The Bag Lady Papers Cont'd

Alexandra Penney lost her life savings in the Bernie Madoff debacle. In a new post on her Daily Beast blog, she writes about her shaky future, losing her health insurance—and Domino’s Pizza sticker shock.

Alexandra Penney—a New York artist and former editor of Self Magazine—lost her life savings in the Madoff debacle. In a new post on her Daily Beast blog, she writes about her shaky future, losing her health insurance—and Domino’s Pizza sticker shock.

It's been a little more than a week since Bernie Madoff raped me financially.

As I wrote here in The Daily Beast, he had all the money I earned and saved since I was a teenager. I counted on it to be there when I was weak and wizened. Now all of it is gone.

Hundreds of vitriolic comments blasted onto the site basically calling me a rich bitch. A few were sympathetic. I wasn't surprised one way or the other because I'm scared shitless about just having to survive these days. But it suddenly seemed clear to me that we are all in this together. Aren't we all afraid when we've lost our jobs, our savings, our homes, pensions—and our confidence?

I'm down to a tranquilizer and a half a day and only a few are left. I won't be able to afford health insurance any longer. For God's sake, hurry up, Obama!

Those fears are overwhelming me now. The fear of loss of independence, the loss of dignity, the loss of self, the loss of identity, even the seemingly small loss of not being able to pick up the check for a cappuccino when a friend is going through a rough patch.

You may think I was an out of touch elitist prancing around in starched white shirts, but pretty much everyone I talk to is scared of what's going to happen to them in these really frightening times. Greed and insatiability have ripped off millions of Americans just like that M.F. (aka the motherfucker, Bernie Madoff) robbed every cent of my IRA, my entire life's savings.

I confess I loved luxurious things. I admit I have 40 white shirts (they add up when you keep them from college days). I admit I had a housekeeper who came three mornings a week, elegant china, and a dented white 20-year-old Chrysler LeBaron convertible.

I have never, for one nano-second, felt entitled to anything, but I have the goddamned right to feel good about having earned the money by myself. I was able to have the life I had as a consequence of working really, really hard from the time I was 16.

Yes, I was lucky. Spectacularly lucky to have a first-class education, landed good jobs, written best-selling books, and met influential people along the way. (Some of us are granted this, by whom or why I don't know.) I am grateful every day for that luck and for good health (so far) and my small, faraway family and my incredible friends. I am grateful for all these gifts—they were given, not earned.

I've always tried to be a decent, generous person. I've worked in smelly fish markets and walked through the rarefied air of the Condé Nast offices in three-inch Manolos, I've lived in a cubbyhole cold-water walk-up studio apartment, and owned a (highly mortgaged) house as a getaway, so I know a thing or two about many aspects of this complex world. If you think that makes me a whiny, guilty, self-serving, self-reverential bitch, be my guest. (Although I won't be able to serve you caviar or white truffles anymore.)

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Every day I arrive at my studio in my white shirt ( I'm sure you'll want to know if it's freshly ironed) and jeans, usually around 6 in the morning. I most often leave between 9:30 and 10 at night. I'm down to a tranquilizer and a half a day and only a few are left. I won't be able to afford health insurance any longer. For God's sake, hurry up, Obama!

I write and work on my photography with fanatical concentration. Nonstop activity also helps to keep the ever-circling demons of fear at bay. But really I don't know what else to do with myself. I don't even think about eating at the studio, so when I finally get home, I've been subsisting on what's around: some Progresso soups, nonfat yogurts, eggbeaters, and the last of the Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia.

I've been out once, in the evening, with old friends who called and said, "We're on our way to take you out for dinner—now!"

In these ten days the M.F. has been parading around town with that rictus smile on his greedy, bloated face, while his personal chef is sweating in one of his kitchens, preparing moist, exquisite Kobe beef for him.

Last night I thought, ‘Okay, it's Saturday, I'll leave work, it's time for a treat.’ Called the consort and we decided we'd try and watch some TV and munch on a pizza. There's a Domino's on my corner so I sally in and order two pizzas, no salads, no extras. When I hear the piped-in Christmas carols, a deep sadness envelops me.

As a child I went to a big church with my grandmother every Christmas Eve. The world seems so bright when you're a kid and there are gifts under the tree. "Suck it up," I say to myself. "Don't waste your energy on self-pity. The plain cheese and the veggie 'feast' pizza smell delicious and are ready to go." But the tab comes to over $20! "I thought the ads said 'buy one, get one free...'" I protest. "Only on Tuesdays," the cashier replies with a sympathetic nod. Are the rip-offs ever going to stop in this country? Can the sleigh bells ever sound real again?


I wake up this morning at about 4 and the terrors are beating me down in full force. I think about my life, the bad parts of me and the good. About trying to better women's lives with the pink ribbon, about giving money to a friend's daughter to send her through college (no, she never knew it was from me), about helping those who cannot read or see, about mentoring retired schoolteachers, volunteering in a mental hospital to help women regain a sense of self-esteem.

Staying Alive

I am writing this blog for money (not much). I need money. And some peace of mind. I have only enough to last for a few months. I am sometimes so paralyzed physically by the thought that I literally cannot move. And I'm looking for a job. Or jobs. Again. Good ideas suddenly come to me. They've been the bedrock of any "success" I've ever had. This is one of my best new job ideas:

Set up a lemonade stand on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, and charge a million bucks a glass, save a few dollars for myself and give the rest to the charities that the M.F. killed.

I am not a weeper. And yet when a friend wrote me about the death of her husband after a horrible illness, the email completely undid me. There are so many worse things happening in the world but still, each of us, no matter how bad things are for others, has his own worries, his own horror stories. My consort, seeing me, head down on the kitchen counter, said, "Hey, you look a lot younger. Crying makes your face puffier, much better than Botox."

{Humor keeps you on track. That and the absurdities of the world. The M.F. walking around town, smiling, smiling, smiling…)

This morning is slushy gray New York at its most forbidding. When an artist friend gave me a Valentine's Day present of a $35 eBay digital camera 11 years ago, I began taking pictures of flowers. On my kitchen windowsill (yes, I have a windowed kitchen, my first ever), are four orchid plants. Three were gifts from friends, and the fourth I bought a few months ago at the flower market on 27th Street. I am embarrassed to say those poor plants are living in the worst conditions, but I love them and talk to them like some sort of lunatic (but it's what green thumbers recommend highly). The sill is freezing in the winter and stultifyingly hot in the summer.

I water them from a nice copper thing, and feed them, but they never seem to blossom. Who would under such circumstances? But this morning, looking out at the opaque, moody city, I saw a shoot with some unmistakable buds on it. My orchid will bloom again. I hope I will see its pristine white flowers by the new year. I am deeply grateful for all I have. But the terrors and the dark demon snakes do not let go.

Related: The Bag Lady's Papers, Part I The Bag Lady's Papers, Part III

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.