She smiles and waves in return.
Although the joy and positivity does not disappear, her voice takes on a more melancholy tone when she opens her phone to show me a picture of her daughter, Gabby, to whom she gave birth in jail.
“The courts told me I had to quit using [drugs] to keep her,” she says. “I told them I couldn’t, because that’s where I was at the time.”
The photo is two weeks old, taken in the home of Gabby’s adoptive parents in Santee.
“We look just like each other, don’t we?”
Gabby is 12 now. For the first few years of her life, Elsbury was allowed two visits per year. Last year was the first time she was invited to the house. The visits occur more frequently now. In the past month, they’ve seen each other twice.
“We’re Facebook friends,” Elsbury says proudly.
Recently, she moved to Lakeside to be closer to Gabby. Before the move, she’d been living in Pacific Beach with her mother (now seven years clean and sober, one year longer than Elsbury).
“I have a boyfriend,” she says. “It’s time to be on my own.”
It’s just after 5:00 p.m., and the parking lot is crammed with cars. The automatic doors leading into the store hardly have time to shut before they open for someone else. The fluorescent lights inside glow brightly against the dreary winter evening. The occasional passerby strains to see what we’re looking at, huddled over Elsbury’s phone.
Again, she flips through pictures until she finds one of herself in a red dress, standing next to a man in slacks and a tie.
“His name is Jason. That was the night he took me to see Stomp,” she says. “I never went on a date like that.”
Elsbury also has photos of meat — and not just a couple. She scrolls through shot after shot of raw flank steaks and boneless New Yorks and ribeyes. She shows me pictures of a big seven-bone (shoulder of the cow), a whole hanging cow, and a boneless ribeye butterflied into the shape of a heart (which she used for a while as her Facebook profile photo).
“I skinned a whole pig once,” she says.
But why the pictures of raw meat? I ask.
“Because I love my job!” She slips the phone back into her purse.
Elsbury never finished high school, but she has a serious enthusiasm for learning. Her seat on the board of directors at Second Chance (which she’s occupied for about two and a half years) has proven fertile ground for acquiring new vocabulary.
“They say all these big words I don’t even know. At first, I would just sit there and write them all down and look them up later.” She laughs. “But at the last meeting, I think there was only one word I didn’t know.”
In her spare time, Elsbury takes cooking classes at Great News, so she can swap recipes with customers. At home, she subscribes to six cooking magazines, which she reads front to back. She cuts out pictures of food from the magazines, hangs them on her bulletin board, and then tries to recreate each dish, down to the garnishes.
In the next month or so, she’ll be spending three weeks of vacation time and $7000 to attend a course on whole-beef butchering in Beverly Hills. She’s not worried about the money or the time because she sees it as an investment in her future.
“It’s like going to college,” she says.
The evening darkness settles in and the parking-lot lights come on. We begin to part ways. But before we do, Elsbury says, “You know what I’m excited for? There are a lot of people who don’t know I’m alive. And I’m thinking maybe they’ll see this [article] and say, ‘If she can do it, then maybe I can, too.’ That’s my real job.”
Her job, she feels, is about more than the meat. The example she gives is of a woman having a bad day, but when she serves her family a great cut of steak, it makes her feel better, and then she doesn’t yell at her kids.
Elsbury laughs again.
“I always tell my guys, ‘We’re saving the world, one steak at a time.’”
For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory