The “Sage of the Wilderness” was born in the Kitchen

Above: William Mack, “The Sage of the Wilderness“. (Photo by Diane Arbus).

At the time Diane Arbus took this photograph of William Mack (aka “The Sage of the Wilderness“) he was a 72 year-old, German, ex-merchant seaman living on his Pension. His day began at 5.30 a.m. walking down Third Avenue, New York, in the freezing dawn picking empty bottles out of garbage cans and loading them into his baby carriage. He would then stop off at select bars which were very like private clubs, for  breakfast; and the early morning special extra free drink. He claimed that ‘Life wasn’t supposed to make sense’. 

  • Mack lived on Third Avenue in a room which was 7 feet by 8 feet. He filled it with his belongings which included:

46 rolled up pieces of string, 38 cigar butts in a bowl, 35 empty bottles, 20 rings, 19  brushes for hair, 18 shopping bags, 11 bracelets, 10 screwdrivers, 9 pliers, 9 umbrellas, 9 belts, 8 augers, 7 paint scrapers, 7 pairs of scissors, 6 saws, 6 necklaces, 5 hammers, 5 segments of broken mirror, 5 canes, 4 watches, 3 earrings, 2 pin-up pictures of Sophia Loren and one each of Brigitte Bardot and Julie Newman.

Other items included: a cowbell, a Hopalong Cassidy gun and holster, wagon, pink doll carriage with a sort of under-slung hammock, toy ukulele, jar full of plastic umbrella tips, some Blue Seal Pomade, a jar of Maraschino Cocktail Cherries,  a medicine dropper, squashed coffee pot, pair of brown children’s shoes hanging by the laces, a bogus detective badge, a plastic carnation, fox tail, one copy each of The Koran and The Holy Bible, a 1959 horoscope, ladder, guide to sexual harmony in marriage (Mr. Mack was never married), an English-Arabic Dictionary, a pair of white lady nurse’s shoes,  Guidebook of US Coins and some Breath O’ Pine all purpose cleanser.

  • When people asked him why he collected so many things his favourite answer was “It’s good for my rheumatism and when people ask me where I was born I like to say – I was born in the kitchen“. – He could tell because he heard the water running.
  • The last time Arbus saw him he said: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken, but you are bound to weaken one day”.
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