102A Nassau Ave in Greenpoint is about as nondescript as a building as you can get. Three stories high, there's a boutique on the ground floor and two apartments above. But, oh, what went on in that building in the 1940s!
As I do from time to time I was browsing the Forgotten Bookmarks blog a couple of weeks ago when I came upon this entry. The person who writes that blog runs a used bookstore in Oneonta and uploads scans of the objects people use as bookmarks. On that page is a two-page spread from a 1950 issue of PIX magazine on "nature boys" that mostly has pictures of older, hairy, half-naked men. One of the photos, however, is of a sickly, younger man dressed in rags. Zooming in, the caption reads in part "Paul Makushak, 33, lived in a sealed room in Brooklyn tenement for ten years".
Ten years? In a sealed room? Well, that required investigation. A bit of searching revealed several contemporary articles in the New York Times and the Brooklyn Eagle, an AP story in the Yonkers Herald Statesman, and one article in Time magazine. Unfortunately, it's not possible to link to the articles in the papers (a few excerpts are posted below) but the wonderful and strange Old Fulton NY Post Cards site has indexed many New York State newspapers that can be searched.
Soon after the World's Fair ended in the fall of 1940 Paul Makushak's father, Peter, asked his son, then 23, to fix a broken electric fixture in the ground floor tailor shop at 102 A Nassau Avenue that Peter operated. Paul repaired the fixture and presumably returned to their apartment upstairs while Peter remained in the shop. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on April 27th, 1949 -the day after Paul Makushak was removed from his sealed room- that Peter recalled asking his wife, Anna, what had happened to Paul (the Eagle didn't say how long it was after their son disappeared that Peter asked about him. The New York Times on April 28th reported pretty much the same thing). She replied that he had gone to Canada.
Anna Makushak, according to the Times, became quite agitated whenever Peter would inquire as to the whereabouts of their son. She also forbade him from entering the their apartment on the third floor. The arguments between the Makushak parents got so great that Mr. Makushak moved, or was banished, to the back of his tailor shop on the first floor in 1943.
In any event, the contemporary reports all say that Paul sealed himself up in a plaster- (or cement-, or beaver board-) walled room on the third floor. That room was between thirty inches and three feet wide by five feet long. The ceiling was nine feet high but Time reports that there was a shelf about three feet below that. Paul is described as either 6' or 6' 1" tall and 200 pounds when he moved into the closet. Air holes were drilled into the closet. The room was windowless.
One wall of the closet was a brick chimney. A six by eight inch hole was cut into the chimney. Through that hole Mrs. Makushak fed her son and, as Time says, "disposed of his excretions, which were placed in cans and dropped through the hole in the chimney". The Daily Eagle was more delicate, writing that Anna "fed him and cared for his other needs day by day".
The Eagle reports that inside the closet were "a small table, a radio, an assortment of tin cans… and several shelves filled with books". A sleeping pad and sleeping bag (the Times says "a soft mat and a blanket" were on the floor and one bare light bulb hung from the ceiling. The books were mostly stenography books.
Why did Paul Makushak seal himself away from the world? When asked by the police why he hid away the Eagle quotes him as saying "I just don't like the way the world is run" and he denied that his mother had anything to do with his confinement.
That is unclear. Paul had a brother, George. The Times says he was a younger brother. Time says older. George died of blood poisoning sixteen (NYT) or eighteen (Time) or twenty (Daily Eagle) years earlier. After his death, Anna became very protective of her remaining son. Time reports "In his arguments with other boys, she went to his defense with a baseball bat." Time then jumps into all sorts of Freudian mumbo-jumbo and more or less implies that she sealed him up on the eve of World War II so he wouldn't have to fight. He did not, obviously, register for the draft. A couple of the articles report that failure to report brought about a visit by FBI agents, but that Makushak was in no shape to talk to them. When asked by reporters if he had registered Paul said he would not talk until he had seen a lawyer.
So, Paul Makushak spent nearly ten years in a 15 square-foot closet until his mother took ill. Knowing she had to go to a hospital Anna asked her neighbor, 23 year-old Elsie Kowalsky to take care of her son. At dinner time, according to the Daily Eagle, Elsie "went to the front room of the flat, prepared to follow out Mrs. Makushak's instructions… But the girl became frightened and told her mother, who called the police." The police tried to get Paul to come out voluntarily but were met with "some mumbling from behind the wall". They then chopped a hole in the wall and dragged a ratty looking (photo from Corbis) 33 year-old man outside for the first time in ten years. Makushak was brought to King's County Hospital where he was cleaned up, given nutritious food, questioned by the DA and FBI but not visited by his father.
Mr. Makushak was rather peeved at his son. A day after his son's reappearance in the world the Daily Eagle found Pete in his tailor shop, stitching "a garment slowly, with neat, close, needlework". It turns out that upon seeing his father for the first time in a decade Paul greeted him with "a surly 'Hello, Pete'". (This contradicts the Times, which reports that when Paul was asked if he had a father he said he didn't know.) Pete is quoted as saying "I feel very mad that I was not called 'Pop'. I asked him why he stayed in that place and he said that he liked it."
A few weeks later, May 21st, the Daily Eagle reported that Mrs. Makushak and her son were both committed to Pilgrim State Hospital for the Mentally Ill on Long Island. The Times reported that Paul was released from Pilgrim State later that August, as his condition improved enough that he could take care of himself. His mother was still a patient there.
With that, news reports of Paul Makushak, the Hermit of Greenpoint, end. Public records show that he died in Brooklyn in 1995.