Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I never saw this man in my life, but I always called him Packer. He would have been at home in a mule-skinning outfit, as a trapper, prospector, or other frontiersman.  Unfortunately those days were done well before 1912. Those professions were in Western Territories. Packer lived on the East Coast. I believe he died in the early years of the twenty-first century.

How do I know Packer existed?

He had one grocery cart, purloined. To the front of it was tied a plush teddy bear, splayed out like the prow on an old-fashioned ship, or, alternately, a Catharine Wheel. For one two-week period of one summer, he had eight stuffed animals hanging from the grocery cart. I particularly remember a red-and-white elephant. Always, two five-gallon buckets, one for washing and one for rinsing, sat drying in the open air. The cart was full of neatly-folded blankets and clothes, as well as found salable objects. Over this, tarps would be neatly stacked, everything roped in, if the weather was good. There was always a sense of industry and cleanliness, purpose and regimen about his camp.

Only his camp was next to a bank. Stone-throwing distance from a major city intersection.

Did he have a body? Oh, yes. I never saw it though. I would leave mass transit and head home late at night. By then he was always asleep on a neatly-made bed. The bed consisted of a groundsheet and quilts ranging from small nursery-printed dumpster treasures to government-issue felt. They covered him completely, including his head.  On rainy or snowy nights I would find him completely encased in tarps, his buckets lined up to catch rain for washing, his grocery schooner wrapped into a cube of blue plastic, and, as always, tied down.

I believed he was one of the few homeless people who might have chosen to live that way by true preference. He was too competent to blame it entirely on constitutional deficits or bad luck.

One winter morning, on my way from home to work, his camp was gone. In its place was a large soot-blackened stretch of pavement, from the front of the structure pictured above to the edge of his normal camp. The globe on the lamp-post you see was now a Janus-head shape where one side was perfectly formed and the near side melted horribly, wrongly, into a distorted icicle. It looked like the lamp had a stroke. It looked like Packer had lit a cigarette under the neat bundle of tarps and blankets and burned to death. Or perhaps he had a brazier going, and everything caught on fire.

I am not sure how my fiction ends--did Packer die by fire or live to get treatment? Did he recover, but the bank finally told him to shove on? Or did this lapse from order cause him to be ashamed, to lose his sense of home, to go away and never come back?

The cart and buckets were gone.  I never saw them elsewhere. The soot marks remained, uncleaned, for a year. The city replaced the melted glass globe on the lamp-post about two years later.


Slamdunk said...

It does make you wonder.

I also wonder how many folks passed by Packer every day and did not notice him once while he was there or after he had departed.

Bob G. said...

There are similar stories about various people like that in philly from years past...
They're there for what seems forever, and then they're gone.

Makes me wonder if *I* was the only person who noticed such things...even to this day.
I recall them as "fixtures" within our cityscape then.

Excellent post.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
I wish I knew for sure what happened. That was a pretty encompassing fire sign.

He was in such a public place, his stuff at least would be noted. But maybe as you imply, like road construction--once it's gone, it's forgotten. This is sad.

I always imagined he had a deal of sorts with the bank.

Thanks for a thoughtful comment,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
You have such great situational awareness, I bet you have some sort of description for everyone in your perimeter!

Anyway, you have to think this precise organization had some military roots. Another veteran, lost to the system. Just screwed up.

Thanks for a great comment!

Bob G. said...

I used to have a lot better photographic memory (seems the "film" takes longer to get back from Walgreens these, but I do have nicknames for a LOT of the locals around my area.
Makes it easier to ID and recall them, should the need ever arise.

We also had such names for those forgotten souls in Philly, not unlike "Packer".

They weren't derogatory...just descriptive of the person or situation.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
Oh-ho, so that's where mine went. Walgreen's.

Thanks for the tip!
Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
Great comments as well as great post. I imagine he did have a deal with the bank, to watch something, or clean something, or like that.

We just lost a homeless man here in Kansas City, up in the Northeast part. His name was Carl Hansen,he was 45 years old. He frequently biked around town. He lost his balance on his bike and wobbled in front of a car. I hope his neighbors remember him, and plant a flower in his name, or something like that.

The Observer