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Authors: Alexandra Penney

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BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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My New Life as a Person of Reduced Circumstances (PoRC)


t's now deep into January. New York has had a tough winter. Many times this year, our streets have been blanketed with unblemished white snow, which is quickly converted into piles of gray-black slush streaked with yellow dog urine. The bone-biting cold is relentless. The MF was arrested a little over a month ago. I spend most of my nights at home, collapsed from working like a lunatic at the studio and dealing with landlords, lawyers, and tax consequences.

is being delivered for one more week, but I haven't looked at a paper since the day Madoff confessed to his crimes. I don't want to know what's going on in the world right now. It's as if I've been in a car crash and I haven't emerged from the wreckage yet. I think of those elderly wid
ows whose husbands left their money in the MF's hands trusting that he would “take care” of their wives. These are women who have no resources now. Some will be lucky enough to live with their children. What will happen to the others?

Tonight I am thinking of all the lives that have been ruined by this man. I'm watching reports on TV about how Madoff got away with his crimes. The SEC, supposedly the protection for investors like me, has been negligent and derelict, to say the least. Over and over red flags were raised, warning that the MF's operation was unlawful. Thank god the new Congress thinks the SEC is as despicable as I do.

Hiding behind SEC-speak for “I plead the Fifth,” the director of the division of enforcement, Linda Thomsen, said “I can't comment” with a weird crooked-mouth grin when questioned yesterday. Not only are the so-called regulators hiding behind the apron strings of Baby Dubya, who appointed them, they are also showing their true dereliction of duty and humanity. They just want to save their own well-padded civil-servant butts. But it's not just them; the whole system seems to be rigged. It was actually said at the congressional hearings yesterday that the SEC is there to
protect business from the investors
and that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)
is in bed with industry and corrupt


If I spend too much time thinking about the MF I don't function very well. Much better to dwell on my new life, which is once again full of dichotomies. Two nights ago, I
was sipping Cristal—probably $200 a bottle—from an antique flute glass and having a marvelous dinner with Richard, who, with Alex, helped me with my first blog in what seems like an age ago.

It was one of those mean, polar New York nights and Richard and his charming wife, Jennifer, were entertaining a business friend from London who happened to be wearing an old navy-blue Hermès jacket, a bit tattered but still in good shape.

“It's very old and very warm and comforting,” he said, when one of us commented that he didn't have a heavy coat on. “I use Magic Marker when the edges start to shred,” he explained, displaying his cuffs, which each of us inspected closely. No trace of his penmanship was to be found—a very handy tip for future use.

Richard cracked open the champagne (sent to him by an advertiser in the Old Days of Excess, barely a few months ago) because he'd heard I'd landed a book deal. You can't live a nightmare every minute. The advance allows me to keep the studio going for a few more months and gives me some breathing room until I'm able to sell whatever I can to start a quail-size nest egg again.

Now here's the dichotomy: two nights ago, I was swizzling expensive champagne, the kind I liked to stash in my own fridge, and this morning I bought a $20 MetroCard and then, instead of tossing the old one, by mistake threw the new one into a trash can on the platform. It was too tall to reach into and I immediately wanted to turn it upside down and dump the contents to find my card. Of course, it would be
like looking for a Burmese ruby on the back of a garbage truck. I realized I was freaking out and finally boarded a train. But I couldn't ditch the loss of the card for a couple of hours.

Loss, defeat, and weariness haunt me. Bag ladies have lost everything. At least that is how I see them, trudging their way alone through the streets, with rheumy eyes and frozen hands. I am only a PoRC and a supremely lucky one to have my health and to be escaping the recent single-digit temperatures and heading down south again next week. Another pal, who travels by private jet, offered me a lift. Yes, a PJ. No matter how high I am flying, I am quickly brought down to earth trying to figure out if there is public transportation to the airport in Teterboro, New Jersey, because cab fare and car service are definitely not in my budget.

Even though people are fully aware that jets are polluting the atmosphere and helping to destroy the planet, flying in your own PJ is still considered one of the ultimate perks of having money—and it brings up a provocative question: Is it worse to have had money and lost it? Or is it worse never to have had money at all? I'm not sure I know the answer yet.


I'm still waiting to negotiate the rent on my studio with my landlord. He keeps canceling appointments, not a good sign. I send him frantic e-mails every day or so, saying I need to talk to him. I pulled out some old flower prints, thinking it will seem like spring on my studio walls and it may tempt him to barter a bit as my inflatable girls will definitely not ring his bell.

One of my new heroes, a thoughtful public servant, Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY), pointedly addressed the tight-lipped SEC and FINRA people yesterday saying, “We thought the enemy was Madoff. It was you.”

And, to add more insult to the injuries of those who have been Madoff'd, the massive list of the MF's casualties, 13,567 names long (so far), was released yesterday with their home addresses. How many crooks have more than thirteen thousand victims? Those are the kinds of numbers allotted to an evil fiend who commits war crimes.

The MF continues to rollick in his glam penthouse. He knew the system, gamed the system—and he's still gaming it! I visualize him snug and warm on this frigid fourteen-degree day in his silk-lined cashmere robe, illegal Cuban Cohibas in hand, chuckling about the SEC/FINRA hearings on C-SPAN, daintily picking at his chocolate-filled brioche, reaching for his steaming latte and freshly squeezed OJ on a silver tray, and using his phone to move his money right under the noses of his security guards, paid for by his poor “victim” wife, Ruthie—with whose money exactly? The other victims', of course!

So, while the MF is probably sipping Dom to congratulate himself once again for staying out of jail, I am treating myself to a night out and am heading for a friend's birthday party, via a taxi no less—the PoRC's version of a PJ.

My good friend Sarah's husband throws a birthday bash for her every year. Usually it's at a stylish and out-of-the-way restaurant that has yet to be discovered. But this year no one really feels like celebrating. A friend's annual Chinese New Year's fete has been canceled, book parties are rare,
charity events are suffering, so Sarah's husband has pared down the guest list and is opting for an evening buffet dinner at their elegant Park Avenue apartment.

When I arrive, Sarah gives me a special hug as she asks how I am and walks me into the living room, which is filled with many people I know. I have no problem joining a group discussing the emptiness of trendy joints around town and how pleasurable it is to be in someone's home.

I leave them in order to nab a smoked salmon hors d'oeuvre in the dining room. An odd feeling comes over me. Guests are poking around the table and chatting, but as soon as I enter, people seem to scatter into other rooms. This is not at all like the party I went to in Florida as a PoRC. I have the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that people are steering clear of me. I wander back to the living room and an old acquaintance comes up to me saying, “I'm not going to ask how you are. I know how you are!”

“Aah,” I say and I can feel the mystery clearing up, “I am really okay. I guess people are thinking I'll be a wreck who can't stop crying or get out of bed.” Or, I add to myself, they'll think I'm going ask them for a loan.

She nods sympathetically. “I'm glad to see you're here.”

“Of course I'm here!” I respond. “Why wouldn't I be? I've had a shitty experience but that doesn't mean I'm a different person! What am I going do? Weep and wail and moan away my life! I'm not going to be in mourning for money!”

She gives me a big hug, saying, “Well, we didn't know what to expect! I've read your blogs and know you're going through a hard time….”

“True,” I respond, “but it doesn't mean I'm not the same person! Now, please, let's forget about me, and tell me what's going on in

I learned something important at Sarah's party. People do feel sorry for you. They do pity you. They don't know what to say to you. They expect that you'll be different somehow. It is like a death and you're treated with great fragility—and, often, you're held at a distance. But unlike a death, you can do something about your losses. You can get right back to work. And waste no time about it! Which is exactly what I'm doing most minutes of each day. And, oh god, I still haven't heard from the damned landlord!

At home, before I turn out the light, I think about my experience at Sarah's. Some people will be uneasy or uncomfortable when they see you because they think you're down and out. Maybe some people who have lost their fortunes give off those vibes. But are you defined by your losses? No! Emphatically underlined, italicized, bold-faced

I can't fall asleep so I turn the light back on and jot down a list of the best ways I've learned—so far—to face adversity:

Stay active; get back to work.

Discipline self not to think about future (very difficult).

Discipline self to SNT (stop negative thinking—also very difficult).

Corollary: recognize and enjoy each good experience (no matter how big or small) to the fullest as it occurs.

Don't eat too much; doesn't feel good to be fat and poor.

Make list of good things that came out of bad experience.

Allow self-pity for limited time each day (three minutes at most).

Suck it up—it could be worse.

Losing my savings is, without doubt, the most major setback I've experienced in my life. I was traumatized when I received those phone calls telling me that Bernard Madoff had been arrested and that everything I'd ever earned and saved was gone. I still wake up with hideous anxiety racing through my veins and making my heart pound at 4:16 in the morning (lately the demons have decided to attack half an hour earlier). But I refuse to be defeated by such an obstacle. I feel surer of this than ever.

There is no way that all of us aren't facing setbacks in this new economic environment. A vast number of Americans have lost incalculable amounts of money. I was certainly keenly aware of those huge losses due to economic forces but I was living in my own personal intensive care unit, a trauma victim who had every cent of my savings and retirement money stolen. But what am I going to do? Hide under the bed-covers and feel sorry for myself? “Poor little me” is a pathetic, feeble stance. Who wants to spend their time being pathetic? It gets you nowhere. It's okay to feel sorry for yourself every once in a while—and I did. It's human. But
for only so long. And then, for me, it's back to work, just as it's been my entire life. What happens if I get sick and can no longer work? I had thought about “retirement” and had saved money that would help me through. And it would have, if I hadn't given it to a crook. But now I'm finding the discipline not to think about anything except what's in front of my nose and, possibly, what's for dinner tonight. While I'm still kicking, I do have hope—or I could drop dead this afternoon. I can't stop to think about it right now. I've got to get on the subway and downtown to work.

How to Make Love to a Man

he evening after my meeting with Nat Wartels, the publisher who wanted to buy my book, I invited a couple of friends over for pizza, and we debated my dilemma.

“I think you should do it,” Margo said emphatically. “Everything you do you've done with integrity and a lot of research and serious thought. Even the fish market.”

“No, no,” I protested. “What would people think? No one would take me seriously again. I don't want people to snicker behind my back, ‘Oh, her. She's the one who writes those dirty sex books.'”

“You have to think of how you would write the book,” Margo continued. “You're a serious journalist. Would you be reporting? Would it be journalistic?”

“Yes, I wrote in the outline that I wanted to interview men to find out what they needed from women physically and emotionally.”

“You're not writing about your own sex life, right?”

“God no, no, no!”

“What's wrong with reporting about an area that interests us all—a lot!”

“I'll lose all my jobs,” I said. “No one would ever hire me again.”

“If you write this book you won't have time for your other jobs. And when it's over, who knows what might happen.”

By the end of the night, the girls had convinced me that if I wrote an honest book as a thoughtful journalist, I would not only stash some money in the bank, I'd be helping women to have better love lives, and, most important, I could afford to rent a real studio and do more of the work I really wanted to do, which was, of course, painting.

I knew painting wasn't a money-making career. If your work sold you were one of the lucky ones. If you could actually live on the money you made, you were blessed. All the painters I knew at the time relied on teaching, waitressing, bartending, or menial jobs to pay the bills. Fortunately, I had freelance writing to fall back on. Failing that, I figured I could probably nab a top-notch executive assistant job with a corporation. I was a fast typist, good with computers and details, and I knew how to deal with demanding bosses. I never thought of going back to Condé Nast.

I wasn't ready to show my work to dealers or curators.
Good painting takes time and immense effort; an artist needs confidence and maturity as well as the technical ability to understand and control the medium. I was working on those issues, but I had a long way to go. The book would give me an unexpected way to save some money for the future.

The next week, after I signed the contract, I told Carrie that I was writing a book and then revealed the title. She raised her pale, plucked eyebrows over the goggle glasses and directed me to apprise her boss about what was going on. Miracle of miracles, the big boss opined that the book was not problematic and the subject matter, which he did not comment on, thank god, didn't present a conflict of interest with my regular column. I returned, hugely relieved, to my cubicle to continue on a piece I'd been working on about an old boxing gym in Greenwich Village.

The gym, it turned out, was the starting point for the book. Its owner was a Damon Runyonesque character named Lenny. Small, intense, and muscled, he was a boxer and a vet with a Marine buzz cut, a Parris Island drill sergeant attitude, and a limp due to the Korean War. Lenny had agreed to cooperate for my article, providing that I worked out at the gym to see what went on there firsthand.

He decreed I would work solely with weights. I wasn't sure I liked the idea. I'd never touched a dumbbell in my life, but I wanted to file an authentic story so I said okay. The gym, on Sheridan Square, looked like a medieval torture chamber to my eyes, which had mostly been exposed to the serenity of a yoga studio.

The second-floor space was musty, sweaty, and dim, with bare lightbulbs hanging in wire cages. Well-worn black rubber mats with curled-up edges were laid out to mute the sound of falling weights but were too thin to do the job. The hard discharge of anger assaulted me when I entered. Lenny gave me the closet off his “office” to change into gray sweats and a navy hoodie. By the time Lenny finished with me that first day, my quads were trembling so hard that I couldn't walk down the two steep flights of stairs without clenching the old wooden banister as if my life depended on it—which I believe it did.

Lenny's last words were, “I'll see you the day after tomorrow.”

I wasn't so sure I'd live until then.

But I survived, and thus began a torturous program at the gym. Every so often Lenny let up on me a bit, and I actually came to enjoy him and my hours there. The guys would spot me and help me with the muscle-building contraptions. Ninety percent of the members were gay, gorgeous, megacut, and proud of it. I was once again making new friends—hoping that in a few decades I'd be strong enough to move on to real gloves on the boxing bag.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to ask one of my gym mates, Matt, if he would like to be interviewed for my book. He agreed without hesitation, and we met at a coffee shop a short way from the gym. I was armed with a reporter's notebook and a pen, and I was mute with nervousness.

The word “sex” was not spoken in my family. I hardly ever used it myself. It's only in recent years that I say “fuck”
and use the word “motherfucker,” regularly and with impunity. But in those years, people used euphemisms like “make love” or “get it on.”

I could not look Matt in the eye. I tried small talk but we didn't have that much common ground: he was a gay body builder and I was a heterosexual woman who had never been to a heavy-duty weight-lifting gym before. Finally, I said, “So what is it guys really want in bed?” I simply could not bring myself to say “sex.”

And, without a moment's hesitation, he started talking about what I politely wrote down as “oral.”

The next several interviews followed the same pattern. It turned out that my gym buddies had absolutely no hesitation in talking about sex to a woman. In fact they
to talk about it—
a lot
. And the straight men I interviewed were no different.

The book was published in 1981 with a huge send-off party at the fabled ‘21' Club in New York. I was given media training sessions so I wouldn't lower my eyes if I had to utter the word “sex.” My coach drilled me on a mantra, “I like this interviewer, I like this interviewer,” so I would appear to be friendly and relaxed when, in reality, I didn't give a damn about the interviewer because I was scared as hell.

The coach decreed “clothing appropriate to an authoritative journalist who'd written a book.” This meant well-tailored jackets in bright colors that would catch the eye and signal an upbeat personality. My wardrobe in those days consisted of leftover fish market OshKosh's, Levis, army camouflage pants, white shirts from college—all of which were my
painting clothes—and the one gray suit I'd worn to the publisher's meeting: I'd given away all my fashionable
-era clothing to charity.

A friend suggested her seamstress, who would make three jackets for me at a low price. I found some bright woolens on Orchard Street, where they sell deeply discounted fabric, and ended up with some blazers that I hoped said “authoritative.” I wore the brightest one for my first TV interview, with the intimidating Tom Snyder. Thank god it went smoothly.

I had never informed my parents that I was writing the book. Of course I knew they'd find out at some point. On the morning after the Snyder show, my mother phoned me. “I saw you on television last night,” she said, and I could hear the icicles dripping through the telephone lines, “and your father and I are so disappointed that you have lost your dignity.”

With those words she clicked off. Neither of my parents communicated with me again for well over four years.

My son was now old enough to take the train by himself to Connecticut. He saw his grandparents on weekends when he wasn't with his father or spending time with his friends. For my part, I was honestly relieved not to be in contact with them. In my view, parents are supposed to be supportive and to cheer a child on. Clarkson Potter was a distinguished publishing house, nothing to be ashamed of. Sex and love are part of life. Criticism and disdain are not constructive or nurturing and my parents' comments were painful—once again, I thought, To hell with them.


The book was a huge success, largely due to a reviewer at the
Los Angeles Times
whose comment, all these years later, I remember verbatim: “If you look on page 99, your life will be forever changed.” It was the beginning of a step-by-step technique on oral sex, aka the blow job.

The book was translated into more than twenty languages.
magazine featured a spread of me at Lenny's gym posing, with my biceps curled, on the backs of all the gorgeously muscled guys I had interviewed. I went on a twenty-city publicity tour. The book was on the
New York Times
best-seller list for close to a year! I finally finished my master's degree from Hunter in studio art and art criticism and the big royalty checks let me paint full-time. I could pay half my son's tuition and still have enough to buy myself rolls of high-quality canvas and the best oil paints. I deposited the checks into a savings account at my local bank. The risk of writing a sex book under my own name had paid off.

“What are you doing with all the loot?” asked a friend. When I told him I kept my money in a savings account, he recommended his financial adviser. Apparently, “everyone” in publishing was using him.

The financial adviser reassured me my money would be safe with him and would grow at five or six or more percent—which was a hell of a lot better than what it was making in the bank. I transferred all my earnings to him, except for what I needed to live on.

It was a huge relief not to think about jobs or finances for a
while, not to schlep hours to Queens to teach would-be models or to juggle three jobs at once. I could at last concentrate on painting. But almost immediately the publisher was demanding another book.

“Do it,” I was urged by the same friend who set me up with the financial adviser. “You can make a lot of money on a follow-up. You'll need it for your old age.”

When I thought about his advice that evening, images of bag ladies raced darkly across my mind. I pictured a sad woman trudging through freezing sleet, wet snow, spending marrow-chilling nights in a small room where hard, glittering roaches slithered across bare filthy feet. Strangely, it was then that crushing images like those began regularly to invade my brain without warning—just as I began to finally make more money than what I needed to live on. I didn't stop to figure out where they came from. I knew that I had better make money while I could. There's no security in being an artist. I wrote another book,
How to Make Love to Each Other
. Luckily it was also a best seller.

Now enough royalties were coming in that I needed an accountant. I found someone who was a lawyer as well: he asked to see all my statements from the financial adviser.

“This man is an insurance agent,” he said, pointing to small type at the bottom of his statements.

“Yes, I knew that, but I didn't buy insurance from him,” I responded.

“He's put you into an insurance fund that is yielding about six percent, which is the good news. The bad news is, his commission is too high and he's also getting a commis
sion from the insurance company. He's being paid twice and that's not kosher in my book. Get out of there.”

Little did I ever suspect that this two-bit fraud was a harbinger of much worse things to come.

I asked around and did a ton of homework before transferring my money into one of the most respected investment advisory services in the country. They had a huge research department and a long and distinguished track record in the financial world. They managed the accounts of people who understand money—bankers, venture capitalists, billionaires, trust funders, and their ilk. The manager of my account, Rob, was a very smart guy who sat with me for several hours assessing my financial needs, what kind of risk I could tolerate—almost none—what I could expect to earn in the next ten years—who knows?—and what kind of budget I adhered to—budget? I never had enough money to formulate a budget.

Rob explained that I should understand where my money was invested and how the system worked. My money, he assured me, would be placed in different “instruments”—in other words, it was diversified. I liked him. I trusted him. More important, I trusted the firm that he represented.

At the time, the firm was bullish on Japan and maintained its upbeat attitude until the economy there tanked. And tanked some more. Finally, although I was “diversified,” when they pulled out of that mess I had lost about thirty percent of my sex book earnings.

I withdrew what was left and redeposited it in my simple old bank savings account.

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
12.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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