Life on the Outside

After 16 Years in Prison Elaine Bartlett Came Home to a City and a Family She Barely Knew. Freedom Wasn’t at All What She’d Imagined

The Homecoming | Apartment Living | Back To Jail | Job Hunting | Uptown Escape | Brooklyn Respite | Second Homecoming | Prison Reunion | Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving

By late fall, 10 months after Elaine left prison, she was still living in her children's apartment, still sharing a bed with her older son. Tensions with her daughters and sister had eased, though the family's peace remained fragile. Elaine's son Mel had been shipped from Rikers Island to a state prison, a five-hour bus ride from Manhattan; she had not seen him in eight months.

By now, Elaine was journeying to Green Haven prison to visit Nate about once or twice a month, but she had not yet written the letter requesting another wedding. At her job, she continued to work so many hours that she had time for little else. "My life is kinda boring," she said in early November. "All I do is go to work and go home." And then she repeated her favorite saying: "I didn't come home for this."

As Thanksgiving approached, Elaine decided that she would organize a feast. Other holidays had slipped by without her taking charge: She had slept through most of Mother's Day, and her sister Michelle had cooked the family meals on Easter and July Fourth. Now Elaine felt ready to re-create the sort of party her mother used to throw. Pulling it off would require days of fundraising, not to mention cleaning and cooking.

Elaine dipped into her savings and collected $200 from Apache and $250 from a new suitor. She scanned newspaper ads for sales and found a table and four-chair set for $159. (The family had gone without a dining table since she threw out the broken one in January.) She sent the apartment's occupants to purchase pots, pans, a shower curtain, another toilet seat, a bathroom rug, and a curtain for the kitchen window.

Elaine worked until 8 p.m. on the day before Thanksgiving, so that night she stayed up until 5 a.m., cooking with Apache and Tara, then slept in a chair in the living room for a few hours. By mid morning she was back in front of the stove, stirring the turnips and checking the turkey. With everything on schedule, she dressed for the occasion, donning a black hip-hugging skirt, a sparkly silver top, knee-high black boots, and a gray zip-up sweater with fake fur around the hood and wrists. "My mother looks like a cross between Charlie's Angels and Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians," Apache announced.

The Thanksgiving menu included two turkeys, a ham decorated with cherries and pineapple slices, two ducks, roast beef, roast pork, a giant platter of shrimp with cocktail sauce, potato salad, macaroni salad, macaroni and cheese, rice, yams, collard greens, turnips, eight sweet potato pies, and five peach cobbler pies. Plus, there was a sponge cake baked on the stove using an old prison method—sticking a cookie tin under the pan so it cooks more slowly.

Elaine had to work the 4 p.m.-to-12 a.m. shift, so she served dinner early. "C'mon, y'all!" she said, just before 3 p.m. "We're getting ready to eat." First, she ripped off a turkey leg and placed it on the floor for the apartment's newest member, Kira, her eight-week-old puppy. "Happy Thanksgiving, baby," she said to the dog. She carved the turkey and assigned Tara to heap the meat atop paper plates.

By now, the apartment's population had climbed to 17, including Tara, Tenéa, Sabrina, and Apache, and assorted friends and relatives. There wasn't enough room to sit at the table, so they scattered around the apartment. Elaine ate on a chair in the living room. Apache stood by the stove. Tara sat on a chair in the hallway across from her bedroom, next to an unplugged television and a laundry basket of plastic toys. Sabrina dined at the new table, then dozed in front of One Life to Live.

Even with so much food—even with "Happy Thanksgiving" napkins, the aroma of roast turkey drifting down the hall, and a new kitchen curtain decorated with pigs and ducks—something was not quite right. Nobody bickered, but nobody smiled, either. All the hours of cooking and cleaning could not replace what was missing. They could not mask the misery that seemed to permeate the apartment.

After everyone had taken seconds, there was still enough food left over for 50 people. Elaine covered tins with foil, hoping to keep food warm for more company. She had expected her youngest sister, Michelle, to come down from Harlem with 10 or so family members, but as it turned out they didn't show up until evening. Elaine had been hoping her younger daughter would come, too. "Tara," Elaine shouted down the hall. "Call Na-na and ask her, does she think she could find her way over here and spend a little time with her mother before I have to go to work?"

A few minutes later, someone announced that Danae was asleep. Elaine did not rail or rant or grab the phone and call Danae herself. There was no point in getting angry anymore. "By the time she gets here, I'll be gone," Elaine said. Still, Elaine kept waiting. At 3:45 p.m., she picked up the phone and dialed her job. "This is Bartlett," she said. "I'll be there. So if I'm not there right at 4, don't panic."

It was nearly the end of her first Thanksgiving as a free woman. Looking back later on the afternoon, she would consider it a success. Not the happiest event, perhaps, but at least it was a start. In the months ahead, she had many more goals she wanted to accomplish. She would keep making daily calls to the Housing Authority to check on her application for a project apartment. She would continue to work, to save money, to mother her children. She would try to make sure Danae graduated from high school, Tara went back to high school, Apache got his college degree, and Mel stayed out of further trouble.

For now, though, she had a job to get to. At 4:15, she headed down the corridor to Apache's room and returned wearing a long coat and the same black knit hat and fuzzy scarf she had worn the day she left prison. "Bye," she said. "I gotta go." And then she grabbed her pocketbook and walked out the door.


This story was photographed with support from the Center on Crime, Communities & Culture of the Open Society Institute.

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