The Bag Lady's Papers, Part III

Alexandra Penney—who lost her life savings in the Madoff scandal—takes a road trip to Florida to scrape together some cash. She confronts a brave new world of budget motels, hocking her jewelry, and the culinary genius of Popeye’s Chicken.

01.06.09 6:18 AM ET

Alexandra Penney—who lost her life savings in the Madoff scandal—takes a road trip to Florida to scrape together some cash. In the latest installment of her ongoing blog for The Daily Beast she confronts a brave new world of budget motels, hocking her jewelry, and the culinary genius of Popeye’s Chicken.

I’m in my dented white ’95 station wagon heading south to clear my mind of the Madoff debacle and to sell a very small trailer-size cottage in the funkier part of Florida. I need the money so I’ll have something to live on for the next few months.

Heading down the East Coast on I-95 is terrifically boring, so my mind begins to race with the same old scary thoughts. Was I greedy? No, I was conservative, really. I never wanted to strike it rich with Bernie Madoff. I just wanted financial stability. And I had lost money with other financial advisers, so I trusted an old and valued friend who told me about an investment—Madoff’s fund—that would yield a steady interest, allowing me to work on my art and not be dependent on my family.

As I drive, my outlook turns darker and blacker. What’s going to happen to me? How am I going to earn money? You’re going to lose your edge. You’ll get sick and disabled. You’re going to walk around in shreds, paper in the soles of your worn-out shoes. And—oh, my God! I just realized that with all with the bags and boxes packed into the back of the wagon, I’m already a Driving-Around Bag Lady!

I had a creepy phone call yesterday from a woman with an old-sounding voice: “I’ve heard of your problems and would like to buy your jewelry,” she said.

It’s clear I need to learn meditation ASAP, because I just don’t have the mental discipline to stop thinking obsessively about the future. I will check the Yellow Pages as soon as I reach Florida.

But here’s what’s worst of all: People are going to feel sorry for me. I can feel that pity right here in my gut, as the cars murderously swerve in front of me as I drive a safe, steady 65 on the right-hand lane.

I don’t want to feel like an object of pity, a damaged person who’s marked down like a “second.” This, I suddenly realize, is what a real bag lady must feel like: a person who has no standing in society, a sad, red-veined woman with broken yellow fingernails who trudges along with her ragged bags or pushing her rusty 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 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. (I haven’t quite got the hang of doing my right hand yet, perfectionist that I always have been.) And I will keep up my spirits and my generosity and my belief in kindness until I can’t anymore, and my soul starts to shred and shrivel…and then it will be time to quit it all. But not yet. Not by a long shot!

I pass Cafe Risque in North Carolina. Great name! It’s a topless bar/sex shop/adult video place that offers “trucker showers.” My mind clamps on to the visual of trucker showers and I’m dying of curiosity to know what the place is like. What a great location for my blow-up doll photographs, but I pass it by, grateful for some mental relief.

I drive only a few miles above the speed limit because in the back of the wagon is a load of boxes and shopping bags with blow-up “sex dolls,” complete with wigs, clothes, and shoes purchased on major shopping sprees with my friend Alex. (The blow up dolls and their accessories are part of the subject matter of my most recent work—I just had a big show in Berlin this past April.)

If I get caught speeding with the dolls in my car, I’ll probably land in the local clink and be labeled as a perv. This kind of trouble is something I definitely don’t need right now.

My cargo also includes two bogus Hermès Birkins, a fake green Goyard bag, featherweight lookalike Rolexes, spangle-laden bras, and bikinis made of plastic pearls (yes, they exist!). No tab for loads of sexy dresses, bags, underwear, and jewelry has ever totaled more than $80. The jewelry alone, if it were real, would run to hundreds of thousands.

My fake gems and purses are all for my photographs. Don’t ask me where the idea of the sex dolls comes from. I’m the most non-kinky, heavily bourgeois (but you bloggers already know that!) kind of person. Yes, I did write sex books ( How to Make Love to a Man), and they made good money, which I saved in an account with the M.F., aka Madoff, as I wrote about in my last entry here on The Beast.

The irony is that my artwork comments on the insatiable consumerism, greed, dishonesty, and the deformed and warped values of our time. 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 M.F.

My mind snaps back to the M.F. I had a creepy voicemail message yesterday from a woman with an old-sounding voice who spoke in a very low tone. “I’ve heard of your problems and would like to buy your jewelry,” she said. Aaargh! She was after my real jewelry—mostly stuff my mother gave me. For all I know, she may be part of a new Madoff family plan.

It’s getting dark and I’ve got to find a place to sleep. Signs have been whizzing by with motels for $29.95 and $39.95 a night, which in my new circumstances I should stop at. My friend Tom, an inveterate New York-Florida driver, tells me that the finest hostelry on the route is a Hampton Inn. All the chains are immediately off I-95, so it’s easy to find one.

“Eighty-nine dollars,” says the nice lady at the desk when I ask for a room. I, who only buy retail—until now, of course—ask for a discount. She takes it down $10. Although it’s expensive and a splurge compared to what’s down the street, it isn’t in the same universe as the Ararat Park Hyatt in Moscow, where I was on a work project several months ago and the rate for a single room was $2,100 a night. Who in their right mind stays there but look-at-me-see-my-money oligarchs? I wonder if those Gazprom guys had money in Madoff. It was the most stunning price tag I have ever heard of. Actually, the most astonishing I could even conceive of. Magritte was certainly prescient when he made all those surreal paintings. The world seems like a bizarre replica of what it used to be.

I can’t believe the Hampton Inn. It’s my new Ritz-Carlton! The room is warm and comfy and inviting, with fluffy white duvet covers. There’s even a board with a pen handily tucked into a slot and you can rest a book or laptop on it.

The sink is real granite (!) and the towels are extra-heavy. The place is immaculate and breakfast is absolutely free! A sweet scent wafts down the hall and someone knocks on the door and offers freshly baked chocolate cookies. Can I be dreaming?

We are a fat and sugar-sopped country. Last night, before checking in, I went to Popeye’s, where giggling 4-year-olds 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 outta this world, but kids need protein and milk. The chicken is a bargain, $3.49 for two good-size pieces—50 cents extra for a drink—but mostly it’s left in the plastic basket. The parents don’t seem to protest.

Breakfast at the Hampton Inn is great: They have low-cal yogurt, fresh fruit, Special K. As I listen to the TV hosts jackhammering over the soft Southern accents of the guests, I appraise butts. They are large, larger, huge. (Mine is quite expansive, too, I must admit. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to control the spread, but it’s a combat that never ends.) These are nice folks who smile and say “hi” as they microwave the flour gravy to heap on the biscuits. The coffee in the large metal-spigoted urns is intelligently labeled “robust,” “regular,” and “decaf.” I take my first sip. The coffee is already sweetened! Jeeeee-zus!

I climb into the old wagon in another clean white T-shirt and get back on I-95. I have only 400 miles to go. I wish I could chauffeur myself right over the horizon to China. I want to drive for the rest of eternity so I won’t have to reach a destination and think about what has happened to me and what I’m going to do. The miles zip past; the dolls seem content in the back seat. (They are demurely dressed and stuffed into shiny shopping bags, soon to be tattered but reused in my new life.) But the sights are boring and my mind starts racing again.

I finally arrive in Florida. Although my little—but stylish—shack is on the wrong side of the tracks, I am going to Christmas lunch in the luxurious environs of Palm Beach, “the island,” as it is called by the locals. The invitation was mailed before I became a bag lady or, as I also am known, person of reduced circumstances (PoRC). Palm Beach was the prime hunting ground where the M.F. went snouting for his investor prey. People even joined the Palm Beach Country Club, where he hung out, so they could be “invited” to join his exclusive enterprise.

The party is in a ravishing house with a blue tiled pool and slim, tall, swaying palms. The exquisite food, prepared by the hosts’ personal chef, is seriously fabulous. The dining tables are laden with orchids and crystal and old, heavy silver. I spot several large Warhols, some Schnabels, Basquiats…for me a world of the past.

I’ve been to many glamorous parties, but this is my first in my new non-status as a PoRC. What should I wear? White shirt, of course, white jeans—I hope they look more like regular pants—and discreet pearl earrings that I hope I don’t have to sell. I decide to explain to my hosts that I just didn’t have time to shop for a gift.

I have fun! I’m having a great time! The very soignée and beautiful hostess, a dear and empathetic friend, is just the same as ever to me. She says it must be horrible to go through this as I accept a glass of Champagne, the first drink I’ve had since it happened. I sit next to a man who’s been Madoff’d, but not for much money.

Money is sooo relative. For him, a couple of mil may be not a big deal. But to someone like me, whose life savings are gone, it’s beyond a mega-fortune.

I’m sitting to the right of the host, a guy who is just plain fabulous and who is so wholeheartedly generous that I am really overwhelmed.

I watch myself carefully. I really don’t seem to have changed that much. I talk, I laugh, I listen, I tell a tale or two about my new life and I admit some of my fears, but basically I’m just me and broke and being with friends and having a good time on a golden Christmas Day. Until I wake up tomorrow.

The Bag Lady's Papers, Part I
The Bag Lady's Papers, Part II

Alexandra Penney is an artist, best-selling author, former editor-in-chief of Self magazine, and originator, with Evelyn Lauder, of the Pink Ribbon for breast cancer awareness. She had a one-person show at Galerie in Berlin in April and her work was shown at Miami’s Art Basel. She lives in New York, has one treasured son in Los Angeles and more amazing friends than could ever be imagined.