After some youthful but tragically misguided decisions cost her almost four years in prison, a Crested Butte woman tries to rebuild her life—one scoop at a time.
Inmate #83240-008 was released from prison in September 2010. She found refuge in Crested Butte, where her parents had bought a second home. She’d first visited the area with them as a nine-year-old from Ohio and realized for the first time that places like the ones pictured in her Sierra Club calendar were real. This time, Tankersley arrived back in Colorado with the psychological issues that plague most former inmates: anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and agoraphobia. Even so, she realizes her assimilation was comparatively easy. “I had a college degree, incredible family support, and a place to live,” she says. “I came home to a town that has known my family for years and said, ‘Of course, we’ll give you a chance.’ And it was still hard. Felons have a bigger burden of proof. People wonder if they will steal or hurt someone, or assume they’re immoral for making bad choices.”
That stark reality forced her to abandon a medical career. A local restaurateur gave Tankersley her first job “on the condition I didn’t burn down the kitchen,” she says, laughing. Soon after, she met her eventual partner, Matt, and the two hatched a plan to make some ice cream. Third Bowl opened in June 2012. Thanks to its unexpected success, for now she won’t have to worry about having awkward conversations with potential bosses.
Sitting on her mother’s porch, Tankersley’s gaze shifts between Gothic Mountain and Crested Butte Mountain. It’s the afternoon before this summer’s opening day at Third Bowl, when flavors like pineapple-habanero, salted caramel, and PB&J will disappear by the scoopful. The excess of spring snowstorms this year has blessed the slopes with emerald grass gilded with yellow glacier lilies. She leans back in her chair and fidgets with the string running through her hooded sweatshirt, contemplating a kid’s understanding of the world, so black and white and usually derived from cartoons. To a child, jail is a place where bad people go.
It’s preoccupying her because soon she’ll have to explain to her stepchildren, a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, that sometimes those in jail are good people who made bad decisions. As far as they and almost everyone in Crested Butte know, Tankersley spent four years “in Florida,” with no further explanation. “I know more kids’ names in our community than their parents’ names,” she says. “The last thing I want to be is someone the kids won’t trust.” The truth is, youngsters tend to focus on only the important stuff anyway: Questions from her nine-year-old niece about prison included “What did you wear?” “Are people nice?” And, “They fed you, right?”
Tankersley realizes grown-ups are trickier, yet she still hopes for their understanding and tolerance. “Redemption is central to most major religions. People make mistakes, pay for them, and change for the better,” she says, throwing up her hands. “You have these stories and yet, we don’t forgive people in this country. You hear the word ‘criminal.’ What does that mean? I’m a criminal, but I’ve changed. Does that matter?”
Even though society can be unfair and quick to ostracize—imagine if we were all permanently defined by the stupidest thing we did at 21—as Tankersley’s husband points out, “A lot of us could be felons if we had only gotten caught.” It might be easier to lie, to start over someplace where she isn’t known. Tankersley wants no part of that. “I want to tell stories about my life, and I don’t want to censor myself,” she says. “I had to do that in Eugene. I had to be quiet about my thoughts for all the years I was in Florida. I want to use the real words, not ‘when I was in Florida’ but ‘when I was in prison.’ ”
When Tankersley first debated telling her story, she consulted a friend, the poet and musician Tim’m T. West, whose work never shies away from the topic of his being HIV-positive. “I asked him, ‘What if everyone knows?’ ” she says. “He changed the tone of the question—poets, that’s what they do, right?—and he repeated back to me, ‘What if everyone knows?’ He told me that there is life on the other side of whatever that reaction will be.”
That’s when Tankersley says she realized she is more than her past. “We should live openly, showour flaws, our humanity,” she says. “We’d fight less and be less violent, love each other more and hate each other less, because we would see our commonality and messy vulnerabilities in ways that are imperfect. Wouldn’t that be nice?”