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Never Forgets Days of Hunger : From Orphanage to Shelter to the Limo Life, He Battles His Way Back

February 21, 1988|CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN | Associated Press

NEW YORK — When Dennis Payne was 8, his mother and father told him to wait at home with his sister while they went out.

"I'm 36, be 37 in March," he said quietly, "and I'm still waiting for them to get back from the grocery store."

His story started there. After time in an orphanage, a divorce court, alcohol rehabilitation centers and on dark streets without shelter, it took him to this hushed, posh office in Rockefeller Center.

If he's in a hurry now, his boss lets him call a limousine.

Is he confident? Are things OK now?

He nods and answers quickly: "Today." Then he raises a hand, like a cop stopping traffic, and pauses.

"I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. I go to AA meetings. I don't go every night. I don't have to. Nobody's looking over my shoulder."

When he applied for his job delivering and picking up documents for a corporate law firm, he was living in a shelter. "I told them I was homeless and an alcoholic."

Permanent Conditions

You never really get over being in either condition, he said. Having lived by soup kitchen schedules, he still plans for only one meal a day. His sister, with whom he is living until he gets his own place, encourages him to eat regularly.

The two have stayed close since the day they were packed off to the orphanage on Staten Island, a ferry ride across New York Harbor from lower Manhattan. Evaretta never got in trouble, Payne says, but he did--over and over.

He once fought with her and her husband after seeking refuge with them--something he would do only when his drinking and belligerence and the anger beneath both had cost him a job or a home yet again.

It was years before he became "unangry," as he puts it. Somehow, the bitter lifetime between doesn't show on Payne's open face or in his smiling eyes.

In school, he was a good student who did other kids' homework for a dollar here and there. "I thought I could buy me and my sister's way out of the orphanage."

He couldn't, of course, but he did manage to buy liquor. From the age of 13 he drank--in high school, in Vietnam and afterward, while earning a degree in education.

He taught. He married and had a family. He bought a house.

"I drank and drugged all through that period," Payne said, and except when he got violent, he got by.

Eventually, though, his wife moved back to Indiana and they were divorced.

In 1980 came his first "detox." He blacked out and found himself in a hospital, shaking. It was the beginning of years of shuttling from address to address, some of them institutional, and spending the nights between on the streets.

By then, there were other bitternesses added to the deprivations of his childhood. "My drinking was my friend," he said.

"He had this attitude that everybody was out to get him, and he had to get them first," recalled the Rev. Jesse Threats, a counselor at the Staten Island shelter Project Hospitality, where Payne turned up one afternoon carrying a knife.

The shelter turned him away, and Payne says the days that followed brought a turning point.

He described the wasted days he spent haunting the streets and the ferry terminal: "There was nothing to do. Bum money and drink." After dark, he sought refuge in out-of-service ferries. He remembers the horror still: "There's rats on those boats at night!"

Time to Make a Decision

At Project Hospitality, the executive director is a divinity graduate in denim overalls. Her name is Terry Troia. During an interview at the shelter and while she checked the ferry terminal for newcomers in need, she dispatched staff questions and gently lectured a would-be "guest" that he'd have to make a decision about his drinking and the pills he's supposed to take.

Eye of the Storm

Whether soothing or stern, she is the calm eye of the storm of dislocated humanity at Project Hospitality.

Payne said he "literally begged" his way into the shelter and, "Terry would take hours talking to me."

He can laugh about it now. "I call her the Mother Teresa of the homeless. She hates that."

Working with her and with Alcoholics Anonymous, he pulled himself together enough to get another job, running a warehouse in New Jersey. He was living independently again.

Again his drinking forestalled a happy ending. He found himself back on the street and confronted a corrosive fear. A friend was stabbed, he said, "and I saw him bleeding out the arm."

It was time, past time, to sit down and sum things up.

"I wasn't getting any younger, and I started losing faith in myself. That's something I never did. I was in Jersey, in another shelter. I'd had a good job for a year that I'd lost because of drinking."

Suddenly, and for the first time, he said, "I didn't feel like the world owed me something." It was a feeling he'd had since his orphanage days.

"I became 'unangry,' if that's a word."

Back at Project Hospitality, Troia "watched me for about a month. Then she made me her aide." He never could stand to stop working for long.

Later, she helped him write his resume.

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