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Authors: Alexandra Penney

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BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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I've written two blogs for Tina and I've been paid for them. I have enough to last for only a few more months but the small check means
I can still earn money.

I will need to find a job. But what? But how? Here's an idea: set up a lemonade stand on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach and charge a million bucks a glass, save a few dollars for myself, and give the rest to the charities that the MF wiped out. That thought elicits a chuckle. It feels so good to laugh. A sense of humor and a sense of the absurd are crucial in my situation. When Paul dropped by yesterday to check on how I was doing and saw me head down on the kitchen counter, he said, “Hey, you look a lot younger. Crying makes your face puffier, much better than Botox.” He took me by the shoulders and said, “Don't lose your sense of humor. It's the only thing that will really get you through this.”

In fact, I am not a weeper and have shed no tears over my situation. And yet when a friend wrote me yesterday about the death of her husband after a horrible illness, the e-mail undid me. There are so many worse things happening in the world—and I remind myself of this all the time—but still, each of us, no matter how bad things are for others, has his own worries, his own horror stories, especially now with the deepening economic turmoil.

I think of that grieving friend again for a few moments and I am surprised to realize that some good has come out of
the MF debacle. I jot down a quick list of the positive aspects beginning to emerge from the horror of the experience:

Agonizing but energizing

Terrifying but clarifying

Frightening but strengthening

And then I add:

Weight loss from money loss!

The sun has vanished suddenly and the morning light has turned a most forbidding opaque gray. The windchill factor has fallen by a steep eighteen degrees. On my windowsill are four orchid plants. Three were gifts from friends and the fourth I bought a few months ago at the flower market on Twenty-seventh Street.

Those poor plants are living in the worst conditions, but I love them and talk to them like some sort of lunatic—this is what green thumbs recommend. The sill is freezing in the winter and hot as a pancake griddle in the summer. I water them from a pretty copper watering can, and feed them, but they never seem to blossom. What would, under such circumstances? But this morning, looking out at the moody gray city, I see a shoot with some unmistakable buds on it. My orchid will bloom again. I will see the pristine white flowers by the new year.

CHAPTER
5
Road Trip with “The Girls”

MF + 2 WEEKS

O
n a cold December day, I set out in my dented white '95 Mercedes wagon for Florida. I need to make sure my cottage is in shipshape order for a potential buyer. The newspapers have announced that the real estate market is worse in Florida than anywhere else in America and the broker who is trying to sell the place says, “The buyers are bottom feeders and they're all out for blood—if indeed there are any buyers at all.” I will have to sell the tiny house for much less than I paid for it two years ago, not to mention that I will lose the money and effort I put into rejuvenating it from its previous trashy state. But no matter how much I lose, I must sell the little house. I need the cash for daily living.

I have an additional, more inspiring plan for my trip,
though. I want to take on-location photographs while I'm down south—it's emotionally crucial that I stay focused on my work.

Several years ago I began to photograph plastic blow-up sex dolls that come equipped with cavernous open mouths and huge breasts. The irony is that my work comments on insatiable consumerism, greed, dishonesty, and the deformed and warped values of our times. The dolls, with their gaping mouths, are symbols or ciphers that provide a visual scaffolding for social observation. Nothing in the pictures is genuine (unless you consider plastic “genuine”) and neither, of course, was the MF.

Now “the girls,” as I call them, are stacked in open wine cartons behind me, along with their wigs, clothes, lingerie, bags, shoes, gloves, and jewelry, all of which I bought on Canal Street in Manhattan—two bogus Hermès Birkins and a fake green Goyard bag, featherweight look-alike Rolexes and Panerais, spangle-laden bras, bikinis made of strands of edible plastic candy pearls. The tab for an afternoon's shopping for their sexy faux-luxe-brand dresses, bags, underwear, and rhinestone trappings has never topped eighty dollars.

Don't ask me where the idea of sex dolls came from. I am a nonkinky, heavily bourgeois kind of person. I had no interest in Barbie stuff when I was a kid. My best guess is that the dolls represent something deeply Freudian that is best left undisturbed. Or maybe it's more prosaic, maybe using the girls simply evolved from a bunch of weird, deformed children's dolls I photographed over and over in a dusty window in Rome when I was a visiting artist at the American Academy three years ago.

I-95 is a terrifically boring stretch of road and while I drive, my mind keeps slipping back to yesterday, when I finally had to tell Carmina that I was leaving the city to go down south to sell the cottage and that the MF had chopped my financial life into mincemeat.

We were standing in my kitchen after she'd just unfolded the ironing board.

“I can't have you here so often,” I heard myself saying. “I just don't have the money. That guy took all my savings.”

I burst into tears for the second time since December 11 and just kept hugging her sturdy shoulders as tightly as I could. She started crying, too.

“What will you do? Do you have enough money?” I asked, not even waiting for her to answer.

“I will pay you as much as I can,” I said, having no idea where I'd earn my next dollar but knowing with certainty that somehow Carmina had to be part of my new frugal life. “Don't worry, I will still pay you—I'll find a way. Can you come for just a half day a week, or two mornings for a couple of hours?”

“Don't worry, Alexandra,” she said through the tears, “I know about that guy from the newspapers and also TV. Everything will be all right. Really. You work very hard, you'll be okay. I'll be okay, too. Really.”

“Let's sit down and have some coffee,” I said and proceeded to heat up the espresso maker. Carmina had just finished a cup but she can drink endless amounts of dark brew.

I was relieved when she told me she had a new boyfriend who treated her well and she felt safe. She's a very brave
woman and nothing gets her down. She's a role model of optimism and spunk and hard work. But I know her family is depending on her back in Bolivia.

“I'll make money,” I said. “I'm even thinking I can write another book. And the art market has to revive someday. And I will never let you go. Unless you want me to.”

“I would come even if you don't pay me, “she responded instantly. At those words I started crying again and even now, as I write this, tears come to my eyes. Carmina is blood-close and always will be. And I
will
find a way to pay her. There's no choice about this. Carmina will be employed by me as long as she is willing or until I call it a day. Learning what parts of my BMF (Before MF) life are indispensable is a process I now deal with daily, sometimes hourly.

I wish the radio or the old-fashioned cassette player in my car still functioned, because as I drive this silent, interminable highway, my mind begins to race with the same old scary thoughts. How am I going to survive? Was I greedy? No, I don't think so. Nine to ten percent interest was not disproportionate at that point in time. Maybe others wanted to strike it rich with the MF. I didn't. I just wanted financial stability, financial security, and the calming feeling that came from having my money in a safe place. I had lost money with other financial advisers, but the MF's fund, I was told, would yield a steady interest—not too high, not too low—allowing me to have a studio and work on my art. And the fund money, along with sales of my photographs, did support me for the past couple of years.

I think, as I often do, of the thousands of other Madoff
casualties. Many have far worse troubles than I. Some are very old and fragile and truly penniless, with not even a relative to turn to and with no conceivable way to make a buck. Some will be forced to leave their homes and what will happen to them? At least I've been told I can stay for the near future in my sunny apartment. You might expect that thinking about these poor souls would make me feel better, but somehow, perversely, it turns my own outlook darker and blacker and more self-absorbed. My fate may become their fate. You're going to lose your edge, I think, you'll be walking around with swollen ankles, you'll be holding your moth-eaten layers of old clothes together with rusted safety pins, your hair will be grayish yellow and dirty and stringy and you'll be cold and lonely and alone.

It's very clear I need to learn meditation immediately, because I just don't have the mental discipline to stop thinking obsessively about myself and about the future. I will check the Yellow Pages as soon as I reach my destination. Cars are murderously swerving in front of me as I hold to a steady 65 mph in the right-hand lane. I again try to concentrate only on driving, but my racing brain will not cooperate.

But wait, here's the worst thought of all: people are going to feel sorry for me. I can feel that pity right now, right here in my gut.

I don't want to feel like an object of pity, a damaged person who's marked down like a “second.” This, I suddenly see, is what a real bag lady must feel like: a person who has no standing in society, a lone woman who trudges along with her ragged bags or pushes her creaky shopping cart with all
her sad belongings. Where does she go to the bathroom? Where can she wash her hair? She has no place to call home. No place to cheer her. No one to love her.

No way is that going to happen to me! No effing way! I'll keep up appearances with my self-ironed white shirts and my self-applied nail polish (feet are no problem but I haven't quite gotten the hang of doing my right hand yet). And I will keep up my spirits and my belief in kindness and decency until I can't anymore and my soul starts to shred and shrivel—and then it will be time to call it quits. But not yet. Not by a long shot.

 

Eventually, the old dented wagon has carted me all the way to North Carolina and I pass several large peeling yellow-and-red-lettered road signs that advertise Café Risque in a hamlet called Dun, right off I-95. Café Risque! It's a topless bar/sex-shop/adult video place that offers “trucker showers.” I have a huge urge to steer off the highway to investigate further. My mind has clamped onto a wild visual image of what trucker showers must look like. What a great location for the girls! I'm positive they would shine at their best in Café Risque. I pass the exit by, but am grateful for the temporary distraction.

The road is so straight and monotonous that, once again, my thoughts snap back to my life AMF (After MF). My brain replays the words a woman left on my answering machine a few days ago. She mumbled in an intimate semi-whisper, “I heard of your recent problems and would like to buy your jewelry.”

Ugh! What a creepy message. I know generally what my stuff is worth—I was the only one who ever bought me earrings and rings and bracelets. I have a couple of good gold watches, also self-purchased, and I often sport a white Chanel J12 that was a gift from a generous girlfriend as a thank-you for some photographs I took of her children. I know exactly what I have and my jewels, however much I love them, don't add up to that much. For all I know, this jewelry-buying scheme may be part of a new Madoff family heist!

Another caller that same day, my friend Annette, left a message inviting me to a Christmas Day lunch in Palm Beach. When I RSVP'd “Love to!,” I signed my e-mail with my new title, “AP, aka Person of Reduced Circumstances (PoRC).” As I continue to the long drive toward Florida, I think about Annette's party and about Palm Beach, which happens to have been the prime hunting ground where the MF went snouting for investor prey. People joined the Palm Beach Country Club where he hung out so they could be “invited” to join his exclusive enterprise.

This will be the first party I've attended since I was MF'd. Will people see me differently? Will I notice if they do? Should I bring a small Christmas gift, as I would have if this were last year? And what in the world would be appropriate for a PoRC to give for a hostess present? What will I wear? I try to remember what clothes I've packed for myself. Thank god! Finally, I'm thinking about something fun! I'd much rather waste time ruminating about wardrobe options than dwelling on bag lady fears.

My mind slows its anxious whirring and I begin to concentrate on driving. I don't go over the speed limit much—the old dented wagon wouldn't like it—but mostly I slow because if I am caught racing down the road with the girls in the back, I might land in the local clink, labeled a pervert, a kind of trouble I definitely don't need right now. And then I see the humor in it. With all the bags and boxes in the wagon, I'm a bag lady on wheels!

It's getting dark. I have to find a place to sleep. Signs have been whizzing by with motels advertising $29.95 and $39.95 a night. My friend Tom, an inveterate New York–Florida driver, and a man of swell taste, tells me that the finest hostelry on the route are Hampton Inns. All the hotel chains have well-lit franchises staked out immediately off I-95 exits so it's easy to find a Hampton Inn.

“Eighty-nine dollars,” says the pleasant young lady at the desk when I inquire about a room. I, who used to buy only retail and have always been highly reluctant to bargain, ask for a discount. She takes it down ten bucks. For no reason. Just because I asked.

Although it's expensive compared to what is down the street, it isn't in the same solar system as the Ararat Park Hyatt in Moscow, where I was on a work project last year and where the rate for a single room was $2,100 per night. That number staggered me; I ended up at a fine place a few blocks away that charged a tenth of the Park Hyatt's rate.

I've stayed at a lot of ultrapricey hostelries, but who in their right mind would pay $2,100, except look-at-me-see-my-money oligarchs? I wouldn't be surprised if those
Gazprom guys and those other oligarchs had tons of rubles stashed away with Madoff. I keep thinking of Magritte's surreal paintings. My new meltdown world seems like a bizarre replica of what it used to be.

The Hampton Inn is my new Four Seasons! The room is warm and inviting with white duvets fluffed high on the king-size bed. There's even a polished maplewood board to rest in your lap so you can work on your computer in bed. There's no charge for wireless access, the pale beige stone sink is set into genuine granite, and the oversize white bath towels are extraheavy. The place is immaculate and breakfast is free! A sweet scent wafts down the hall and someone knocks on the door and offers freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Can I be dreaming?

The aroma makes me realize I'm hungry. As I turned off I-95 I spotted a nearby Popeyes, my favorite fast-food place, and I head there now. Giggling youngsters are gulping down Coke from quart-size plastic cups. They eat the mashed potatoes and gravy with gusto. They gorge on biscuits that really are scrumptious but don't kids need protein and milk? The chicken is a bargain, $3.49 for three pieces (50 cents extra for a drink), but mostly the children leave their chicken untouched in the red plastic baskets. The parents don't seem to protest. Fast-food joints are the cheapest dining option—and the least healthy. Nonetheless I opt for a caloric binge and order two pieces of spicy fried chicken and a mountain of creamy coleslaw.

The buffet breakfast the next morning at the Hampton Inn has some more nutritious options. I load my tray with
low-calorie yogurt, fresh fruit, and Special K. While the voices of TV hosts jackhammer over the soft Southern accents of the hotel's guests, I appraise the guests' butts. They are large, larger, huge. Mine is quite expansive, too, I must admit. I've spent a lifetime trying to control the spread; it's a combat that never ends.

These are nice folks, who smile and say “hi” as they microwave flour gravy to heap on the biscuits. The coffee in the large spigotted metal urns is labeled “robust,” “regular,” and “decaf.” I take my first sip, and the coffee is already sweetened. More calories! No wonder people's butts are expanding.

After breakfast, I climb into the old wagon in another clean white T-shirt and I'm back on I-95 with four hundred miles to go. I wish I could chauffeur myself right over the horizon to China. I want to drive for the rest of eternity and never arrive anywhere. Arriving will mean reckoning with my future.

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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ads

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