Apple's biggest fan? Maybe not

Greg Packer--already in line to be first to buy an iPad as he was with the iPhone--loves Apple products, but there's more than meets the eye.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read
Some people think Greg Packer is a fake fan. He says he pays his dues by staying out on the street for days just to buy Apple products. What more can you ask? Greg Sandoval/CNET

NEW YORK--Greg Packer's dedication to Apple is under scrutiny.

Packer may be best known to the Apple community for waiting more than 100 hours in front of Apple's Fifth Avenue store in 2007 to ensure he would be first to buy the iPhone. On Thursday evening, he was out there again. With lawn chair and duffel bag in tow, he was amid his latest marathon line-standing campaign to be first to own the iPad.

And unless the poor guy keels over from exhaustion, sometime after 9 a.m. EDT on Saturday, when iPads are due to go on sale, Packer will emerge from the glass storefront to lift the e-reading, video-playing, Web-surfing computer tablet in triumph. For being first to buy an iPad, he will be photographed, videotaped, and interviewed. Reporters will no doubt descend on him to explain why Apple fans are so rabidly loyal to a consumer electronics company.

But interviewers may not want to dig too deeply for answers. Packer's motivations may not be typical of most Apple fans. See, Packer was first in line to sign a memorial book for Princess Diana. He was first in line to view Ground Zero from the viewing platform following the September 11 attacks. He was first in line for the opening of an H&M clothing store and again to buy Phillies World Series tickets. He's been interviewed during New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade--and he's Jewish. He says "on that day, everybody is Irish."

He's been quoted in 100 news stories going back to 1995. He's been called a serial "line sitter" or the media's "designated man on the street." The Associated Press and even NeoCon bombshell Ann Coulter have suggested Packer is a shameless publicity seeker. At the mention of Coulter's name, Packer's expression turns sour: "That Coulter was first to expose me."

On Thursday, some reporters tried to warn peers that Packer was a fake. Yeah? A fake what?

It's true that Packer possesses few of the Apple-disciple credentials. I asked him about Apple's older products, the kind only the true believers wax on about. Ever own a Mac II? He stares blankly.

How about the Lisa?

"Who's she?"

He's about to buy an iPad. Did he ever own the Newton? He smiles. "Look, I own an iPhone. I was first to own an iPhone," he says as he holds up the device. "The Apple community is just going to have to accept me. All the others do."

If Packer, a 46-year-old former highway repairman from Long Island, craves only notoriety, is it any wonder that he's drawn to Apple events?

Greg Packer is a serial 'man on the street.' He's been quoted at events more than 100 times. Greg Sandoval/CNET

Apple products are so embraced by so many, they have come to help define our times; the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and perhaps the iPad is next. Helping to crank up anticipation and fan fervor for product launches are the well-oiled Apple publicity and marketing machines. So, Packer is just a stowaway. By getting in line first, he's bumming a ride off of Apple's prestige.

"I just want to be in the thick of it," he said after offering me one of his burgers. During the interview, he gave up his vigil for awhile to eat at Pop Burger across the street from the Apple store. This is where he relieves himself and changes clothes. "These events are part of history," he said. "I can tell my grandkids or friends that I was there. I did that."

I press him. He could be the second, third or 147th person in line and still say he was there. He covers his head with his hands and says slowly: "I guess I want to show my family and friends that I'm occupied...they get a kick out of seeing me in the papers or on TV."

Packer said he retired after 17 years working for the city of Huntington. I ask him how he spends his time now. "I'm retired," he repeats.

He fumbles with his iPhone for a second and I wonder about what a good fan is supposed to be like. I once thought the whole debate over which technology company produced the best products, Microsoft or Apple, was good fun. That ended when I discovered that in response to any story I wrote about either I was accused of some kind of bias by each side. Some people take these issues and companies very seriously.

For anyone covering tech, that goes with the territory, but what about for someone like Packer? Does he deserve the notoriety he receives for being first to obtain this or that Apple product? Don't lots of other people appreciate Apple more than he?

Or does the $499 to $829 that he'll spend on the iPad and his willingness to sleep on the street to get one make him a worthy fan?

I leave him where the authorities have asked him to wait, on an unlit part of the sidewalk about 30 yards from the store. Earlier in the day, the sun was shining and crowds gathered around him, but at 11 p.m. the concrete is getting cold and there are a few people around. I say goodbye and he barely looks up from his iPhone. As I'm walking away he speaks up.

"God, I'm glad I charged this," he blurts. "There's a lot of hours left to go. This is my lifeline."