Life on the Outside


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

Second Homecoming

In early May, 13 weeks after she left prison and while she was still living at the YMCA, Elaine landed a full-time job. Project Renewal, a nonprofit agency, hired Elaine to work at its homeless shelter on East 3rd Street, just off the Bowery. Compared to most ex-cons, she was doing well. Only 42 percent of New York’s parolees have full- or part-time jobs.

Elaine’s new workplace was a six-story brick building holding 200 male drug addicts. Many had spent years sleeping in subway cars and on sidewalks; others had cycled in and out of jail. Elaine chuckled at the irony of her own predicament. “Here I am working in a homeless shelter,” she said, “and I feel homeless myself.”

Elaine’s job title was residential aide, and her duties included answering phones, enforcing curfews, and inspecting the men’s lockers. On days when she had to search for contraband—which included drugs, knives, and even cell phones—she felt as though she were back in prison, this time as a guard.

Though she was a staff member, Elaine empathized with the clients. She even remembered two men from 20 years ago, when they all lived in the same housing project. “I ain’t even been home four months yet, and I understand how you feel about rules and regulations,” she told the men when they complained. “You don’t want anybody telling you what to do.”

Elaine began to acquire a routine. Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, she worked from 4 p.m. to midnight. The schedule technically violated her parole—her curfew was still 9 p.m.—but her parole officer gave her permission to work at night. Now she had less time for jail visits and apartment hunting, but going to work every day usually improved Elaine’s mood.

As a bonus, the men who surrounded her—all the male clients plus dozens of male coworkers—proved to be an ego boost. Elaine could still turn heads. One coworker gave her a bottle of Victoria’s Secret perfume and a plastic rose that lit up when she squeezed the stem. Another took her on a shopping spree at a drugstore and also to Dallas BBQ on St. Marks Place.

Saving money became Elaine’s top priority. She worked double shifts. She opened her first bank account—with $15. She paid her first taxes. After taxes, her twice-monthly paychecks totaled $493.42. Elaine was earning about $10 an hour, or $18,000 a year. It was better than McDonald’s wages—and much better than the 25 cents an hour she earned in prison—but after she put half her paycheck in the bank to save for an apartment, there was little left. To save money, she ate one meal a day.

Though Elaine was still living in the YMCA, she would often stop by her children’s apartment. Relations with her family were less fraught now that she had somewhere else to sleep. When Tenéa’s first birthday arrived in early May, Tara decided to throw a party in a local community center. Elaine’s mother had given Tara the nickname “Pocahontas,” so Elaine scoured five-and-dime stores for paper plates and napkins decorated with the character from the Disney film.

At 4 p.m., three hours before the party was to begin, Elaine stood on a fold-out chair at the community center, tying streamers to the rafters. A deejay brought a stack of rap albums and a bubble machine. Elaine’s sister Michelle brought enough fried chicken and collard greens and potato salad for 100 people. About 75 family members and friends showed up, and Tenéa surveyed the scene from her stroller, wearing a paper Pocahontas headband and bobbing her head to the beat.

Later, Elaine swayed to the music, holding her granddaughter. As strangers came by to tell the birthday girl how adorable she was, Elaine beamed. This was the sort of family event she had looked forward to all those years she was stuck in prison. A few hours into the bash, Elaine went outside to smoke. When she came back, Tara handed her a paper plate with a slice of Carvel ice cream birthday cake. Tara had saved the best piece, the one with Pocahontas’s face, for her mother.

One week later, Elaine left the YMCA and moved back into the East Village apartment with Tara and Apache. Though the Women’s Prison Association had promised her only 10 nights at the YMCA, she had always hoped to stay longer. In the end, she convinced a caseworker to allow her to stay five and half weeks before she was finally cut off in mid May.

Back in the apartment, Elaine vowed not to lash out at her sister and daughters. Now when something rankled Elaine—when she opened the kitchen cupboard and roaches jumped out, or when Sabrina woke her at 4 a.m. to bum a cigarette—she tried to keep her mouth shut. This time, she moved into Apache’s bedroom in order to give Tara a chance to spend more time with her boyfriend.

Apache’s small bedroom was the de facto headquarters for Exodus, his AAU basketball club. Copies of Slam, the basketball magazine, covered the night table; game schedules were taped to the wall above his bed. The room was not much larger than the king-size bed it held, and Elaine’s arrival made it feel even more crowded. She hung her business suits from Apache’s curtain rods and slept next to him at night.

While most 26-year-old men would not be thrilled about sharing a bedroom with their mother, Apache did not complain. As always, his sense of humor helped him cope. “Ma, it’s 11:37,” he said one day, after she began working the 12 p.m.-to-8 p.m. shift. “You gotta get to work.” Elaine jumped up out of bed and ran down the hall to the shower. Within minutes, she had pulled on one of Apache’s sweaters, black Spandex tights, and a pair of shiny orange boots. The outfit was less conventional than her usual work attire, but it would have to do. She headed for the door and speed-walked to work.

Not long afterward, Apache’s phone rang. “You’ve got jokes, son,” said Elaine. Apache laughed. It was only 9:30 a.m.—his mother was two and half hours early for work. “Who did you have hiding in the stairwell that you are trying to sneak in?” she asked.

No women were sneaking in that day, though Apache’s girlfriends were a favorite target. “Whoever you got in there has got to go,” Elaine said to her son on the phone one evening. “Send their asses home. I’ll be home by 9, so the room better be cleaned up by then.” She put down the phone and rolled her eyes in mock anger. “Him and his girls need their own damn room,” she said.

During her last years in prison, after her mother passed away, Apache was the one who helped keep her sane, visiting regularly and giving her pep talks on the phone. Now that she was home, Apache still worried about his mother. “I know she’s trying to find her place in the world,” he told me. “She thought her purpose was to take care of her kids and her kids have turned their backs on her. They don’t want her around. How devastating could that be? I know it’s hurting bad. It will probably improve with the years, but it might be too late.”

Elaine dreamed of finding an apartment large enough for her, Apache, Danae, Tara, and Tenéa. She wasn’t sure if she could convince her daughters to live with her, but she wanted to be close by so that they could visit. And she wanted to have enough room so her grandchildren could stay sometimes, too. This way, she figured, she would get to spend more time with Little Mel and also Baby Tara, Apache’s five-year-old daughter, who lived with her mother. “I need a home to create a family,” Elaine said.

Caseworkers at the Women’s Prison Association advised Elaine that her only immediate option was a single-room occupancy hotel, where tenants pay by the week for the bare necessities—a cot, a shared bathroom, an electrical outlet. They found an opening at an SRO in Brooklyn, but Elaine refused to visit. “I don’t want a room,” she said. “I want a home.”

When Elaine walked by the many housing projects scattered around the East Village and Lower East Side, she scanned the windows for any sign of vacancies. Though the New York City Housing Authority does not give leases to felons, Elaine learned that the agency does make exceptions for ex-cons who can prove they have been “rehabilitated.” So she filled out an application and got two state legislators to write letters saying she had reformed. Even if she did manage to qualify for a project apartment, the wait would likely be more than a year.

Elaine hoped to remain in the East Village, where she was beginning to feel at home. She had a 15-minute walk to work, and she’d memorized the location of every store with a shoe sale along Second Avenue. The cashier at the bodega near her job knew her. “Hey, honey,” he called when she strolled in, “what can I get you today?” But there was no place for her in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, where three-bedrooms rent for $3000 a month.

As June arrived and the weather grew warmer, Elaine’s mood plummeted. She’d had a clear vision of what she wanted to accomplish: to get a job, then an apartment. Her stay at the YMCA had reinvigorated her and helped clear her head. But now she felt as though things were fuzzy again. On her days off from work, she retreated to Apache’s bedroom, locked the door, and slept all afternoon. She let the answering machine pick up Apache’s telephone. She stopped returning calls. Elaine was not sure what would happen to her, but she worried her story would not have a happy ending.

Apache had lived in the apartment’s largest bedroom before Elaine came home. But when his mother first moved in, Apache had swapped rooms with his sister Tara so that she and Elaine could have the back bedroom. Now that Apache and Elaine were sharing space, they decided to reclaim the largest bedroom.

On a Thursday morning in early July, Apache and Elaine began moving their possessions into the apartment’s hallway. They pushed Apache’s bed and dresser into the corridor and piled her outfits on top. Meanwhile, Tara sat on her bed and refused to budge. “I’m not moving,” she said. Elaine ignored her and kept working, scrubbing Apache’s now empty room with disinfectant.

A few minutes later, somebody pounded on the front door. Elaine looked down the corridor and saw three cops in the doorway.

“We got a call about a domestic dispute,” an officer said.

No police contact. Elaine remembered parole’s rule. She knew this encounter could send her back to jail. She suspected Tara’s boyfriend had called the officers; earlier, she remembered, she’d heard him say, “They’re coming.” Now, instead of hiding in a bedroom, Elaine walked down the corridor to the doorway. “I just got out of prison after 16 years,” she explained to the cops. “Governor Pataki sent me to this address. So if there’s a problem with that, tell him. File a report because something has to be done.”

She gestured around the apartment, at the bare bulbs, the dirty ceiling, the cluttered foyer. “I’m a mother coming home after all these years,” she said. “Would you want your children living like this?”

Tara slipped outside the apartment with the cops. Depending on what Tara told them, Elaine knew, she could wind up on Rikers Island. Afterward, Apache and Elaine pulled Tara into the back bedroom and closed the door.

“I can’t believe you let your man call the cops on your mother!” Apache shouted.

“What did I ever do to warrant this?” Elaine yelled. “There’s nothing but negativity in this house. You should want something better for Tenéa. I didn’t come home to put my hands on you and your sister, but y’all don’t know what I’ve been through in the last 16 years.”

Tara stared at her feet. She said nothing. Elaine picked up the phone to call her parole officer. She had to report the incident, and she wanted Tara to understand that one call to the cops could undo everyone’s efforts to free her. The parole officer recorded the incident in Elaine’s file, but decided not to lock her up.

The way Elaine recounts the argument, it was not about real estate, but about the future—about two opposing attitudes, about whether Tara would take charge of her life or continue to sit around the apartment and be unhappy. Elaine figured if she had been younger, she probably would have beat Tara up after the officers left. But this time, Elaine did not hit anyone. She later said she felt more sad than angry.

A few days later, Elaine found a crumpled copy of the police report in Tara’s room. If she needed any more evidence of how little she knew her older daughter, or how little her older daughter knew her, here it was. She skimmed the one-page report. Under “Victim,” she saw Tara’s name; under “Suspect,” she saw her own. The description of the incident stated: “Both parties involved in verbal altercation over bedrooms. Settled w/o incident.”

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