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Authors: Alexandra Penney

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“I'll sit down with you and go over the numbers,” he says. Tommy is a serious money guy and this is an amazing offer. “Let's see how you're going to get through this.”

Several weeks later, he huddles with me in a corner of an Italian trattoria, pen and paper in hand. At the end of lunch, I have homework to do: fill numbers into the columns he's made and make careful lists of how much money I spend each month, another list of rock-bottom necessities, and yet another of possible income sources. He is optimistic that we'll find a way to pay the rent for the studio. We'll meet again to
detail a new budget. Here is a busy, important guy, a chairman of major boards, taking hours out of his day to help me with basic arithmetic! My world is still shattered into a million shards but my friends are helping me to glue it back together. Good friends, I'm beginning to think, might be the best cure for bag lady syndrome.

Since writing the blogs, I've done several TV and radio shows where I've commented on the MF. A producer at CNN called about a story on the MF and his victims,
Madoff: Secrets of a Scandal
. It turns out that the host of the report, Christine Romans, identifies with my fears of being a bag lady. We discussed how we both have worked and saved and feared that all our hard-earned money would disappear and we'd end up homeless and frightened and alone.

I agreed to be on the show, if they would come to the studio. I can do it only between the calls I have to make to the lawyers and accountant who are helping me with Madoff-related work, such as filing the SIPC insurance claim. All the MF's casualties must hire professionals to decipher the arcane language of the endless forms. Another outrage that assails me almost daily.

The CNN program spawned something like two million Web site click-throughs on my “victim” story (I prefer the word “casualty” because it implies wounds that all of us have sustained). One minute after the program aired on a Saturday night I received two messages on my answering machine. The first was a lawyer from New Jersey, phoning with his wife to say how sorry they were about my recent and ongoing travails. They said that I had real courage and
felt sure I'd be okay. A few days later, I called the number they left to thank them for their concern and their encouraging words.

A woman from New Canaan left a message at my studio: “I've never done anything like this before,” she said, “and please don't think I'm crazy but you sound like a sincere person who is really in trouble. I'm divorced and live in New Canaan, Connecticut, and have a beautiful house here. My daughter is getting married soon and if you need a place to stay, you are always welcome here. I mean it.”

I phoned Susan—that's her name—and thanked her for the unbelievably generous offer, and tell her I am familiar with how lovely New Canaan is: my parents had lived for more than thirty years in nearby Darien.

“You came across as a genuine person,” she said, “and I thought if there is any way I could help. And then I realized I have this big house—”

“You are beyond kind,” I said, “but I think I'll be okay. I can stay in my apartment for a while at least, and I'll figure out a way to make money.”

“If you ever need time off, a weekend, a month, a year, you would have a space all to yourself. I mean it,” she said. I am certain she did.

A few days after my conversation with Susan, I received an e-mail saying, “You have been selected to apply for a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts.” Astonished by the note, I immediately called to find out details but was politely told to fill out the forms and that my application would be reviewed. I did as requested, and just a few days after my
call I was approved for a grant. I did my investigative best to find out who was behind this incredible generosity, but the courteous young woman at the Foundation said firmly that the donor “wished to remain anonymous.” The person who instigated the grant knows that art is my primary passion and I am indescribably grateful to you, whoever you are. You have helped me in the deepest way possible.

And despite the bad rap lawyers get in my town for being overpriced and overblown, a few of them—strangers before my MF experience—have been unstinting with their time and advice. When you get in a big complicated mess like the one I'm in, you realize why they get paid the big bucks. Brad Friedman, a lawyer at Milberg, was on the MF's case early on. I sat behind him in court the day after the MF was arrested and we waited and waited and waited in vain for him to appear. Brad came to my house for coffee one morning, and although I didn't sign up for a class action suit, he gets back to me instantly on his BlackBerry any time I have a legal question. He really is a decent man and sympathetic to the wreckage that Madoff has wrought. Then, when a friend suggested I get in touch with the hotshot litigator Steve Molo, I e-mailed him about my plight and he called me fifteen minutes later. Lawyers from high-priced white-shoe firms to one-person operatives who just want to help and offer counsel have been in touch with the MF's casualties across the country.

When I get home from the studio on Monday, a blue Brooks Brothers box is waiting for me at home. I haven't ordered anything, of course. One of my favorite activities—
shopping—is out of the question, maybe for the rest of my life.

I have no taste for it. Not a nano-smidgen of desire. Nada. Not only do I have no money, there is nothing in the world I need or want except peace of mind, something that no amount of money can buy. Or can it?

I'm gladly diverted from my thoughts by the Brooks Brothers box. I'm sure there's been a mistake but after I inspect the label and see that it is addressed to me, I open it. Inside a small white envelope lies on a pristine white shirt.

“This is one of my favorite things,” writes Nan, a special friend, “and you'll never have to iron it.” It's a perfect fit. Who has friends such as these? How lucky can I be!

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

n a cold Christmas morning in the late seventies, when my son was in Vermont with his father, I woke up at about seven o'clock with the sun just blinking into a pale gray-blue sky filled with a few dark clouds scudding behind the industrial buildings of what was now called SoHo. I looked from my second-story window onto my frosted cobblestoned street of West Broadway and saw four black-and-white NYPD squad cars lined up in a row. Two were facing downtown, two were facing uptown, and the cops were talking with one another through open windows. “Feliz Navidad” was blaring on their radios.

I grabbed the bottle of champagne that I kept in my fridge to celebrate good times, flew down to the street in my flannel nightgown and slippers, and handed over the

“Merry Christmas, officers!” I said. “This is to thank you for being the best cops in the world!” I ran upstairs again, listening to all four sirens punctuate the end of each stanza of “Feliz Navidad” as the cops waved good-bye to me and drove off.

This would have never happened uptown. I felt happy that I lived in this friendly neighborhood and that I had changed my life. But there were many difficult moments when my son was away on weekends or spending time with his dad. The cops; firemen; Mr. Dappolito, the baker around the corner; and Harry, the paint store owner, all were terrific neighbors to us, but when I wasn't working and my friends were busy, I often felt lonely and down.


I had met several artists at Hunter who lived downtown or in Brooklyn and we exchanged studio visits and sometimes joined up for pizza and a glass of wine, but I saw very little of my old uptown friends, as any hours not spent with my son were taken up by painting, work-for-money, and school. I went on a few dates over those six years that I lived on West Broadway, and often wished I had more. Here and there a friend would set me up or I'd go to a party hoping to meet a smart, funny, kind guy who was involved in some way with the arts, but I never found anyone who seemed right for me.

My social life was not entirely bleak, however. On summer nights when my son was away for a month at summer camp, some girlfriends and I would shoot uptown to Studio
54, which was in its heyday.

Studio 54 was like an enveloping hallucinogenic drug that could, if you were an addictive type, become central to your existence. The blinding strobe lights razoring through the crowd, the roaring sound of Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive” crashing straight into you, the writhing sweaty gorgeous naked torsos of beautiful men who were smashed on sex and music and poppers, gave you an incredible contact high. The sensory experience was so extreme that your mind was neutered and your pure physical body took its place. I would sometimes smoke a joint that a friend had stashed in a pocket or purse but no one ever offered me cocaine. A night at Studio with a group of friends was wild and uninhibited fun, and who doesn't desire that once in a while?

The roving editor job at
ended after two years, and the FIT appointment was only for two semesters. I continued to churn out copy for Bloomingdale's and to write freelance articles, but I wanted to be earning enough to put some money away for the proverbial rainy day. Back I went to
The New York Times
Help Wanted listings. I found an opening for a professional writer who would work with retired teachers from union DC 37. I interviewed for the vacancy and landed the job. Two mornings a week I met with a group of men and women who had been public school teachers for most of their lives. Their union provided classes to update their skills in a variety of areas, and writing was one of them. At the beginning of the course, I asked them if they would be willing to keep diaries of their present lives and also to recount how their past affected what they were
thinking and doing now.

“Our lives are not very interesting. We're just ordinary people,” they protested.

“I'm no good,” someone else blurted out. “I can't write a word. Who would care about what I write, even if I could write?”

I worked to set them straight. Everyone has a tale to tell. These people had given so much to the community as teachers, and their stories mattered. I encouraged them to write about their children, their neighbors, their former students, anything at all, but just to write. I remember loosely quoting Hemingway: “If you don't know what to say when you're facing a blank piece of white paper, just put down one sentence of truth. Write ‘the sky is blue' or ‘my desk is cluttered' and you have a beginning.”

After more cajoling, they agreed to write a few pages for the next class.

When the class convened again, I coaxed and convinced each of them to read aloud what they had written—one woman had to do it in Spanish because she was too embarrassed reading in English. Even though most of the students didn't understand Spanish, they all applauded heartily.

Looking back on it, the DC 37 class was one of most important experiences of my career. To watch people who, despite years of service to their community, believe they have nothing to offer the world become excited by their own creative work was a great thrill. Not only that, the enthusiasm of the group was infectious. I had been grappling with my own doubts about whether I was any good as an artist and, at
night, fueled by my students' energy, after my son was asleep, instead of passing out with fatigue, I worked furiously on my painting. I'd finally finish cleaning my brushes around two a.m., tired but satisfied that I was making progress. I'd wake up at six to escort my son to school on the subway. Those were the days when I could subsist on four to six hours of sleep a night.


A few weeks after the DC 37 class wrapped up, I was working on a Bloomingdale's assignment when my phone rang. It was one of fashion's fabulous women: Carrie Donovan. Carrie was so irate that she didn't get Diana Vreeland's job as editor in chief that she vamoosed from
and set up a competitive domain at
The New York Times Magazine

“You're such a breezy writer, Alex,” Carrie cooed into my ear. “We need you over here at this stuffy place. You'll be a breath of fresh air.” This was Carrie-speak for “I need something from you right away.”

“Of course,” I replied. “What can I do for you?”

“You can be here at two and we'll have a nice chat,” she said as if she were certain I didn't have another plan in sight for the next decade. I could reach Forty-third Street by two, and still make it to school to pick up my son, so again I said “Of course.” My assignment was to write an article every other week for
The New York Times Magazine
in the fields of art, lifestyle, fitness, and beauty, or whatever Carrie Donovan deemed might “amuse” the readers. I accepted the job.

Carrie Donovan, a midwesterner at heart and by birth, was
famous for her gargantuan horn-rim glasses, which reached from the tops of her eyebrows to the bottoms of her cheeks. She never ventured out into the world during working hours—which to her encompassed all hours of the day and night—without her two strands of creamy white, fake, bosom-level Kenneth Jay Lane pearls. Almost six feet tall, square-faced and waistless, she wore low-cut clothes to accentuate the pearls or the boobs, though we could never figure out which were most important to her. Some called her a
jolie laide,
others said she just wanted to get laid. She was handsome in a theatrical, drag-queen kind of way and commanded total attention whenever she was in the room.

One day I walked into her office and she was wearing a foot-high paisley-printed emerald-green turban. Hanging from the folds of fabric was a huge rhinestone-encrusted pin that just scraped the horn-rims. The rest of the outfit consisted of a revealing white ruffled peasant blouse, the two strands of pearls, of course, and an orange printed peasant skirt that twinkled with sequins and swirled to her ankles. On her feet were crimson espadrilles. Each element was a bit bizarre but she put them all together in her Carrie Donovan way, carrying off the look with nonchalance and in-the-know authority.

As we were sitting there, her phone rang and it was Abe Rosenthal, who was the managing editor of the paper at the time and who scared the bejeezus out of all the staff—except Carrie. She'd tell us, “He's such an adorable man. You just need to flirt with him a bit.”

Abe Rosenthal adorable? Someone to flirt with? Whirling skirts and espadrilles at the newspaper of record, the stately
New York Times
? The whole routine boggled us. But she was enthusiastic in the extreme about each of our assignments no matter how pokey or prosaic, and she inspired real excellence in a way that Miss G from my old
days could never have done.

“Abe needs me,” she said, rising dramatically from the little gold bamboo chair that she sat in when working at her table. As she swirled the peasant skirt I could see not one but two crinolines edged with lace, which no doubt gave this unusual article of office attire an amazing buoyancy.

Before she descended to the third floor where Abe awaited her, she opened a small drawer on the antique tabouret by her table (I'll never know how she convinced the
to give her a table; most of the editors there toiled at big gray metal desks) and withdrew a perfume bottle, the kind that my mother used to keep on her dressing table. Attached to the bottle—French crystal I'm sure—was a small net-covered bulb on a very fine net-covered tube. She pinched the bulb and a heavy mist of Calvin Klein perfume dissolved into the air. She squeezed the thing a couple more times, replaced it in the drawer, and flounced down the hall, leaving vast vapor trails of fragrance among those of us who slogged through our copy in the anonymous cubicles outside of her office. My life then seemed to be made up of extremes—from uptown leafy green Park Avenue to downtown grease-slicked cobblestone streets, from Smith College to Rosedale
Fish Market, from the rarified airs of Carrie Donovan and
The New York Times
to the grungy room where I taught retired New York City public school teachers—but I thrived on those dichotomies.

I worked like a dog on my first story, which was on the new wave of hairdressers who were opening ateliers around town. I wrote and rewrote it. And rewrote it again. Finally, I thought it had the gloss that Carrie wanted and the gravitas—if there were a way to instill that into an article about hair-stylists—that the
was known for. I placed the copy in the in-box on her assistant's desk and hoped for the best.

An hour later, Carrie warbled into the phone: “Alex, dear one, would you be kind enough to come into my office?

“Your piece is wonderful, just marvelous,” she trilled, looking at me through the top of her huge horn-rims. “I'm turning it over to the Copy department so they can put it into English.”

I was horrified and completely humiliated. I knew I should never have tried to write anything beyond copy. Who did I think I was, believing I could do a piece that would appear in
The New York Times

Little did I know this was standard operating procedure for Ms. Donovan. She trusted other editors to give any story a
veneer and, indeed, what I had thought was good was much better when the copy people finished with it.

When I returned to my cubicle, my direct editor came in and sat down in the single straight-back aluminum chair allotted to each of us.

“Do you have your first draft of this?” she asked. I pulled out the first of my dozen-plus tries and gave it to her. I thought she would take it with her but she sat right there and read it word for word while I waited with anxiety accelerating by the second. I was certain she was about to fire me on the spot.

“From now on, just give Carrie your first draft. What you've done here is fine. I'd change only a few phrases. Trust me on this.”

I decided to have faith in what she was telling me: after all she'd been at the
for many years. I cut down my drafts from ten to three or four. After that first calamity, all was pretty much smooth sailing and I ended up actually enjoying working at the magazine, although I never, for even one moment, relished writing.

My stories at the
caught the attention of a colleague from my
days, Phyllis Starr Wilson, the then executive editor. She had presented the Boss of Bosses with a new concept for a magazine called
. It would be a monthly publication for smart women who wanted to stay healthy, intellectually, physically, and emotionally. He liked her idea and
was the first magazine Condé Nast had launched in decades. The idea of a publication named
which was not about selfishness, but about the awareness and power of one's self, was new, and the magazine became a success in a very short time.
was eventually to play a very significant role in my life.

Phyllis commissioned me to do several stories, and one day, while I was at my desk at the
she phoned and said
urgently, “We're practically at release time. My lead cover story just fell through. Do you have any ideas you can work on right now?”

My mind whipped into Condé Nast emergency-room mode. I thought for half a second and rattled off a couple notions that might do the trick. “Mmm, not quite right for the cover, but good for inside stories,” she said.

“Oh, wait a minute,” I said. “What about ‘how to make love to a man'?”

I'd finally met a man on a blind date who met my requirements of smart and funny and kind and involved in the arts. Chris was a visually oriented geologist who lived in New Mexico, where he taught and did arcane research. At the time, a long-distance relationship seemed a good idea to me as I had too much on my plate to consider anything more permanent.

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
2.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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