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02.05.09

The Bag Lady Papers, Part V

Bernard Madoff may have stolen all her money—but he also got her a book deal. The Daily Beast’s Alexandra Penney on her fury at the SEC—and the thrill of sipping Cristal again.

Thank God the new Congress thinks the SEC is as disgusting, cowardly, and arrogant as I do. Hiding behind SEC-speak for "I plead the Fifth," the director of the division of enforcement, Linda Thomsen, said "I can't comment" with a weird crooked-mouth grin when questioned yesterday. Not only are the so-called regulators hiding behind the apron strings of Baby Dubya, who was forced to abandon his irresponsible, immoral and unethical lackeys, they are also very publicly showing their true dereliction of duty and humanity. They just want to save their own well-padded civil-servant butts. The hearings on Bernard Madoff yesterday were an appalling indictment of those failed regulators. But it's not just them, the whole system seems to be rigged. It was actually said at the hearings that the SEC is there to protect business from the investors and that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is in bed with industry and corrupt. Whoa! What is really going on here?

As a proper New Yorker, of course I have been well-scrutinized by a bunch of shrinks who helped—but not much.

But if I spend too much time thinking about the MF (aka Bernie Madoff), I don't function very well, so let me get on to my new life, which is full of dichotomies. Two nights ago, I was slurping Cristal—probably $200 a bottle—and having a fabuloso dinner with my seriously brilliant and dearest friend Richard, who is editor of a major magazine, and his marvelous wife Jennifer. Several years ago, he called and offered me a commercial-photography job—my first ever. We've been blood-close ever since. We talk or email at least once a day.

It was a nasty, bone-freezing New York night and Richard was entertaining a business friend from London who happened to be wearing an old navy-blue Hermès jacket, a bit tattered but still in good shape. "It's very old and very warm and comforting," he said when one of us commented that he didn't have a heavy coat on. "I use magic marker when the edges start to shred," he explained, displaying his cuffs, which each of us inspected closely. No trace of his penmanship was to be found—a very handy tip for future use.

Richard had cracked open the Champagne (sent to him by an advertiser in the old Days of Excess, a few months ago) when he heard I had landed a book deal. You can't live a nightmare every minute. The advance allows me to keep the studio going awhile longer and gives me some breathing room until I can sell whatever I can to start a quail-sized nest-egg again. I'll keep blogging though, and the avalanche of vitriol will continue apace, but the fact is I need the dough.

Speaking of money, let me say one thing with the clarity of a Harry Winston diamond: I am not a bag lady. And the probability is that I will never be one. But since I saw a sad, despairing woman in layers of moth-holed, thin sweaters with her head down, using her shopping bags as shields against bitter winds sweeping over her from the Hudson, many many years ago when I was just a kid visiting the big city, I've feared being cold, and alone and abandoned.

As a proper New Yorker, of course I have been well-scrutinized by a bunch of shrinks who helped—but not much. Perhaps I am a tough nut to crack, but finally a friend, who harbored the same fears, recommended Dr J. "He's 75 and seen it all," she said, "he will help."

I was Dr J.'s grateful patient for a couple of years and indeed he did clear up a lot of my garden-variety anxieties but on the subject of bag-lady fears, he was most explicit: "We can talk about this for another 10 years," he said. "Save your money, and put it in a safe place." Which I did. With the MF.

Of course I checked out Madoff with several financial advisers, and, with one exception, they all said, "He's legendary, your money is safe. You're lucky to be with him." Some legend! Some luck! Seems as if I have good karma in earning money, and horrible karma in losing it. So of course the bag-lady nightmare fears are back haunting me with much more reality and brutality than I ever imagined...

Last week, I bought a $20 MetroCard and then, instead of tossing the old one, I threw the new one by mistake into a trash can on the platform. It was too tall to reach into and I immediately wanted to turn it upside down and dump the contents to find my card. Of course, it would be like looking for a Burmese ruby on the back of a sanitation truck. I realized I was freaking out and finally boarded a train. But I couldn't ditch the loss of the card for a couple of hours.

Loss, defeat, and weariness haunt me. Bag ladies have lost everything. At least that is how I see them, trudging their way alone through the streets, with rheumy eyes and frozen hands. I am only a PORC (Person of Reduced Circumstances), and a supremely lucky one to have my health and to be escaping the recent single-digit temperatures and heading down South again next week. Another pal, who travels by private jet, offered me a lift. Yes, a PJ. The generosity of friends (and strangers) is amazing and unexpected. I have rich and thoughtful friends (if that bothers you, just sue me for it!). I am still, however, trying to figure out if there is public transportation to the airport in Teterboro, New Jersey, because cab fare or car service is definitely not in my budget.

By the way, is anyone looking to see if the MF has any private planes stashed somewhere for a sweet getaway? It took 'em a month and a half to find his six cars! I'm still waking up at 4:46 in the morning and compulsively adding up the bills I have to pay. I'm still waiting to negotiate the rent with my landlord. He keeps cancelling appointments, not a good sign. I send him frantic notes every day or so, saying I need to talk to him. I pulled out some old flower prints, thinking it will seem like spring on my studio walls and it may tempt him to barter a bit as my "girls," the blow-up dolls I have been photographing, will definitely not ring his bell.

I have been working hard on a series that I shot when I was down South a just a few weeks ago. I posed the girls as they deflate in car accidents, drown in luxe swimming pools, hang by their Gucci silk scarves, and collapse into their own fake Birkin Bags—all scenarios tied to their recent destruction through the evil machinations of the MF and the exquisite indifference of the SEC. Noir pictures indeed, but that's what's churning through my head most days.

One of my new heroes, a thoughtful public servant, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), pointedly addressed the tight-lipped SEC and FINRA people yesterday saying, "We thought the enemy was Madoff. It was you." I was on the phone very early this morning with my friend Alex, who is also closely following the SEC/FINRA debacle. She declared the MF to be such a lowlife that he's an "insult to pond scum." I chuckled at her polite words, as she knows I have worse names for him, but these SEC droids are a sharp, icy slap in the face to investors and taxpayers like me who followed the rules and actually assumed they were protecting my life savings.

And, to add more insult to the injuries of those who have been Madoffed, the massive list of the MF's casualties, 13,567 names long (so far), was released yesterday. The group includes both his sons, his wife Ruth, his brother Peter, and his niece Shana—all of whom worked for him. Plus his grandchildren! I am sure that as "victims" they are each angling to get $500,000 of SPIC insurance money. It's a fiendishly clever play by the master criminal, the MF himself, I suspect.

Bernie continues to rollick in his glam penthouse. He knew the system, gamed the system—and he's still gaming it! The MF is going to win all the way down the line and will probably never serve a day in jail, as some of my lawyer buddies have already grimly predicted. As I write this blog I visualize him snug and warm on this frigid 14-degree day in his silk-lined cashmere robe, illegal Cuban Cohiba in hand, chuckling about the SEC/FINRA hearings on C-SPAN, smug rictus smile intact, daintily picking at his baked brioche, reaching for his steaming latte and freshly squeezed OJ on a silver tray, and using his phone to move his money right under the noses of his security guards, paid for by his poor "victim" wife Ruthie with whose money exactly? The other victims, of course!

I adore the federal judge who said he'd have set the MF's bail at $600 million and believes he's a murderer, having caused the financial and emotional deaths of so many people. And, once again, I ask: can somebody please tell me why the Mother of all Motherfuckers is still not in jail???? Is he trading any viable info to stay out of prison? Why don't we hear about anything that's going on with the investigation? If he's not talking and he's out on bail, it's a charade. Add to that his sons have an energy company. What's to stop them from moving money around themselves? And can we have a little more of the dope on brother Pete?

So, whilst the MF is still snug and warm in his stylish penthouse (who's paying the heating bills?), and probably sipping Dom from a fragile crystal flute to congratulate himself once again for staying out of jail, I'll defrost a bit and catch up with you from warmer climes, when I'm sitting in a small kitchen, hoping to write with lunatic speed, and hopping out a couple of times a day to drive around the 'hood trying to pick up a wireless signal on my laptop so I can email out to the world. No phone, no 'net, no cable—it's my new way of life. Try it sometime. It makes you realize what's most important.

Read Alexandra Penney's previous Bag Lady Papers here.

Alexandra Penney is an artist, 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.