Homeless in the Hamptons

I sleep on my friend's couch and have never been happier

Photo: Phyllis Landi

My brilliant career began during the "Mad Men" days, when I was hired as an assistant producer at Young & Rubicam for $75 a week.

Over the decades, its steady arc grew, as did my paycheck and celebrity. For the better part of 30 years, I commanded six figures. I was the “top 3% of women wage earners” as a producer for every major advertising agency, all the best places, at the best times. I was like the Forrest Gump of the ad world.

I was my embossed business card … "Executive Producer, Senior Vice President, in charge of … blah blah blah." I was full of hubris with a killer reel and a menagerie of Cannes Lions. I traveled the world on an expense account, used a Mont Blanc pen, flew in First Class and had the best room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I ordered room service and ate macadamia nuts out of the mini bar with abandon.

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I had it all — top of my game, a husband making big bucks, a son in private school, a $1.6 million apartment, a closet full of Prada and a Jack Russell terrier named Spunky.

So when I found myself laid off from a job, in the middle of a divorce and 9/11 happening, all inside of the same month, I was blindsided. You know the cartoon where Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner off the cliff … and then keeps running in thin air?

That was me. I ran in thin air for years, and I kept getting further and further into debt.

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If you’ve had money, you don’t know how to not have money.

I just assumed the money would come — it always had. During the ensuing years, I tried everything to get work. It took a very long time before I realized I was never going to work in advertising again. Ever so slowly, I started to reinvent myself. I figured out that I wasn’t the sum of my titles; I wasn’t my business card. I was making headway until an SUV came out of nowhere and ran over my leg. I didn’t walk for a year.

Bill Maher once said, “Most people in this country are just one bad thing away from being homeless … one divorce, one job loss, one illness." Or, in my case, one SUV.

It was like a house of cards. All you need to do is miss one month’s rent on a New York City apartment and you will never catch up. I was in so much physical and emotional pain, to say nothing about being completely paralyzed with fear. I thought of killing myself. In my lighter moments, I'd quote Gene Wilder in "The Producers," saying to myself, "No way out. No way out.”

I was in such denial about my situation. I was paying — or rather, not paying — $3,000 a month just to have a place to keep my stuff! How nuts is that?

Falling further and further behind in my rent, it was only a matter of time before I would be evicted. I was in my sixties: My only steady income was Social Security and I owed about what I used to make in a year to creditors and back rent.

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And then an amazing thing happened. “Go to the worst-case scenario," my friend Sheila said one night. "What's the worst thing that could happen to you?”

Sheila (living proof that angels walk among us) and I then drove to the Hamptons, where she had a small house in the woods. “You can live here,” she said after a walk on the beach. “You can put your stuff in storage and live here.”

This feeling of peace washed over me. I didn’t know how, but everything was going to be OK.

The only thing that got me through the next few months was my camera. It somehow buffered me from the pain of my reality. If I knew I was making a film, at least I would have something to show for it. I documented every tearful, self-indulgent, poor-me moment. I even filmed the marshall coming to the door the day of the eviction and, doing my best imitation of Michael Moore, at the welfare office while getting food stamps (until a cop made me turn it off).

It’s been just a year since I was evicted. I’m technically homeless — well, houseless — in that I have no home of my own, for the first time in my life. I sleep on Sheila's couch and tell people I'm working on my Oprah story. At the same time, I’ve never been happier, more prolific, a better mother and better friend.

I feel freer than I've ever felt. I know if it wasn't for Sheila, my life may have taken a much darker turn. My heart and my art have been opened in an inexplicable way. I have completely changed my attitude about what it is to be poor. When I see a homeless person on the street asking for money, I laugh to myself and think, "I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

I have a new pair of glasses, and for every single circumstance that brought me here, I am profoundly grateful. It’s certainly nothing I would have scripted, but there is nevertheless an elegant perfection to it all.


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