Everyone thought that Mr. Mealy was eccentric. He was a pack rat, a recluse. He saved everything. He had accumulated old books, tin cans, comics, old tools and toys, stamps, postcards—practically anything that people no longer wanted. His eccentricity sentenced him to a life of isolation. I was his only friend.
He and I would spend countless hours together melting lead that we would cast into toy soldiers, meticulously painting them, giving them life. He gave them all to me. He was an intellect with a powerful mind; those who would listen would be treated to a verse from Whitman, Emerson or Thoreau.
Last week, Mr. Mealy came to my mind as I lectured my students on the precepts of transcendentalism, specifically the ideals professed by Emerson and Thoreau on self-reliance. I’d had my fill regarding their bemoaning the state’s fiscal crisis and its effects on higher education, and I thought his story would drive home the importance of self-sufficiency.
Mr. Mealy was the super of a Bronx tenement on 234th street. He lived in the basement,which was the size of a city block. Because of the enormity of the basement, his building was designated as a neighborhood fall-out shelter. This was back in the ’50s as the Cold War was heating up.
He was the neighborhood Civil Defense officer, responsible for maintaining the community’s fall-out shelter. He took his job seriously, wearing the armband with the prominent CD on a white triangle.
Mr. Mealy would not rest till he’d gathered enough supplies for the community to survive the onslaught of disasters that would never come. He would scour the neighborhoods for discards, just in case. The community thought he was neurotic. But what if disasters did come? How would they then think of him?
In his apartment hung a pen and ink calligraphy that he had sketched. It read “Ne te quaesiveris extra”! When I asked him what the words meant, he explained that it was from Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance: “Do not seek outside yourself.”
He pulled an old book from a shelf and began to read. Emerson can be confusing. Sensing my bewilderment, he closed the book and said, “It means we have to be responsible for ourselves and not rely on others to take care of us.”
Years later, I became a student of Emerson. I followed the precepts of self-reliance and believed that self-sufficiency is the road toward true freedom, and being one’s own person is the ultimate reward. In light of today’s fiscal crisis plaguing education, the thought that we should be our own star and not seek outside ourselves has never been more profound.
We rely on government and technology to rescue us from all eventualities. Our faith in government and technology as the ultimate solutions diverts our attention from that which is most fundamental: our capacity to rely on ourselves. Our wits, senses, skills, endurance and judgments begin to atrophy when we become overly dependent on the external. In the end, we are left with a dependence upon everything and everybody but ourselves. Government and technology does not isolate us from the problems of nature, but instead plunges us deeper into them.
As I grew older, I saw less and less of Mr. Mealy. Stickball and pitching pennies became more appealing. I always felt guilty for not visiting him. I found out about his death when I was in Vietnam. My mom told me in the last sentence of a letter that she had written. I thought it strange that she would mention his demise so casually. People just didn’t take him seriously. He was a very self-sufficient man and he genuinely liked who he was. Why couldn’t others see that?
I recorded his favorite Emerson quote in my journal, 1970. “Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” I read it often over the years and still do today.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com.