02.19.10

The Bag Lady Writes a Book

In an excerpt from her new book The Bag Lady Papers, Alexandra Penney on the depressing aftermath of losing her fortune to Bernie Madoff and the manifold indignities of downward mobility.

 In an excerpt from her new book, Alexandra Penney on the depressing aftermath of losing her fortune to Bernie Madoff and the manifold indignities of downward mobility.

Chapter 8
The Copy Shop Collapse
Madoff + 3 weeks

It’s been three 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 idea that I’ve pitched to him. 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 book idea is to tell 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 pass, and I can’t stand it. I was brought up believing in the American system of law and that what the judge says goes. The MF gamed the system for all it was worth and the same system seemed 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 restaurant in New York dining on risotto laced with black truffles. My friend, RP, emailed 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 any circumstances?

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During the cocktail hour, I notice, among the ladies, a conspicuous lack of large stones that glittered with such delicious abandon in pre-meltdown 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 had 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? OK, 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.

book-cover---the-bag-lady-papers-1
The Bag Lady Papers: The Priceless Experience of Losing It All. By Alexandra Penney. 240 Pages. Voice. $23.99. ()

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 42nd 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, 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 will have to have Xerox the stuff so I can give it to Bob L., 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.”

I do 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 the copy shop 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 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 claw-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.”

“OK, 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 cellphone rings. She answers and begins to talk.

Now I’m angry. But the job must be done.

The manager is on his break, and there is no assistant manager on the premises. I run down the list all my friends in offices who could let me use a copy 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, 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 10 times or more. At last, I take out a yogurt, then smash it so viciously into the sink and that the plastic container explodes on to every surface it can possible 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. 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 a job. 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 Patty. 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 copy 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 YOU. 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 next 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 health

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

Losing your mind

Losing your sense of humor—maybe!

From The Bag Lady Papers by Alexandra Penney Copyright (c) 2010. Published by Voice. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.

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Alexandra Penney is an artist, bestselling author, former editor in chief of Self magazine, and originator, with Evelyn Lauder, of the Pink Ribbon for breast cancer awareness. Her new book, The Bag Lady Papers, comes out in February from Hyperion. She lives in New York, has one treasured son in Los Angeles and more amazing friends than could ever be imagined.