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Authors: Alexandra Penney

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BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
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Another stroke of good luck from the Help Wanted ads found me two subway stops away teaching journalism at a junior college. Sixteen bucks an hour for the same two days a week.

The roving editor routine plus the two Queens jobs broke me down. I was thrilled to have the work, but soon I felt that I was counting out my life, not in coffee spoons but in endless subway loops. The time spent belowground added up to far more than the time I spent in class.

After a semester of this grind, luck again came my way. A friend told me that Bloomingdale's needed a copywriter. They liked my credentials and hired me for two full days a week, and I could still leave early enough to pick up my son at school.

Around the same time,
The New York Times
posted a listing for a journalism teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After four interviews I acquired a new title, Professor Penney. I told my Queens colleagues that I had found work in the city for the next semester, and the aspiring models air-kissed me good-bye. I was switching employers at a dizzying rate, but I finally began to feel some financial stability and that, at last, my life was definitely on the right track.

The Kindness of Friends and Strangers


ince the MF, I wake up every morning at 4:46 by the red lights of the digital clock. Anxiety twists through my veins. I imagine that if I curl into the tightest ball maybe I can crush it away. But it's no good, of course. To short-circuit the demons, I snap out of bed, pull open the curtains, gaze out onto a magnificent platinum moon in the luminous gray-blue sky.

The world appears to be exactly the same as it was BMF. Some skyscrapers are already alight with worker bees booting up their computers—or maybe they've been there all night on overtime hours to make ends meet. Suspendered, bespoke, pin-striped-suited, John Lobb–custom-shod bankruptcy lawyers are making big bucks in this economy so they, too, are probably arriving before dawn to strategize
their day. More windows are illuminated by early-rise type-A moguls frantically counting the millions they are losing in the meltdown. At first glance, the scene may look as it always has for the last ten years, but inside those offices, everything may actually be very different.

I pad into the kitchen with its gleaming granite counters and its maple and glass cupboards loaded with beautiful china that I've collected over the years. My mother, although withholding in many ways, gave me trays and plates and bowls made of sterling silver from the time I was a young girl. She was certain, I'm sure, that I would lead a life in which these items would be in constant use. Hence I developed an early delight in fine things, and I embarked on the high road to the slow accumulation of Baccarat glasses and exquisite china—all potential items for eBay now. As I wait for the coffee to drip into my mug and peer out the window, I can see the Lipstick Building, as New Yorkers have nicknamed Philip Johnson's rounded, pink edifice. What an irony! From my own window, I can see directly to the MF's offices, where he did his scheming and stealing and where my savings disappeared. As I look at it, I feel the now-familiar gutsickening rise of panic. What am I going to do? What if I fall ill? What will happen to me? SNT—now!

An adjoining apartment building obstructs a small part of my view but I am always tracking the light in a unit that is a few floors above me. Summer, winter, fall, and spring, a light is always on. I can see the glow at all hours of the night, and during the day if the sun isn't shining. Rays of chilly fluorescence emanate from the window. I imagine they're from an
old staticky television with bent rabbit ears or from an institutional overhead unit that sheds an unblinking cold light onto a dreary room with old stained brown Barcaloungers facing the decades-old television set and tables full of yellow prescription bottles and greasy bifocals.

The sad light has beamed out of the windows for at least a dozen years. I've always wondered who lives there. I visualize an old woman who sits in one of those chairs, with a raggedy crocheted blanket at her feet, unable to read because her eyes have undiagnosed cataracts or macular degeneration. She is afraid of the dark.

The building is in a good neighborhood and quite fancy, with its own part-time doorman, so I imagine that she has enough money to have an aide come in during the day a few days a week so that she can be found in case she should fall and break a hip on her way to the bathroom. The aide, an unsmiling woman, would have her own family in Ecuador or Colombia and is sending money home to her children; she makes sure the TV chatters nonstop to give a feeling of life in the airless room. She cooks some canned soup for her client, who never complains. But maybe there's no aide at all, and it's a social worker assigned to the woman's case who stops by weekly.

This old woman of my imagination is lucky. She has a roof over her head, enough money to pay the rent, maintain minimum electricity, and pay the aide, if indeed there is one. She probably has a telephone to call 911 and of course she has her television.

When the demons descend on me, the image is starkly
worse and more tormented. I'm alone and abandoned in a state hospital with some sort of slowly suppurating terminal illness, with attendants who don't care about anything except a paycheck to feed their families. I'm just waiting to die and wishing I had had the foresight to get my hands on some capsules of almondy cyanide to wipe me out of the horrible world I've found myself in.

I wonder if my fear of institutions comes from the year my mother spent at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic after her nervous breakdown when I was six. I heard whispers about “electroshock” and words like “convulsive,” but no one would tell me what they meant. I knew they were something scary. From my grandmother's house in Boston, I would talk to my mother every Sunday on a staticky phone with a gummy black receiver by an old brown sofa with lumpy springs. Her voice was always sad and far away. My grandmother had very little time for me, and one of the clearest visions of my childhood is of my aunt's tall green oxygen tanks and nurses caring for the dying woman with scary, blue-blotched skin and small atrophied legs, whose large airless room was next to my small dark one.


It's close to six a.m. now and the papers have finally been deposited at my door. I must remember to stop delivery today, as I need to save every dollar and I don't read them anyway. Since the MF terrorized me, it's impossible to read the news because that rictus smile of his is everywhere, with hun
dreds of inches of print about him dominating the pages. Plus, if I start reading, the unbelievable irresponsibility of the SEC will overwhelm me with anger.

I down my coffee to the dregs, stuff a load of laundry into the washer, and spy the shiny canister of a new rug cleaner stowed under the sink next to the box of Tide.

I get to work scrubbing out every spot—even the pinpoint-size ones—on the carpets in the bedroom and living room. I will have these carpets for the rest of my life. The furniture better be polished and each new crack tended to. No breakdowns or scratches or wine spills allowed. How could I pay for refinishing, reslipcovering?

Everything must last until my last minute on this earth. It's not an upbeat thought. But eradicating the stains is cathartic, and reminds me that I still have some control. It's the loss of control that really is the root of all my panic and wild imaginings. When I had my hard-earned money, starting way back in those years when I was working multiple jobs to support my son, I felt I had some control over what would happen to me. This morning, however, I at least have some control over my rugs.

Saturday and Sunday are mostly spent in more bouts of terror and body-paralyzing panic, with calls and e-mails from Richard and Alex to calm me down. This weekend is a low point—the shock is over, the adrenaline of the first weeks has waned, the noise about my blog has quieted, and I'm alone with my new reality. I am swilling down tranquilizers but at the same time being careful not to take too many. I
worry about addiction—another problem that I surely can do without. I need to find a psychopharmacologist who can tell me about the safety of the Klonopin I've been taking, and whether there's anything else that might help with this horrible anxiety.

When I called my internist the morning after the MF catastrophe, I mentioned my dark ideas about hemlock and almondy-smelling capsules.

“Thoughts are not actions,” he said. “You haven't done anything to hurt yourself. But there's another way to look at this. Right now you have very little control over what's happening to you. By telling yourself you have an out you are saying you have control over something, your own life. You are actually doing something healthy, exerting control. As long as your thoughts don't translate into actions, you're fine.”

I have no control over what happens with the SIPC money, and it torments me. Because I had money in an IRA account, my situation is different from most of the other investors. Each day yields a different response—different and, maybe, worse. I'm often told, “Don't expect a cent.” Other lawyers and victims I've met through e-mail say “Maybe $100,000, but don't count on it.” On a great day, someone will respond, “It's possible you could recover the full $500,000 from the SIPC.” But no one can say anything for sure. There are no rules about who's getting—or not getting—what or when, if ever. It could be a decade or more before the bureaucrats at the SIPC decide what to pay out and to whom.

Everywhere I look I face uncertainty. Before December 11, when I saw the market going haywire and the newspa
pers writing about a “deep recession,” I believed that even if I lost a good percentage of my savings, with extremely careful budgeting I would still have enough money to live on, even if I had to make major changes. But to lose every cent? To be robbed? I'd never conceived of robbery or theft, they weren't part of my bag lady fears. A reasonable amount of money in my Madoff savings made the terrors lose some of their potency and I had been pretty sure that, even with the meltdown, I could survive decently.

Now I live in a claustrophobic shroud of ambiguity. Will I receive the SIPC insurance proceeds? How much money can I reasonably expect to earn—if any? Will it ever be possible to have a small but reassuring amount of money in the bank, so if another catastrophe occurs I can weather it?

This skyrocketing uncertainty is the most debilitating and disheartening aspect of what I'm now facing and I'm certain it's the cause of my four a.m. anxiety attacks. A psychologist at Harvard, Daniel Gilbert, recently wrote about uncertainty in an op-ed piece in
The New York Times.
He described an experiment involving shocks in which some participants knew in advance they would always get an intense shock, while others knew they would have only a few intense shocks along with a series of milder ones. Those who had been told beforehand they would always receive an intense shock showed fewer symptoms of fear, such as rapid heartbeat or profuse sweating, than those who did not know when the intense shocks were coming. Gilbert wrote, “People feel worse when something bad
occur than when something bad

I'd rather know for sure that I'm not getting the SIPC money than dwell in this excruciating limbo. And why do I need to know the worst-case scenario? Because, says Professor Gilbert, “When we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can't come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don't yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.”


Thank god it's Monday morning! The light hasn't dawned but I'm at the studio, where I spend the day Photoshopping dozens of photographs from vivid color to mordant black and white, shredding dozens more that aren't quite good enough.

Today I'm contacting the phone, cable, gas, electric, Internet, and paper delivery providers to renegotiate service or to stop them altogether. I lower my cable bill by thirty bucks a month, my phone bill by twenty-two (it's still high but I cannot relinquish access to the outside world), but the rest won't budge. I'll maintain
The New York Times
home delivery for a short while but that will have to join the rest of the heap of “luxuries” that must go. The next hour and a half is spent trading endless phone calls to confer with bankers and lawyers.

When I drag myself through the front door of my apartment that evening, exhausted, a lush spray of fragrant yellow
roses greets me. The elegant cellophane wrapping with long, streaming yellow ribbons is unmistakable. They are from Peggy, Zezé, Doris, and Walter, my friends and neighbors at Zezé flowers around the corner. For years, they gave me ravishing and unusual flowers to use in my photographs. Tucked beside the glass vase is a note of love from the gang. When I smell the fragrance of those saffron-colored roses, I think back to the evening of December 11, the last time I bought a bouquet for myself.

The flowers are just the beginning of wonderful gestures from friends and strangers alike. People have read the blogs. They write that they'd had a visceral response to my story. My e-mail overflows with notes of empathy and sympathy and encouragement. The United States mail delivers more letters from friends and people I have never met—from as far away as England, Germany, Sweden, Spain, and Japan. Notes and cards come to the studio from strangers who have somehow managed to track me down even though my name is misspelled in the phone book. If you've had a bad thing happen to you and someone takes the time out from a very busy life to set pen to paper, or to write a thoughtful e-mail, the world seems a more humane, habitable place indeed. I like to think I've done the right thing by friends in need over the years, but now more than ever I know the power of small kindnesses.

Many, many friends have reached out to me in immensely generous ways. Cathryn says she would like to pay the rent on the studio for a month, until I can see my way clear to what my next steps with my work might be.

Stephen, a longtime Condé Nast pal, practically has me belly-laughing the way I did in the old days when he calls and declares, “I know you, girlfriend, you'll want to stay with your fancy colorist, Kyle. An uptown girl like you wants to look her best. And honey, I know these colorists. They are definitely not cheap. You've gotta let me pay! I did it for my aunt, now I want to do it for you!”

“You may be right,” I say. “Thank god I had the roots done two days before the MF thing. I
nervous about home-colored highlights. I could very easily turn out looking like a Russian hooker a century past her prime—”

“Let me do this for you!” he says. “Call me when you want highlights and a blow-dry!”

My friends Alice and Tommy call almost every day. They invite me to get some sun with them down in the Caribbean, to stay in their weekend house. Tommy asks me: “What is your strategy, AP?”

“Strategy?” I reply in a sort of dazed way. “I haven't thought of a strategy. I'm just panicky and poor.”

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
5.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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