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Authors: Alexandra Penney

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BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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CHAPTER
2
AAA—Activity Alleviates Anxiety

S
omething terrible has happened but I can't remember what it is. I stumble out of bed, turn on the TV, step into the shower, and stay there for almost half an hour with hot water streaming over me, hoping the negative ions will help lessen the head-to-toe panic.

I am paralyzed by the early-morning news bulletins. More terrifying thoughts assault me, horrid visions of state-run institutions for sick old people where sloe-eyed attendants drug you and strap you to wheelchairs.

Paul has left a note on my mirror saying that he had to leave for his studio and to call him right away if I need anything. He'll check in with me later. I open the front door and
The New York Times,
as usual, is right there. I can bear only
to glance at the headlines. It's all there: the MF's confession, the Ponzi scheme, his admission that everything was a lie.

I'm close to nauseous with anxiety, but, once again, I must do something. I can't sit here alone. Then an idea hits me: I will go to the MF's offices. They are just two blocks away.

I dress as I would for any other day of working in the studio—jeans, freshly ironed white shirt, Hermès Kelly bag (purchased when I was an editor at Condé Nast—how much can I get for it on eBay, I wonder?), goosedown jacket with a fur collar, and small gold earrings from my mother. Dressing carefully in my normal clothes puts a bit of consoling distance between me and my bag lady fears.

It's not even eight a.m. when I get to Madoff's building, but already people are milling around in the lobby. I am not the only one who has dressed for the occasion—fur coats abound. One older woman who is perfectly groomed and swathed in golden sable is leaning on the arm of her husband, whose face is the color of green-gray bread mold.

I approach the lobby guard and say, “We are Madoff clients and we need to go up to his office please.” Part of me knows this will never happen, but part of me thinks that as of yesterday, anything can happen.

When people hear me politely but firmly asking to be let upstairs, they all chime in. The blond woman in sable says to me, “You've got the right attitude. Let's get up there! I've lost everything, everything.”

I wonder how much “everything” means. Does she still have a huge Park Avenue apartment, a silvery Maybach, a villa in Tuscany?

I don't, but I'm certainly a lot better off than many of these victims. I have a modest one-bedroom getaway house on Long Island that I bought ten years ago. I thought owning real estate would always be a good investment. I had a mortgage on the house and recently took out a home equity loan on it as well, after listening to the advice of two different financial and tax planners who had been highly recommended by smart friends. Madoff was generating a steady ten percent return and the loans on the house were around six percent, so, as the planners explained, the four-percent margin was meaningful.

I kept upping the home equity loan and taking out money from it to pay for living and my photography studio expenses rather than depleting my Madoff money so that my savings with him would continue to grow. This morning I know that the Long Island shack, as I call it, will have to be sold ASAP. I have no money to cover the loan costs. Or even the gas and electricity bills. I've been living off the proceeds from my photographs and small withdrawals from my Madoff account every quarter since I started renting my photography studio two years ago.

I also bought an inexpensive one-bedroom bungalow in Florida a couple of years ago with some of the money I'd made from writing and several of my photographs. The Florida place was part of a pension plan that was set up by an accountant years ago when I first started to save money. I couldn't live or vacation in the Florida house because of my pension plan's legal restrictions, but I always hoped it would be a good investment. I painted the floors, walls, ceilings, and
everything in sight in white, found some stylish white furniture at Ikea so that it would be an attractive place and I could rent it out to cover its costs. Now I'll have to sell it, too. Whatever I can make on it won't even come close to covering half the loans I owe for the house on Long Island—that is, if I can make anything at all. Home values in Florida have plummeted to the worst lows in the nation. And from what I've read it doesn't look as if this will change anytime soon, but I have no time to wait for a real estate upswing.

And of course there's my apartment. I am hoping that if I can sell the rest I can stay in this place where I have lived for so long. If I can just remain in my home I will have some peace of mind, even if I have no more than a pittance to live on. Staying in my home would help me to get my bearings again and give me some sense of continuity. But who knows if anything will sell—or when? Every single aspect of my life is uncertain at this moment. Not knowing is hell. The worst kind of emotional hell.

Right now, standing in the expanding crowd in the MF's lobby, I will myself not to think about the apartment or I will have some sort of epic panic attack.

The group is young, old, in between. Some people look like bicycle messengers, others could be pharmacists and librarians, and a good percentage look as if they go to the right barbers and have had subtle but expensive Botox jobs and minilifts.

Finally, a man descends from the upper reaches of the MF's establishment. He informs us that he is a lawyer and his
name is Lee Richards. He is the interim “receiver” for bankruptcy proceedings. He states coolly that it will take days or even months to establish any real facts. The crowd asks: “Is there any money there?” “Can we get insurance?”

One woman says, “I have only a small bank account left. I can't live on it. What should I do?” Of course Lee Richards doesn't answer. He tells us there is to be some sort of motion in federal court downtown this afternoon; Bernard Madoff will make an appearance before the judge.

 

I had called my internist's office the minute it was open for business this morning. Now, after being sent away from the MF's lobby, I race to pick up my prescription for tranquilizers. At the Madison Avenue pharmacy where I've had a charge account since my son was a baby, I wait a few minutes for my prescription, and while I wait, by habit, I check out the newest Chanel shades. From now on, I think grimly, I won't be able to afford even generic lipsticks at Duane Reade. When I was the beauty editor at
Glamour
magazine for a couple of years after college, I became infatuated with the expensive brands that messengers dropped off at our offices by the bagful, even though I quickly learned it was mostly chic packaging and seductive advertising that made them so costly and so “luxurious.” To this day, buying a new lipstick at a department store has been a good pick-me-up when the world seems slightly out of whack.

Now, obviously, I need something more potent.

Twenty minutes after leaving the drugstore, I'm staring at portraits of stern, WASPy, white-shoe founding partners on the paneled walls of my attorney's reception area. My father was a lawyer, and I've always thought of most lawyers as boring or on the make for new clients. But who can resist Michael? He does uncanny Goofy imitations while reviewing a will or advising on tax matters. There's no laughing Michael today, though; instead, he is poring carefully over the MF's papers.

“It doesn't look good,” he concludes. “These numbers don't match up.” He says he'll talk to his colleagues who deal with securities fraud. There is an organization called Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) that maintains a special reserve insurance fund authorized by Congress to help investors at failed brokerage firms.

“Am I eligible for the SIPC fund?” I ask, for a moment allowing myself a smidgen of hope.

“There's no way of telling yet,” he says. I reach into my bag for a tranquilizer.

My mind is flooding with panic again as I race-walk back home to pick up my BlackBerry, which I forgot in my rush to get out of the house. I need to be connected to my lawyer and to Paul and to my son and to my friends.

The phone is ringing as I walk in the door. It's Mr. W from the U.S. Treasury! I'm speechless. The U.S. Treasury has called me—twice in twenty-four hours!

Mr. W is polite and perhaps a bit sorrowful as he says, “I'm calling to say that I haven't been able to locate a Web site where you might find out who bought the bills from that
offering.” I'm astounded by the phone call, but it tells me absolutely nothing.

Before I leave for the courthouse, where I will spend the afternoon waiting, fruitlessly, for the MF to appear, I call Ed Victor, the literary agent. He's represented me before and he's a good friend. One thing I know for sure is that I need work. Work and activity keep me sane and will prevent me from wallowing in self-pity or fear. I haven't written professionally for more than a decade, but maybe Ed can come up with something for me to do. I think of all the jobs I've had over the years, all the money I made that has vaporized in just one day. Oh my god, how will I ever earn enough money now?

Since the recession began, the art market has plummeted. I won't make a cent selling my photographs. At least if I sit and type, I can hold back the panic. Panic? What word is worse than “panic”? “Hysteria.” “Implosion.” “Full-scale terror.” “Body-crippling shock.”

I explain what's happening to Ed and tell him that I need work, ask if he has any ideas. Four minutes later he phones back and says, “Call Tina Brown, she wants you to do a blog on her new Web site, The Daily Beast.”

This may not be the answer to my problems but at least it's a start, and when in a crunch, I've always lived by my personal acronym of AAA: Activity Alleviates Anxiety. Of course I'll call Tina—instantly.

I'm traumatized by the events of the last eighteen hours and I don't have a plan, but a blog is a first step. I've never been too much of a planner, with one notable exception—
my finances. I've always been relentlessly curious and, for the most part, I've followed paths that I thought would lead to unusual experiences and new adventures. I've strongly believed in carpe diem while keeping one eye on financial security. And I learned early on that the only person I could depend on to take care of me was me.

CHAPTER
3
There Is No Such Word as “No”

I
grew up in one of the affluent suburbs of New York. My father, a Harvard graduate and son of a Greek immigrant, was legal counsel to a Fortune 500 corporation. My mother, a grande dame type, was an intellectual prone to depression. My childhood was comfortable though lonely. I was six when my mother had a severe nervous breakdown that landed her for almost a year in Payne Whitney, a New York psychiatric hospital. I stayed with my ancient Greek grandmother in Boston. Her attention was focused on my aunt, who lived with us and was suffering through the terminal stages of breast cancer, and who died in the room next to mine. When my mother returned, she bought me books and clothes but spent many of her days in bed behind closed doors.

College offered a respite from the oppressive, uptight years at home. I graduated as a philosophy major from Smith, knowing that my goals were fundamentally different from those of other girls in my class, who talked about the biggest rock and the richest husband, preferably one who lived in Greenwich or Grosse Pointe or on the Main Line, the sort of man who raced in the America's Cup and did something arcane with money on Wall Street. My mother had instilled in me the notion that writers and poets were exciting and led interesting lives. I'd always loved to draw and dreamed of becoming an artist. My happiest times during college were weekends when I would escape Smith and take the train to New York, where I hung out in Greenwich Village at the Waverly Hotel on Washington Square and visited museums and art galleries on Fifty-seventh Street.

My father, on the other hand, made it clear when I was very young that I would not be inheriting any money so I'd better learn how to make it on my own. He was a distant man, not often given to overt expressions of emotion, but his anger and despair were palpable when he recalled the financial damage done to his family during the Depression. Those conversations engraved on my impressionable brain the need

to be highly disciplined,

to work hard,

to be laser-focused,

to be independent,

and to save money.

The minute I graduated I began to look for any kind of job in New York, so I could write and paint at night or on weekends. I met a smart, handsome man on a blind date, a talented industrial designer who had made jewelry as one of his projects in college. Rick was from Greenwich, Connecticut, and had grown up in a beautiful house with wide, very green lawns. His parents owned a racing sailboat but he seemed like a maverick, and that's what I was on the lookout for. He proposed, but I was adamant that I didn't want to settle down; first, I wanted to explore Europe.

I had found a job through a listing in
The New York Times
at the Simplicity Pattern Company writing copy for their catalogs and Rick had a position at a small industrial design firm. We lived in a minuscule but tidy fourth-floor walk-up in mid-Manhattan and saved every cent we could for our European trip. Within a year we had enough money to spend eight months abroad. We left everything familiar behind in New York, and headed to Europe, where we never knew what was coming next. Nevertheless, no bag lady fears intruded on those happy and adventurous times.

 

Married, back in New York, I found a job writing more fatuous copy, my husband landed a job at one of the best industrial design firms in the country, and our son was born, truly the most adorable baby who ever graced this planet, if you ask his parents. I kept rationalizing that I could quit commercial writing when I had enough savings of my own,
and be Georgia O'Keeffe, but devising endless catalog copy for patterns soon began to make me feel pathetic, so I decided it was time to make a move. Because I'd seen articles by Joan Didion and other writers I admired in 
Vogue
and
Harper's Bazaar,
I wrote query letters to both magazines. I signed them in hot pink lipstick with a lipstick exclamation point after my last sentence:

 

I would love to work for you!

 

Even though I wanted very much to be taken seriously, I had a feeling that unorthodox, albeit frivolous-looking, letter styling might grab some attention.

Sure enough, a couple days after I mailed the letters, I received a yellow-and-black Western Union telegram from Condé Nast Publications asking me to telephone the Personnel department.

A telegram!

My first of many Condé Nast lessons: urgency at all costs! And all costs be damned!

I landed a job as a promotion editor at
Vogue,
which involved writing copy and supervising shoots for some of the advertisers who bought pages in the magazine. My department was headed by the publisher. I was assigned to a small, spotless white cubicle with wall-to-wall graphite-gray carpet and a large window. I typed out my copy on a gray IBM electric machine set on a five-foot-long white-painted Parsons table.
Vogue
editors, I quickly learned, did not work at pedestrian desks.

Urgency! was the first lesson I learned at
Vogue
. The most important tutorial, however, involved my boss, Miss G, a tall, imperious woman with the kind of poreless skin that you see in ads, perfectly coiffed hair, and couture outfits that made the clothes in Lord & Taylor's Designer Dress Salon, where I had worked during summers while I was at college, look as if they were manufactured in outer Mongolia. She was the first and only woman I have ever seen with grass-green eyes.

Miss G went to Paris twice a year for “collections.” Her clothes and luggage were messengered to the office and one of her three assistants always packed her hand-monogrammed Vuittons. On this particular night before she was to leave for Europe, the assistants had done something unheard of—they had mysteriously disappeared. Miss G demanded to know where they were. No one could explain the situation. We dreaded what might happen to them in the morning.

It was five thirty, the time I always left the office so I could be home in time to cook dinner for my son and husband.

Miss G marched into my cubicle, and my heart started pounding. Even though I had done nothing wrong, I was certain I was about to be fired because she never left her office. We peons were always summoned to her lair where she worked—if that is what she actually did—at a spotless white-lacquered Parsons table enhanced with two white ceramic pots containing flawless white orchids, plus a white phone and white pens filled with emerald ink that was a close match to her extraordinary eyes. On a white cube table close by was
a crystal pitcher containing ice water that was refreshed every two hours, flanked by two faceted Baccarat goblets. The walls were covered in leopard-printed silk with matching draperies, a chaise, and slipper chairs.

“I'm leaving for Paris tomorrow,” she intoned, peering down at me from her emerald green–rimmed reading glasses. Of course I knew she was going to Paris. Everyone in the department was flashed the second she was away from her desk.

“My bags need packing,” she commanded and strode away.

“But Miss G,” I began to protest, trying to catch up to her. She stopped dead in her tracks. No one ever said “but” to Miss G.

“I have to get home. My son's nanny leaves at six sharp and he'll be alone. I can't reach my husband, he's at a meeting with clients.”

She looked at me as if I didn't exist.

“There's no such word as ‘no,'” she pronounced with icy finality and proceeded down the hall in an urgent but somehow stately pace to her lair. No other human moved like Miss G.

I needed the job but my son needed me more. For just this one time, I knew I had to find a way to do what she asked so I could hold on to the job. I have blocked from my memory how I finagled someone to stay with him that night. I carefully packed Miss G's elegant Vuittons and learned one of the great lessons of my professional life.
There is no such word as “no.”

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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