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Authors: Alexandra Penney

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BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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t's been four weeks since the Madoff bomb detonated into my life. I'm back in New York. The Florida house is still for sale. The cottage on Long Island is also on the market. No takers, or even lookers, for either house.

I've now written three blogs. Ed Victor, my agent, thinks he might be able to sell a book based on them. Despite childhood ambitions, I've never considered myself a writer or an author. I've written books as a working journalist, and I know that my strength is ideas, not sentences. My idea is to write about what happens when one's worst nightmare comes true.

On a Monday, I hear the judge has once again given the MF a get-out-of-jail-free card, and I can't stand it. I was
brought up believing in the American system of justice and that what the judge says goes. The MF gamed the system for all it was worth and the same system seems to be protecting him. Luckily, as I am visualizing him, wolfing down a gourmet dinner in his dandy penthouse, I am at the Four Seasons in New York dining on risotto laced with black truffles. My friend RP e-mailed me earlier in the day: “Last minute idea: do you want a FREE dinner  that will help save the earth?” Who am I to turn down a free meal at the Four Seasons, under

During the cocktail hour I notice, among the ladies, a conspicuous lack of the large stones that glittered with such delicious abandon in premeltdown days. I pay special attention because the other day I received another phone message about selling my jewels. This time it was from one of the big auction houses. A polished voice asked if I would like a “complimentary consultation on how to discreetly dispose of your jewels.”

Excuse me, where did anyone get the idea I have such valuable gems? I wish!

I meet RP at the venerable Grill Room, where I had countless business lunches as a high-flying magazine editor. The government of Malaysia is sponsoring a dinner for the first Earth Awards, and finalists from all over the globe talk about how they have been working for years to help the planet. In the beneficent atmosphere, I forget about the MF and news tidbits about his wife paying for his security guards
and fat cigars—with whose money? Okay, maybe I don't forget entirely.


I arrive home from the Four Seasons feeling wiped out from the day. I take a Tylenol PM and try to fall asleep. Another Tylenol and a tranquilizer three hours later don't do the trick and the demons do a shock and awe attack. Tonight, drugs don't help.

I contemplate the advice of my dinner partner that day, a doctor whose specialty is integrative medicine. I told him I was looking for someone who would help me with meditation, and asked if I would become addicted to the tranquilizers I take when I feel panicky. He said I didn't appear to have a problem yet. (When you become a PoRC, you grab any freebie advice you can get.) He suggested a book about yogic breathing exercises. Learning how to inhale and exhale is pretty far down my to-do list, but maybe I'm fooling myself about what will really help me fight the panic. Tomorrow I will find the book. It's been quite a while since I locked eyes with the lions in front of the New York Public Library on Forty-second Street. That's a good thing about being a PoRC, you get to have experiences that you forgot about when, for instance, it was easier just to one-click and order a book from Amazon.


I have until March 4 to file a claim for the SIPC insurance money that may be paid to people who've been swindled by
the MF. SIPC says it can pay up to $500,000, but my savings were in an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) so it's not clear whether I will receive any remuneration at all. And if the government classifies me as the victim of a theft, and worthy of its largesse, how long will it be before I see the SIPC money? Six years? Eight years? By then, I figure, I won't need to have my hair colored; it will be a perfectly elegant shade of pure-panic white.

The morning after the Four Seasons dinner, I descend into the dark depths of the basement storage area of my apartment building to locate the MF's statements. I need to collect reams of materials in order to file the SIPC claim. Three hours later I'm covered with filthy dust but in my hands are all the documents going back to 1999, when I first put my money into the MF's funds.

The IRS instructs us to keep records for seven years, and I've dutifully complied. I throw out as much as possible because I have very little room for storage and neat-freak is embedded into my DNA. But for some reason—and I think it's because I'm always so worried about money—I have not thrown out one stub of the official-looking statements that the MF sent every month.

The pile is over a foot high and the papers weigh as much as two gold bricks. I must Xerox the stuff so I can give it to Bob, who is helping me with the SIPC forms.

Bob is a godsend. He's the attorney who paid a house call to me in what seems like a lifetime ago, with the heartening news that I could stay in my apartment for the time being. When he offered to help with all the paperwork, I hastened
to tell him to please keep track of his hours. I will pay him of course (from what, I'm not sure), but he waved me off and said, “You don't have to worry about that.”

worry. Of course I want to pay him for his advice and his hard work. I don't want to be a charity case for anybody, but I am extremely grateful for his smarts and his time. I can offer to do portraits of his grandchildren, but that's not nearly enough. I have to believe that my luck will change, and when it does, I will be able to pay him.

Three hours of my day so far have been spent on Madoff. I take a long, hot shower to get rid of the grime under my fingernails, and then get ready to head to Kinko's, where I'll copy the hundreds of pages of paperwork. Resentment wells up in me: for the time that has been spent, for the money that will be spent, for my dirty clothes and bad mood—all to have these effing Madoff forgeries copied.

The only way I can manage the loathsome stack of papers is to take a taxi to the shop: I use even more precious dollars than expected because we get mired in bad traffic.

At the copy shop, I stand in line watching the clock. Eighteen minutes tick by. Finally I am facing a young clerk with fancifully decorated, false clawlike fingernails. They are true works of fine art. And, it turns out, so is she.

I show her the pile and explain that I need two copies of each, collated, please.

“They are legal size and regular letter size,” she tells me.

“Yes, they are,” I agree.

“And some are double-sided,” she says, rifling through
the sheets with the fingernails carefully pointed upward so they are not sullied by touching the paper.

“That's true,” I say.

“I don't think we can do this job,” she says, and begins to turn to the next customer.

“Can you tell me why not?” I say, trying to remain civil.

“There's nobody here who knows how to do this kind of job right now.”

“Okay, I have some time on this, at least a couple of days,” I say, knowing that I simply cannot lug this pile back to my apartment. “When will somebody who knows how to do this job be here?”

She is looking past me now, ready to help the person behind me.

“You'll have to speak to the manager,” she says, not looking at me. Her cell phone rings. She answers and begins to talk.

Now I'm angry. But the copying must be done.

The manager is on his break, and there is no assistant manager on the premises. I run down the list of all my friends in offices who could let me use a Xerox machine. Out of the question: I can't impose on them for something like this.

It's now raining heavily outside. I have this big canvas bag of papers and nothing to protect them from the torrents. For a few seconds I stand there stupidly, not knowing what to do. I hail a taxi and give my home address.

Back in my apartment, I sit on my bed and give in to a ferocious rage that I haven't felt since it all happened. I try to cry but no tears come. I walk into the kitchen, then back to
the bedroom, at least a dozen times. I open the fridge, looking for something to eat. I open and close the fridge door ten times or more. At last, I take out a yogurt, then smash it so viciously into the sink that the plastic container explodes onto every surface it can possibly cling to except the ceiling. Cleaning it up helps to calm me a bit.

I try to cry angry tears again, but no dice. I think of making myself a drink the way they do in the movies. But I would just get a headache. Finally, I find myself in the bathroom taking the longest, hottest shower of my life.

What do I really want to cry about? I ask myself. There are people far worse off than I am. I have my health. I have my wonderful but faraway son and my beloved niece and their amazing families. I have close friends who love and support me in every way imaginable. I am not a bag lady—yet. Okay, I'm no spring chick, but I have some talent. I have connections. I am still sitting in this beautiful apartment. So I have to sell some stuff. So I have to go out and earn money again. So what?

I am actually talking out loud to myself. Reluctantly I leave the shower and the pelting water, which does seem to give me a measure of composure.

The phone is ringing and it's my friend Patty Marx. I tell her about the copy shop claw-nail clerk and how I came home and completely lost it.

“You're not angry at that girl, it's obviously about Madoff,” she says, and of course I agree.

“Sure, you can always say people are worse off but it's not that meaningful or consoling, because it's happening to
Just because things could be worse doesn't mean you have to be grateful for everything you have. What happened to you is real. It is bad,” she says. “You were robbed. Allow yourself to be angry and pissed as much as you want.”

We make a date to meet at EJ's for dinner the following week. I hang up and feel a huge relief. She's absolutely correct that no matter how often I rationalize that it could have been worse or think about the people for whom it was or is worse, I still have to contend with what happened to me. My whole body feels lighter after talking to her. Words help. Love and friendship help more than anything.

I am brushing my teeth that night when I think about what's worse than losing all your money:

Losing your child or your husband or someone you most deeply love

Losing your health

Losing your mind

Losing your sense of humor—maybe!

Change Is Good: My Fishmonger Days

rish fisherman sweaters are aptly named—they were part of the garb of choice at Rosedale Fish Market. The oils retained by the natural woolen yarn foil the fragrance of the merchandise. Also essential was a lightweight rubber apron wrapped around your entire body so that it covered your jeans or OshKosh overalls. A clean white cotton apron topped that for hygienic purposes. Black rubber boots with salmon-colored soles had to be tall enough to reach under the apron. Thus your entire personage was shielded from unwanted scents and you could tread safely across the floors that were splashed with fresh water hourly to keep Rosedale spotlessly clean. I considered it a rather stylish uniform.

At Rosedale, I had plenty of time to read and study. Our
major traffic was in the early-morning hours, when private cooks came in to check out the catch of the day, and around four thirty to six in the late afternoon, when people were returning home from work.

Rosedale had always been hospitable to artists and writers and musicians, I learned. Robbie's wife came from a well-known, wealthy family. What Mrs. Robbie was doing in a fish market—albeit a very upscale one—I haven't the vaguest clue. But then again, I was there, too. Robbie took a shine to me and bestowed upon me the ultimate gift: I was allowed to be the first female to accompany him to the Fulton Fish Market.

Once a week, at four thirty in the morning, he would pick me up in his truck and we would barrel downtown. After he had bought the fish for the day, we'd head to a mahogany-paneled bar with beautiful old mercury-backed mirrors on the corner of South Street, where all the out-of-town fishermen in their baseball caps and heavy red-and-black-plaid mackinaw jackets hung out and tossed down their morning beer. Robbie would order a coffee and I would be perched on a tall stool, next to him, my rubber boots just skimming the shining brass floor rod. Robbie and the truck would scoot me home in time to take my son to school, then I'd circle back to the fish market for the day's work.

It was easy to slip into class at the Art Students League in my Rosedale outfit, as it looked rather outré and artistic, and the other students could never smell a thing—or at least they never said anything to me about it.

I had, as planned, applied to graduate school for further
study in painting. Yale was my first choice, but Hunter was in my neighborhood and I could attend afternoon seminars with Robbie's blessing and still have free nights to be with my family.

When a cosmetics company I knew from my days at
called and asked me to work on a project as a consultant, I knew I had to quit Rosedale—I couldn't walk into the tony offices in the General Motors building where they were headquartered in my fishy clothes. I reluctantly left Rosedale after almost a full year. But I was thrilled about the money I was being paid for the cosmetics project and by the prospect of an untethered life as a freelance writer and fledgling artist.

Without a day job, I wanted to move downtown to a loft where I could have a studio to paint in. Pragmatically I knew it would never work because my son was in school on West Seventy-seventh Street, and living downtown would be an enormous hassle for all of us. I came up with the idea of renting a cheap loft for weekends instead of renting a house in the country and convinced my husband it would be fun.

I had met an artist at a cocktail party who lived in an area of town I didn't know anything about. He told me about his loft south of Houston Street in lower Manhattan. I didn't know exactly what a loft consisted of but I was curious, so I pulled on my well-washed Rosedale OshKosh coveralls and biked downtown one afternoon for a cup of tea.

He had an enormous white-painted space in a redbrick five-story walk-up with high ceilings and several skylights. In other words, a loft. The glossy floors were painted a neu
tral gray, and a black wood-burning cast-iron stove, the only source of heat, commanded the living space. Water for shaving and bathing was warmed up in a huge pot on a two-burner stove. The area where he worked was splattered with a brightly colored bouquet of oil paints and the walls were covered with tacked-up preliminary charcoal sketches. Here was the genuine
la vie Bohème
. It was three miles and universes away from my Upper East Side apartment, and I was instantly seduced.

I used any spare time I could find to hunt for a space, preferably in a cast-iron building on one of the neighborhood's cobblestone streets. I pestered supers and tracked down landlords to see what was available. I finally found a great open loft with wooden ceilings and tall windows on LaGuardia Place, which later became part of now-famous SoHo. My husband pitched in to whitewash the floor and all the walls, and we moved some mattresses, tables, and bikes in.

Our little family sometimes stayed at the loft on weekends and I painted as much as I could. I even threw a birthday party for my son there and all the uptown kids were wildly excited that they could roller-skate indoors. After a year the lease was up and my husband wanted to try something else. He had found some property in Vermont and designed a lovely shingled Cape Cod house for us to live in. We began heading north on weekends.


My husband and I very slowly drifted apart. I had loved my time downtown and wanted more of it. He preferred the New
England house. I preferred the city. I hated the five hours spent driving to Vermont and the five-hour return on Sunday nights. For me, it was a huge waste of valuable time that I could use to do things with my son or study and paint.

We began to spend long periods away from each other. When my son was at camp in Maine, I would take vacations there and paint the rocks and the ocean, while my husband stayed in Vermont. We had differing outlooks on life. I wanted adventure. I wanted to meet exciting people, to learn as much as I could, to have new experiences. He wanted the peace and tranquillity of his own home in the beautiful Vermont countryside.

At a dinner party recently, a young man whose parents had divorced in the early eighties during the postfeminist period, as my husband and I did, said, “My parents split up, and a lot of my friends' parents did, too; it seems as if it was the trendy thing to get a divorce in those years.”

If you pressed me about exactly why my husband and I decided to go our separate ways, I couldn't give you a specific answer. Several of my friends were leaving their marriages and they reported feeling liberated and relieved without their conjugal responsibilities. I wanted a different kind of life and was intent on having it. Ours was a mutual agreement and mostly an amicable one. We separated but didn't divorce for almost six years. We remained close friends and we both wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do for us and for our son. The single most difficult, most painful moment of my life was telling my son that his father and I were separating. He was twelve at the time.

My now ex-husband found an elegant but smaller apartment adjacent to Fifth Avenue, a block away from where we had lived on Seventy-second Street. Our son would stay with him whenever he wanted to be uptown. I shed my Park Avenue self and rented a small, inexpensive interim one-bedroom on the outskirts of Greenwich Village that I found in the
Classified section. The loft on LaGuardia Place, although still available, was way out of my new budget.

Of course I was plenty worried about money. These weren't bag lady fears; these were fears that came from being a mother, with a primary responsibility to be a good parent. I believed that feminist fairness called for me to pay half of my son's private school tuition and to contribute as much as I could for his food and clothing. My husband, who still had his job as an industrial designer, would give us as much as he could for child support. If we didn't have enough, we would apply for a scholarship so that our child could go to his uptown school without interruption. Separation and living downtown in a dramatically different style, away from his friends, was an enormous upheaval for a child. Our son needed as much familiar continuity as possible. Throughout this period, I was convinced that even if I had to work four jobs and sell Avon cosmetics door to door, I would make enough money to start a new kind of life.

And that is how I feel—most of the time—these days. I
do it. I will earn enough money so that I won't become a bag lady. I'm not sure exactly how but I will make it happen. I will write; I will make art. I will set up a Web site. I will create something that will bring in money. When the
demons stage a full-scale assault, I yell at myself that I
do it—over and over again. And I convince myself. And I
do it.

Although I painted the new living quarters white, they were a major comedown from our uptown home with its spacious living room and stone fireplace, its formal dining room, and its large windowed kitchen. On most weekends my son would head to Vermont with his dad and then my place seemed pretty grim. I was lonely and uprooted but I kept my spirits up by thinking, This is all my own and I'll find something great as soon as I'm more settled financially.

I slept in the living room, my son had the bedroom, and every day we made a game of the long subway trip uptown to his school. I would drop him off and head back to look ceaselessly for a better and larger space so I would have room to work. Lofts abounded but they all needed “fixing,” which meant painting the walls, putting in lights, bathrooms, and kitchen—installing everything needed for a bare-minimum existence.

I couldn't afford to pay “key money” for the lofts that were available with the basic improvements. Looking for a place to live was, as it always is in New York, a discouraging process. I went street by street, building by building, asking supers, owners, artists, anyone I could collar, if they knew of space for rent. I thought I was running my life, but then I realized real estate was completely in control. It was a depressing time. Often on weekends, when my son was away, I would lie in bed for hours and not want to eat or move. Finally I heard from a building owner that a small-job electrician might want to rent
a space on West Broadway. The gallery scene was just beginning to flourish and SoHo's wonderful cast-iron buildings were about to be developed by uptown real estate barons. The wide street was in a central location and, most important, it was safe.

It wasn't a loft, it wasn't an apartment, but it was perfect. It had been a small outbuilding on a farm a hundred years ago. Two floors, each one far smaller than my uptown living room, were newly painted with titanium white walls. The kitchen was made for very small people: it measured less than five feet square, but it had a window. All in all, it was about six hundred square feet. The rent was $350 per month, not including electricity. In addition, Irwin, the landlord and electrician, wanted a security fee of $475.

I didn't have the money but I desperately wanted the place. P, my assistant from the days of the French photographer shoot, happened to be with me when the electrician had shown me the space. She offered to lend me the money. It was the first and last time I have ever accepted a loan. But she was gracious and insistent, and I wanted the place so much that I took her up on it. I paid her back, fifty dollars a month plus a tiny bit of interest, over the next year.

My son and I and our Norwegian elkhound, Pookabee, moved in. I adored the creaky steps, the uneven wooden floors, and the windows that looked onto the night-and-day industrial busyness of West Broadway. We had no furniture to speak of, as I had paid the last of my savings for a bed and bookshelves for my son, who had a room of his own.

I rented a huge industrial floor-sanding machine and
shined up the old wood, then cleaned and waxed and scrubbed until the entire place was as spotless and gleaming as I could make it.

Metropolitan Lumber was around the corner and they gave me a great deal on some unusable wooden doors and sawed them to size at no charge. I sandpapered, painted, and painstakingly gold-leafed them, and then devised a way to install them as sliding panels on the windows so we had privacy at night. I slept on a mattress on the floor next to my son's room, and organized my paints and canvas rolls and stretcher bars on the floor below.

Every morning after I returned from taking my son to school, I stood at the window of my sweet small space on West Broadway, where I could watch the famous painter Alex Katz walking down my street with his black dog, its tail wagging nonstop. I was on my way to becoming a genuine artist. But I needed money. The cosmetics project had come to an end. I had to pay for half of my son's school tuition plus rent, gas, electricity, food, phone, subway fare, my own tuition at graduate school, and art supplies.

I decided to call Alexander Liberman, an artist and sculptor as well as the legendary editorial director of Condé Nast. While I was at
we often discussed the art scene, and I had told him about wanting to be a painter full-time.

When I phoned his office, his secretary remembered me and gave me an appointment to show him slides of my paintings. He didn't end up furthering my career as an artist, but he did something that was more crucial for me at the time. Mr. Liberman offered to pay me a thousand dollars a month
as a “roving editor” for
. My responsibilities were light: a meeting once a month where I would present ideas that other editors could produce, and one written article with any shoots necessary to illustrate it. It was a perfect job!

A guaranteed twelve thousand dollars a year was good money but not nearly what I needed to make ends meet. I scoured the Help Wanted section of
The New York Times
every morning on the subway coming back from my son's school. I was limited to jobs that allowed me to pick him up in the afternoons. And somewhere and somehow I had to find the time to finish my master's thesis at Hunter and paint.

I found a listing for teaching English to aspiring models. I researched the borough of Queens, where I'd never stepped foot, and figured out a way to trek by subway to the outer reaches, for an interview at a shopping mall. The “school” was two small ramshackle rooms situated on top of an outlet store. The classroom consisted of twelve brown metal folding chairs and two overhead fluorescent light fixtures. I landed the job at fifteen bucks an hour for two hour-and-a-half sessions per week.

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
4.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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