Greg Packer of Huntington, Long Island is one of the strangest creatures of our cynical and media-drenched age. If you search for his name in a periodical database like Factiva, you get an astonishing 181 hits, few of which are false positives. Nobel Peace Prize winner Philip Noel-Baker, on the other hand, gets only 85 hits, of which most are false positives. And yet Packer is no Nobel Prize winner; to the contrary, he is a highway-maintenance worker from Long Island, and is almost invariably described as such when he is quoted.
Packer is not a fictional creature like "David Manning" of The Ridgefield Press. He is a real highway worker who has made it his life mission to be quoted in the mass media, and somehow manages to place himself in the right places at the right times and is often successful. He has been quoted on such diverse topics as Hillary Clinton's senatorial campaign and book, the New Jersey Devils, the New York Knicks, the XFL, the World Trade Center attack, various pop stars, Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve, and New York's Saint Patrick's Day Parade.
He has appeared in many different papers, including the New York Post, New York Times, the Times of London, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Guardian, USA Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, Women's Wear Daily, and many others. He has also been heard on National Public Radio at least once.
Somehow, Greg Packer managed to become the "man on the street" used over and over again to comment on any topic in the news. This started around 1995 – here’s the earliest appearance I can find, from The Tampa Tribune of 6 October 1995,
"The Jewish people are fans of Pope John Paul II," said Greg Packer of Huntington, N.J. "He doesn't limit his message to one faith; he reaches out to everybody."
The Tribune got the state wrong, but I am sure it's the same guy.
Over time, I suspect, this worked into a near obsession. At the core of Packer's method was to show up very early for events and to be first in line, where he would be an obvious target for visiting journalists. "I try and plant myself in the front row and everyone has to come to me," he explained to the Wall Street Journal, "it's mutual." However, many of the events at which he was quoted did not have lines (the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, for example). I suspect that Packer got good at spotting journalists and ingratiating himself with them. For their part, I suspect the journalists were seduced by the fact that he was a highway maintenance worker, which sounds much more down-to-earth than the accountants or computer networking personnel who make up a lot of New York crowds.
As the Journal pointed out, Packer would sometimes hold what amounted to press conferences, gathering several reporters and commenting for them all at once. He would sometimes wear funny costumes or otherwise make a spectacle to get attention. For Saint Patrick’s Day, for example, he wore a green wig and colored his mustache green. An AP reporter spoke with him and his comment appeared in many papers as a result. "It's a day for happiness and to be together," Packer said.
Packer was outed last week (the week of June 8, 2003) by columnist Ann Coulter and blogger Mickey Kaus, both of whom pointed out Packer's curious ubiquity. The Wall Street Journal picked up the story and ran with it, in the process revealing to other papers how often they had relied on the man. The comment of Ken Frydman of the New York Daily News, which had quoted Packer a dozen times, was typical: "Had we known he was Mr. First-in-Line, we would, of course, have identified him as such." The Associated Press plans not to quote him again unless he does something really newsworthy.
15 June 2003 Wall Street Journal
10 June 2003 USA Today
20 March 2003 Associated Press
21 July 2002 Memphis Commercial Appeal
31 December 2001 Times Union Albany, NY
22 October 2000 The Washington Times
15 September 1999 New York Post
2 August 1998 New York Daily News
6 October 1995 The Tampa Tribune
and many others