Life on the Outside


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

Uptown Escape

By late March, two months after she left prison, Elaine had resorted to detective work in an attempt to understand her children’s lives. She went to Danae’s school to check on her grades. She copied down the doctors’ names on Tara’s pill bottles. She sought out Mel’s lawyer to find out what was going on with his case. She attended Apache’s basketball games, learned the names of his players, and cheered for his teams.

Still, there was so much Elaine didn’t know. When Danae’s 18th birthday arrived, Elaine gave her $20 to buy a cake because she wasn’t sure what flavor her younger daughter liked. Danae chose strawberry. “I never would have guessed that,” Elaine said.

No matter how hard Elaine tried, the reality of her relationships with her daughters did not come close to matching her expectations. Over the years, Tara and Danae had written about how much they missed her, how their lives would be better as soon as she was free again. But that wasn’t coming true. “All the letters you wrote me in prison—now that I’m home, it’s a whole different story,” Elaine said to her daughters. “Was it all lies?”

Tara and Danae had never known their mother outside of prison, and to her daughters, Elaine probably seemed to be meddling. But in her mind, the respect and authority a mother should be accorded were missing. Elaine clashed with Tara, telling her she spent too much time “laying up” with her boyfriend. She also continued ordering Danae to move home, and Danae continued to defy her. Some days, Danae snubbed her mother, refusing to acknowledge her when they passed on the street. Some nights, Tara refused to sleep in the same bed with her mother and instead took her pillow to the living room.

Elaine had tried not to let prison make her bitter. Inside Bedford Hills, she had figured out how to harness her rage, how to stop fighting other inmates and fight the system instead. She prayed every night and hit a punching bag in the gym. But now that she was home, she seemed to be losing her grip. She could not rid herself of all her disappointment, hurt, and rage. Confiding in her mother might have made her feel better, but of course, her mother had passed away. And Nate, her daughters’ father, was not around.

Some days, her fury felt unstoppable. “What’s wrong with you?” she would scream at her daughters when they were not acting the way she thought they should. It was all she could do not to beat them up. “You treated me better when I was in prison!” she hollered at Danae during one fight. “I wish I hadn’t come home to you and your stupid sister!”

In her children’s apartment, Elaine felt as though she were living in a nightclub. The phone rang all night long. There was always at least one television blaring, and sometimes three or four. At night, the number of friends and boyfriends crashing in the apartment pushed its population to 10 or more. Nobody here had a full-time job. Compared to the highly structured world of Bedford Hills—where guards had unlocked her cell each day at 6 a.m. and shut off the lights at 10:30 p.m.—life in the apartment was utter chaos.

She felt as though nobody wanted her around. People ignored her. Conversations halted when she walked by. “This is the most uncomfortable apartment I’ve ever been in,” she said. On her way home, Elaine often stopped outside the entrance to her building, sat on a wooden bench, and stared at the sky. She considered curling up and spending the night outdoors. “You’re free, Elaine,” she would tell herself. “At least things aren’t as bad as they were.” Usually, this mantra was enough to get her off the bench and into the elevator.

Elaine had overheard enough to figure out that some family members were unhappy about her media attention, about her sacrificing their privacy to win her freedom. She knew her own mother would not have approved of such publicity. Yvonne was so proud and private that she did not allow Elaine to send letters from Bedford Hills directly to her imprisoned brothers because people might find out her brothers were locked up. “You don’t let people know your whole family is in jail,” Yvonne would say. “It’s embarrassing.”

Elaine began to fantasize about escaping, collecting her plastic bags and moving into her own place. She longed for a housing project apartment like the one she rented before she went to prison. Back then, she paid $127 a month for a three-bedroom apartment in the Wagner Houses.

While she was in prison, the New York City Housing Authority began doing more rigorous background checks. It became much tougher for anyone with any sort of criminal record to get a lease. Renters who shared an apartment with someone who had a criminal record faced possible eviction. The background checks were popular with tenants, who wanted to stop their projects from becoming open-air drug markets. But for an ex-prisoner like Elaine, a ban based on a 17-year-old drug bust created yet another obstacle in an already formidable housing hunt.

The longer she stayed in the apartment, the more trouble she had controlling her temper. Occasionally her sister Sabrina offered advice, telling her not to drive away Tara’s boyfriend. “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” Sabrina told Elaine. “Don’t let them block your way.” Other days, the sisters would fight, and Elaine became convinced Sabrina did not want her around either. The message was not always subtle. “If your parole officer comes here,” Sabrina threatened during one argument, “I’m going to tell him we don’t want you.”

In late March, 56 days after Elaine moved in, she got into a minor squabble with Sabrina that quickly escalated into an all-out war. It began with Sabrina hollering down the apartment hallway.

“Who ate my cheese?” Sabrina yelled. “Who ate my cheese?”

Elaine hadn’t taken the cheese, but to get her sister to shut up, she screamed back, “I ate your cheese!”

Sabrina was infuriated by this answer, and the two sisters tore into each other. The fight laid bare every pent-up family resentment.

“You stupid ass!” Sabrina shouted. “You went to jail. You hurt Mommy. You’re the one that broke her heart by going to jail!”

Elaine had heard enough. She was tired of feeling unwanted, of being blamed for all that had gone wrong. She began stuffing her possessions—her skirt suits and résumés and high heels—into plastic bags. The only place left to go was her sister Michelle’s home in Harlem—a five-bedroom apartment she already shared with her husband, five children, a grandson, and three of Sabrina’s children.

Elaine hunted for the plastic water bottle she used as a bank and dumped the contents onto Tara’s bed. Her dollar bills had disappeared long ago, so she counted the quarters and dimes. Elaine did not have $25 for the mini-van. She would have to get Michelle to send down her husband with some money so she could pay the driver when she got to Harlem. She would also have to call her parole officer to tell him she was changing addresses lest he send her back to jail for violating parole rules.

Elaine had been determined to be a role model for her children, to show her family a way of life that did not revolve around cashing welfare checks or watching soap operas every afternoon. But now she did not think she could rebuild her own life while living in her children’s apartment. It had taken two months for the dream to crumble. Her brother Kenneth was right. She would have to love her family from a distance.

The crises did not end when Elaine changed homes. Soon she was bickering with her youngest sister, too, though she could not explain exactly why. She didn’t like living in someone else’s house, obeying someone else’s rules. One night, she sat in Michelle’s lobby for three hours, surrounded by all her belongings, while she waited for Apache to help her move again. He never showed, so she dragged her plastic bags back upstairs to Michelle’s apartment. Every day, Apache called to make sure his mother had not gone to a homeless shelter.