Elaine usually made an effort to look put-together, if not professional, when she went to South Forty to see George. But on a Tuesday morning in mid April, she showed up at the employment agency in jeans and a T-shirt. Hours of nibbling had left her once long nails stubby and uneven. And the circles around her eyes had grown so dark that she looked as if she had been punched in the face.
A few days earlier, George had set up her first official job interview—to be a case manager at the Center for Community Alternatives, a Manhattan nonprofit that tries to keep people out of prison. Elaine wore a Liz Claiborne outfit from the Bottomless Closet to meet one of the the agency’s directors.
“Miss Lasson feels you did really well,” George said. “You looked fantastic. The only thing is she said you came very, very early.”
Elaine had indeed showed up early—90 minutes before her scheduled interview. “The more I waited, the nervouser I got,” she explained.
Now she opened her pocketbook, a loan from Tara, and hunted for the thank-you note George had told her to send to her prospective employer. The night before, while a television blared and her young nephews raced up and down the hallway of Michelle’s home, Elaine had handwritten a letter to her interviewer. In the midst of so much chaos, such social niceties seemed slightly absurd. But if this was what she had to do to get a job, she would play by the rules.
Since she did not have a permanent home, Elaine kept every important piece of paper with her. She riffled through her purse, past her prison release certificate, her birth certificate, her plastic change purse, her Medicaid card, her address book, notes from friends at Bedford Hills, and Nate’s letters. There was so much stuff in the pocketbook that it took a few minutes to locate her thank-you note.
Unlike most ex-cons, Elaine carried in her purse a notebook with plastic sleeves containing the business cards of state legislators, reporters, and activists. Almost everyone Elaine had met since coming home promised to help, nodding sympathetically when she told them her story. Still, despite three months of hustling, everywhere she turned she seemed to confront a dead end.
Elaine finally pulled out her thank-you note and handed it to George. By now, her eyes had grown moist. “All the people who are supposed to be helping me aren’t doing anything,” she said. “I’m fed up.”
“Talk to me,” said George.
She blinked hard a few times to stop her tears. “This whole thing is a joke,” she said. About the agencies she had called for help, she added, “They say they’re going to get back to you and they never do.”
If anyone had phoned her back, though, Elaine might not know. The phone company had disconnected the local service when no one paid the bill. And her family sometimes forgot to pass on messages.
George did not know the details of Elaine’s travails, but he could see that her situation was urgent. What was the point of finding Elaine a job if family crises derailed her—if they kept her from showing up to work on time and staying focused? George knew Elaine needed another place to live, so he wangled her an appointment later that day at the Women’s Prison Association. The agency sometimes provides ex-cons with emergency housing. After Elaine told her story, a caseworker booked her a room for 10 nights at the YMCA in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
A few hours later, Elaine boarded the G train, a subway line she had never ridden before, to get to Greenpoint, a neighborhood she had never heard of until that day. After getting slightly lost, she found the YMCA, where the signs in the lobby are written in Polish. Elaine’s neighbors were European tourists paying $55 a night for a room with a color TV and double bed, plus access to a weight room and swimming pool.
Ever since she left prison, Elaine had been dreaming of taking a vacation. Usually, she imagined herself on a beach in Jamaica, sipping a piña colada and lying next to a very attractive man. The Greenpoint YMCA seemed an unlikely spot for a holiday, but for the moment, it would have to do. Elaine tried to forget that the view from the lobby included the 94th police precinct, a sight that did not relax her. At least she could stay here for free, and the Women’s Prison Association gave her a daily stipend of $10—enough for two meals if she planned carefully. She just had to call her parole officer and tell him she was moving.
Over the next few days, Elaine transformed Room 305 into a home. She got her clothes from Michelle’s apartment, folded them, and placed them in the dresser drawers. She turned the windowsill into a kitchen cupboard, lining it with cans of pear halves and applesauce, two bottles of cranberry juice, and a box of Apple Jacks.
Armed with a stack of quarters, she took over the phone in the YMCA’s stairwell. For an hour or two each day, the phone booth became her personal office. She made calls to George, Apache, her caseworker at the Women’s Prison Association—anyone she thought could help. She didn’t call her sisters or daughters to tell them where she had gone. She wanted them to worry, at least for a few days.
At the YMCA, Elaine alternated between appreciating the quiet and feeling lonely. She knew only two or three people in Brooklyn, and none of them lived in Greenpoint. One day, she saw somebody she recognized—an ex-con from Bedford Hills, who was also staying at the YMCA. They did not talk long, though. Hanging out with this particular woman, Elaine figured, would take her straight back to prison.
The longest conversation Elaine had with anyone she met in Greenpoint took place the evening a man who lived down the hall invited her out. The man barely came up to her shoulder, so in her mind, she dubbed him “Shorty.” At a nearby bar, she ordered a piña colada and sat with Shorty and his three friends.
“Tell me about yourself,” Shorty said.
Elaine rolled her eyes. “You don’t even want to know,” she said. “We’re not going to go there.”
“I’ll be your shoulder to cry on,” Shorty offered.
“Your little shoulders couldn’t handle my cries right now,” Elaine said.
After just one drink, Elaine decided Shorty was boring and got up to leave. Just after midnight, loud banging on her door woke her. A drunken Shorty wanted to come in. “You’ve got the wrong woman, buddy,” Elaine told him through the door. Then she went back to bed. A few days later, she bought a plastic purple radio and put it on the night table next to her bed to keep her company.