Walter the Seltzer Man Radio Diaries

More than a decade ago, Radio Diaries chronicled the lives of people in old-school industries. Today, their voices bring back a city that's long gone.

New York City, when Joe Richman arrived there in 1989, was a different city than it is today.

"It was this special time, when you were sort of seeing the last of a lot of thingsthe last of a certain kind of business ... a certain kind of New York," he said to me.

A bit more than a decade later, in 2002, Richman, of Radio Diaries, and his colleague, Emily Botein, of WNYC, decided to try and capture what remained of that era. They tracked down New Yorkers who were among the last—and in some cases, the very last—to hold jobs in industries that were dying. "We were just trying to look at jobs that were disappearing, ways of life that were disappearing," says Richman.

They came up with seven people—a Brooklyn fisherman, a water-tower builder, a cowbell maker, a knife-and-scissor grinder, a lighthouse keeper, an old-fashioned bra fitter, and a seltzer man—each more charming and quirky than the last. They talked to them, heard their stories, and created a series, "New York Works," which aired on WNYC's The Next Big Thing and on NPR's All Things Considered. In the years since, several of the subjects have passed away.

That includes Frank Schubert, the last civilian lighthouse keeper in the United States. Schubert was 85 when Richman and Botein spoke with him; he passed away in 2003.

Schubert was, Richman says, "a wonderfully crotchety character."

Schubert's job was to keep the light running, but, much to his dismay, he also got stuck dealing with "lighthouse bugs," people who like to visit lighthouses for fun. Schubert just could not stand them, could not understand why they wanted to spend their time at a lighthouse. "He was totally the least romantic guy about lighthouses ever," Richman says.

Here's Schubert on lighthouses:

I love each of these stories, but my favorite by far, and the reason I was originally captivated by the series, is the portrait of Walter the Seltzer Man, featuring, in a supporting role, the delightful Mildred Blitz. Richman says that when he teaches journalism, he often uses the story of Walter to demonstrate the importance of luck in a good story, and, in this case, Richman's luck was coming across Mrs. Blitz. "We had no idea how good she was going to be," he told me. "You imagine that story without her and it's fine, but you throw her in there and it's something totally different."

Here's Walter and Mrs. Blitz:

Richman says he thinks of the series as "obituaries for jobs that were disappearing."

"In a lot of the work that we do, I look at it as kind of living obituaries, the idea of documenting people and histories while there are still people to talk about them."

In the upcoming year or two, Richman says that Radio Diaries plans to return to this project and update the series. Even though that earlier New York is gone, he says, there's always another one waiting.

"No matter how much you think things have disappeared, there's always this other thing that is still there, still hidden, still the last of something. I do think that everyone comes to New York and feels like they are at the tail-end of this other era. I think that's true anywhere, but especially in New York, because there are layers on layers on layers, and you scratch one layer and there's another layer underneath."

You can listen to all seven of the "New York Works" profiles on the Radio Diaries website here.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A young girl winces from the sting as she receives the polio vaccine in 1954.
    Life

    How Mandatory Vaccination Fueled the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

    To better understand the controversy over New York’s measles outbreak, you have to go back to the late 19th century.

  2. People eat and drink coffee inside a small coffeehouse.
    Life

    Gentrification Is Hurting Kuala Lumpur's Iconic Coffee Shops

    Traditional kopitiams, which serve sweetened coffee in no-frills surroundings, are a part of Malaysian national identity, but their survival is precarious.

  3. Charts

    The Evolution of Urban Planning in 10 Diagrams

    A new exhibit from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association showcases the simple visualizations of complex ideas that have changed how we live.

  4. A photo of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire in Paris.
    Design

    Amid Notre-Dame’s Destruction, There’s Hope for Restoration

    Flames consumed the roof and spire of the 13th-century cathedral in Paris. The good news: Gothic architecture is built to handle this kind of disaster.

  5. A group of students talk as one tests a pedal-free bicycle they have built.
    Environment

    How an Ancestor of the Bicycle Relates to Climate Resilience

    Architecture students in Buffalo built their own versions of the "laufmaschine," a proto-bike invented in response to a 19th-century environmental crisis.