five, all of whom fill their bottles at the last seltzer factory in town, Gomberg Seltzer Works, in Canarsie.
According to the article, Miller has two keepsakes in the front seat of his seltzer van: a sample of his father’s stationery and a copy of “The Seltzer Man,” a children’s picture book about Miller, the son. The seltzer man’s father helped him on his route, dying of a heart attack at age 72 while delivering a case of seltzer to a customer. The book was written and illustrated by Ken Rush, an artist and printmaker and a fine arts and art history teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights.
Rush, a Carroll Gardens resident, is a longtime customer and a big fan of Eli Miller. And his gentle narrative, which stars Eli and Rush’s two daughters—thinly disguised—first published in 1993 by Macmillan Publishing Company (now owned by Simon & Schuster), is about to be reissued as a trade paperback. The story of how two little girls convince the seltzer man to keep on truckin’ when he decides to retire is illustrated by Rush with colors so soft, they could have only be conjured up at dusk or dawn. The book is also a paean to Brooklyn, with pictures of our bridges, our homes, and of Coney Island.
In a previous interview with this newspaper regarding an exhibit of his paintings and drawings on Atlantic Avenue, Ken Rush revealed that moving to Brooklyn in 1971 opened up a “thrilling, gritty experience that immediately became part of my paintings.” He named Edward Hopper as a major early influence, but added that throughout his career, he has been a “repository” for everything he sees.
From 2001-2009, the artist was showcased at a gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan. Three solo exhibits have been hung at the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester, Vermont, and in 2009, Rush was one of 37 artists highlighted in a traveling exhibition about Lake Champlain. His previous foray into picture books was as illustrator for Kurt Aldag’s “Some Things Never Change.”
Although the original “The Seltzer Man” went out of print at the end of the ’90s, Rush said there continued to be a demand for the book, with unused copies selling for $70 on Amazon. So he recently approached the publisher with the idea of buying back the rights to “The Seltzer Man” in order to self-publish. Instead, Simon & Schuster offered to reissue the book, a proposition that Rush was happy to accept. It is scheduled to ship to stores on June 24, and BookCourt, 163 Court Street, will host a signing and relaunch party in the fall.
The days of the New York City deliveryman may be numbered, but as long as Eli Miller’s truck jangles through the streets of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, and as long as Ken Rush’s book continues to delight children, it is comforting to know that—for now at least—the seltzer man cometh.