First in line guy: Obsession or art form?
PHOTO: David Phillips
Greg Packer stood in line for eight hours before meeting Brandy, the pop singer.
By 8 o'clock on the coldest morning of the year, Greg Packer was already in his second hour waiting in line to go on a double-decker bus tour of Manhattan with Brandy, the R&B singer.
Spending a day waiting in line to meet celebrities is not unusual for the 38-year-old Huntington, N.Y., native, but his position so far back in the queue was. Packer has made obsessions out of being first in line and of being in the company of celebrities.
But on this day, he was 15th in line. That was good enough, for his goal was just to be among the first 50 who would make it on the Brandy bus.
If there's a global or celebrity-laden event in or near New York, odds are Packer is there, or is trying to be there. He was first in the line to see ground zero when the viewing platform opened at the World Trade Center site Dec. 30. He was the first in line in 1997 to sign the condolence book at the British consulate when Princess Diana died. He slept outside in the snow in Washington last January to be the first in line to greet President George W. Bush after his inauguration.
"This is what I like doing," he said. "You only live once, you might as well make the most of it."
When told of the lengths Packer has gone to to be at major events and meet celebrities, Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of pop culture, said Packer has turned a passion into an art form.
"If you're totally obsessed with Shakespeare and James Joyce and go to the ends of the earth researching them, we call you an English professor," Thompson said. "This guy has chosen his body of art to consume, it just so happens he can't make a living off of it. The only fundamental difference is he doesn't have tenure."
In his quest to mingle with the rich and famous, Packer has met Gloria Estefan and Garth Brooks, Sammy Hagar and Hillary Clinton, Rosie O'Donnell and Keith Richards. He's been the first in line to buy playoff tickets for the Yankees, Mets, Rangers and the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones. He bribed an usher at the Georgia Dome $100 to let him into Super Bowl XXXIV and convinced a nun to give him her extra ticket to see Pope John Paul II at Giants Stadium in 1995. And he never misses the New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square, where he can be found next to the MTV stage.
Packer drops more celebrities' names than an episode of "Access Hollywood." From Billy Joel, Don Henley and Mariah Carey to the Dixie Chicks, Rage Against the Machine and the punk band Nofx, he's met just about everyone in heavy rotation on MTV. To see where the likes of Sting or Enrique Inglesias will be next, Packer searches newspaper advertisements to see who's coming to New York, and when. It is all part of his quest to meet the real-life stars behind the sequined jacket or guitar strap.
"You get to be hands-on, you get to really know them when you're sitting across from them," said Packer, who lives alone. "Sometimes its like, 'Hello, goodbye.' But sometimes I'll have a few minutes, like with 'N Sync."
It's important to be first, Packer said, because he tends to get impatient if the action begins without him. So he's always near the front of the line, and often is the first to meet Britney Spears, Ringo Starr or Winona.
"I don't want to be in the middle of the line and start getting antsy," he said. "I get there early to avoid things like that."
The obsession with celebrity started 30 years ago, when Packer's mother brought him a photograph of the actress Natalie Wood, whom she met on an airplane. A couple years later, his father presented him with the autograph of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis.
Then came high school, when he was able to meet many of the New York Islanders while they were winning four straight Stanley Cups. After games and at malls, Packer tracked down his hockey heroes.
And for the last 10 years, when Packer has learned of a chance to meet a celebrity in the New York area, he has made it his business to be there. Consequences be damned, he takes vacation and personal days or calls in sick from his job filling potholes and mowing lawns for the Huntington highway department for the chance to rub elbows with the likes of Gene Simmons and Jimmy Carter.
"Even if when I went back to work I got fired, I know I would have the full support of the public," said Packer, who said he hopes to someday endorse products in television commercials.
While others waiting on the frigid line to see Brandy came equipped with blankets and heavy coats, Packer weathered the morning in jeans and a New York Fire Department hooded sweatshirt. For the expected seven-hour wait, he brought only The New York Post to read.
"I have all these people around to talk to," he said. "It's like having a different family every time."
As one with so much line-waiting experience, Packer preaches the etiquette of waiting in line. He'll save a spot for someone who's making a run across the street for a hot dog and a hot chocolate, as several Brandy fans did that cold morning, but vacating for more than a few minutes is strictly forbidden.
"Everybody understands that you can go get something to eat and come right back," Packer said. "But some of the girls at 'N Sync thought they could go home and get their beauty sleep. That just wasn't happening."
His line-waiting strategy depends on the relative fame of the celebrity in question. Pop culture icons like Michael Jackson require arriving up to two days in advance, but Packer has found a few hours will suffice to meet B-list stars like Lisa Loeb. For events like the St. Patrick's Day parade, he arrives before the crack of dawn to make sure he has the best spot.
"This guy has clearly found something he loves to do, and few people have done that," said Thompson. "You have to admire that. How many people have found something that they love to wake up at 2:30 in the morning to do? Not very many."