A Hermit in New York

Here’s Canadian humorist Eric Nicol, one of my heroes, writing in 1950:

Here […] is a newspaper story about a man named Paul Makushak, who has been dug out of a dank cubbyhole in a Brooklyn tenement after 10 years of isolation, during which his mother fed him through an opening in the bedroom ceiling. The mother sealed him up in 1939 to cheat the draft. One paragraph of the story reads: ” ‘I like it in there,’ he (Makushak) said. ‘I’d like to go back. I don’t care about the outside world.’ Police took him to a hospital.”

Now, why do you suppose the police would want to go and do a thing like that? According to this account, Paul wasn’t ill or anything. He was barefoot, filthy, and partially obscured by 10 years’ worth of beard. But some of the happiest and healthiest people I know fit that description, and nobody tries to hustle them into a hospital. Not yet, anyhow.

Come to that, what right had the police to drag poor old Paul out of his cubicle in the first place? He said himself that he liked it there. Is it now considered an offense to cut yourself off to the outside world? Are hermits outlaws?

We in Canada, so rich in hermits, can hardly afford to ignore the implications of the Brooklyn case. If the hermit, in the very nature of his isolation, has lost the right to vanish into his own beard, let’s say so. Let’s at least give the hermits a chance to form a union, to strike for freedom of silence, freedom of disassembly, freedom of solitary confinement. If a man can’t sit alone in a gloomy 3×5-foot cell without fear of police crashing through his wall, who of us can again feel safe in certain prairie hostels?

Maybe the police argued that Paul was potty. Maybe they took him to a mental hospital on the grounds that nobody in his right mind would abstain from organized society. Well, a seventeenth-century philosopher named Pascal, who was certainly in somebody’s right mind, once wrote that all of man’s troubles arise from his inability to remain alone, tranquil, in a room. Pascal was a Jansenist, a set that shut itself off from the world and let God nourish it through a opening in the ceiling they called Heaven.

Too, both before and since Bunyan, who tossed off Pilgrim’s Progress while in the hoosegow, men have done their best thinking in a box, the candle of the mind burning most steadily when undisturbed by gusts from the senses.

So perhaps Paul Makushak was winding up 10 years of intensive and entirely satisfactory thinking, when they found him. Perhaps he was on the verge of solving the riddle of existence when the crowbars smashed into his wall and he blinked up into the great, unrewarding face of a Brooklyn cop. And perhaps he is now walking the streets of New York, cleaned, shaved and booted, wondering at his promotion to that larger and noisier cell, that superior isolation in which even the police are no longer interested in him.

Just conjecture, I admit. The chances of Paul’s being a Pascal are skinny. But, the important thing is that if we had a Pascal he might easily resemble Paul–rags, cubbyhole, thick matted hair and all. I can remember when Ghandi was just a prop for gags about sheets, and a lot of people think about Einstein as the man who needs a haircut. Might we not therefore suggest that the police be less quick about lashing out with crowbars? They could enquire, don’t you think that the Mr. Makushaks would prefer not to be dug up, photographed by the press, laughed over by the public, and lugged off to hospital.

After all, if we show such brutal determination to have a fellow creature share the “outside world” may we not be suspected of finding that world too little delectable for hoarding to ourselves? I seem to recall the taunt “misery loves company” but that can’t be à propos can it?


Paul Makushak was a real person, by the way, and here’s what he looked like:

Paul Mekushak Freed After Ten Years in a Closet

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at www.wringham.co.uk/about.

3 Responses to “A Hermit in New York”

  1. Katy Barrett says:

    Hi, My mother was Elsie Kowalski. She was the young 23 year old housewife who found Paul. I have other photos and articles about this whole thing. Mom said that Paul and Peter worked things out and ended up working together for a time. I enjoyed reading your piece about this situation.



  2. Katy Barrett says:

    P.S. Mom said she was very torn about this situations, as Paul seemed very happy where he was. I’ve always thought this world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Thank you again.


  3. How interesting! Thanks for stopping by Katy, I’m glad you were able to chance upon this post. I’ve sent you a separate message by email.

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