I think I remember that…Everyone was wearing those then…
That comment about what everyone was wearing then, including me, referred to a photo in which I was wearing an ugly green parka, probably purchased at a cheap department store. It had a quilted orange-colored inside lining and a hood edged with obviously fake raccoon fur.
A few hours later I heard this song as I was driving in my car:
When I left my home and family
I was no more than a boy…
It all came back. It’s a few years after that photo was taken. I’m in my early 20s. I have absolutely no money and can’t find a job. I’m writing poetry. I’m sharing an apartment in Chelsea with two friends. I am so broke that when I get a one-day job as an office clerk through a temp agency, and have to head uptown to pick up the paycheck, I walk the 50 blocks each way because I couldn’t afford the subway fare.
And so the memory of that ugly green parka and hearing “The Boxer” somehow set me to thinking about William Packard.
When I moved to New York City, my friend Robert Lax — the great, saintly poet — told me to look up Packard. Lax wrote to Packard and asked him to be on the lookout for me. Packard — founding editor of the fine literary magazine New York Quarterly, a professor at NYU, a playwright and a poet — was a great bear of a man, capable of writing and speaking boisterous words but just as able to write gentler words expressing fear and doubt and love and regret and hope.
He was a good man. He and I had some engaging and provocative talks about writing and reading and living in some late-night chats at his apartment on 14th Street. And he helped me, just as Bob Lax had asked. Packard helped me get my poems published. He helped me get invited to read some of my poems at venues in Manhattan where I had no right — at least based on my abilities and credentials — to be reading. And one day there was an act of kindness I will never forget. I met up with him at some diner on University Place. He ordered a tuna sandwich. I ordered only coffee. I was so hungry I can’t even describe it — but I could barely afford the coffee. Bill Packard’s sandwich came — and he took half of it, put it on a napkin, and pushed it across the table to me. And never said a word about it.
Packard took photos of writers he met for the first time — writers, as he explained it to me, who might someday be noteworthy. The photos were generally slightly blurry, slight fish-eyed, slightly off-center and tilted. And he took a photo of me — I know he gave me a copy of it, but I don’t know whatever became of it. I’m sitting on a park bench in Washington Square. It’s snowing lightly – flurries — and the flakes can be seen in the picture. I look very cold and very thoughtful — and very hungry and very much at loose ends. And I’m wearing that ugly green parka that everyone wore back then, and the hood’s pulled up tight around my head, and as I peer out at the camera, my face is framed by obviously fake raccoon fur.
William Packard, in his later years, suffered a stroke. I hadn’t seen him or talked to him for a while, but at Bob Lax’s urging I called Packard about 10 years ago. It was a sad, strange conversation — but I did get a chance to remind him of the kindness he had shown me and to thank him for it. He didn’t know if he had a copy of the photo and he’d forgotten all about the sandwich. These things, I was startled to realize, were minor episodes in Packard’s rich and busy life — they were small things to him, I said over the telephone, but they meant everything to me.