The four Payne brothers in their motorized wheelchairs are a common sight on the streets of Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant -- and Georgetown and Woodley Park. As their grandmother says, "They're always on the go."
On a recent cold, damp day, Mike Payne, 22, sat bundled up at the bus stop outside their home on 11th Street NW, waiting to go to the doctor. A minute later, Eric Payne, 25, passed by, his 6-year-old daughter riding piggyback on his chair, and handed his brother a bus transfer. Inside where it was warm, Charles, 27, was putting on his coat to take "a walk." And LaVaughn, 21, the one they call "the wild man," was out somewhere with a friend.
The brothers all have muscular dystrophy, an inherited and progressive disease in which the muscles of the body gradually waste away. As toddlers and young boys, they were always falling down, their legs too weak to support them. One by one, in their teens, they came to need the wheelchairs. And although they know there is no cure or treatment for the disease and that it eventually weakens the heart, they are happy that they have not been immobilized -- not yet, not by a long shot.
"Sometimes people say to us, 'Y'all are everywhere,' " Charles Payne said proudly. "They'll say, 'I just saw you on the other side of town. How did you get way over here?' "
Every community has its human fixtures, people who become part of the visual landscape, reliably seen time and again. The Payne brothers are some of them, usually traveling in pairs, only rarely as a foursome. Even as their muscles deteriorate, they refuse to become shut-ins, rolling along at a seven-mile-per-hour clip along the sidewalks of their neighborhood and beyond. Sometimes, people stop and ask them why they are in wheelchairs; often, the curious initially mistake them for shooting victims, paralyzed by bullets.
For the brothers, life is measured in small daily triumphs, things they can still do: maneuvering around the U Street/Cardoza Metro station to find a working elevator; going to the store for their grandmother and having someone loop the too-heavy bags onto their chair backs; making it home before the skies break open in a downpour. In their stripped-plain lives, they don't think much about things beyond their control.
"I'm just glad I'm still upright," said Charles, the least shy of the four, knowing that the weakness is spreading relentlessly up his back.
Home for the Paynes is a five-bedroom, government-subsidized apartment in Garfield Terrace, across the street from Cardoza High School, which they share with their grandmother, two aunts and a couple of cousins. The furniture is moved aside to create wide pathways for the wheelchairs. On a dining-room wall is a portrait of Jesus; opposite it, a decorative sign that says, "Lord, Hear Our Prayers." A frosty-white artificial Christmas tree stands in a corner, covered with pastel-colored lights.
The brothers have lived with their grandmother, Ora Gillette, 73, for most of their lives. Their father is dead, they said; their mother lives in Manassas, which is inconvenient for them and their mode of travel.
Gillette, who moved to Washington from South Carolina in 1959, cooks, cleans, washes the clothes and bakes the sweet-potato pies everybody fights over. She talks about her grandsons' problems with a matter-of-factness mixed with a down-home spirituality: God has His reasons for everything, she said.
"It's just something we have to live with -- we have to trust in the Lord," she said. "I remember when Charles was 2 or 3. He was the first one. He would be running around and playing and he'd just fall. He'd start falling more and more. We took him to the doctor and he was diagnosed, and then we took Eric, and then it was LaVaughn, I think, and then Mike.
"The doctors said, the older they get, the weaker they get . . ." she said, trailing off. "I pray for those boys every day and every night."
Muscular dystrophy has been in the public eye for nearly 40 years, thanks to the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethons. Muscular dystrophy is the broad term used to describe a group of about 40 neuromuscular disorders, varying in inheritance patterns, age of onset and speed of progression. The Paynes have the type that is passed on from a mother to male offspring; life expectancy is shortened because of eventual damage to the lungs and heart. Although their only sister, Shanette, has no similar problems, she may, like her mother, be a carrier. The brothers worry about her 8-year-old son. He falls too much, they said.
People who notice the Paynes on their daily rounds may not automatically assume that they are brothers: The family resemblance is not that obvious. Mike is the robust one -- "He's my big eater," Gillette said -- and with his wide grin and baseball cap turned sideways, he has a merry, almost mischievous, appearance.
"I'm good," he protested when his older brothers kidded him about his love of music and nightlife. "I like to have fun -- I'm 22."
LaVaughn bears the brunt of most of the brothers' jokes, however, especially about his free-style, Don King-like hair. His favorite pastime, he said, is playing PlayStation 2.
"This is the wild guy right here," teased Marvin Tomlinson, 22, a friend since childhood who was over fixing scrambled-egg-and-bacon sandwiches for the brothers on a day when their grandmother was not feeling well. "That's the lover right here. You and your ladies, LaVaughn."
Eric, who has shoulder-length braids and a round, open face, is the only brother who was able to get a driver's license -- he has since lost his ability to drive -- and the only one with a child. His daughter, Shadiamond, a first-grader with missing front teeth, lives with her mother but visits often, riding around on her father's chair with a natural ease. Recently baptized, Eric reads the Bible for an hour a day and said he prays for the others to join him in being a Christian.
"I used to be out there doing the regular thing. I used to smoke a lot of marijuana," Eric said. "I was praying to stop, to lose my taste for it, and one day, I just did. I couldn't believe it. So then I started going to church, so God makes me happy now."
Charles, however, may be the most intense of the brothers. None of the four completed high school, but Charles once worked for the IRS for a while, answering telephones. He would like to work again, he said, and he earnestly queries new acquaintances about whether they know of any part-time job openings. His condition is the most advanced; he currently weighs a bony 110 pounds.
"I can still brush my hair and brush my teeth and feed myself," he said. "Most people my age with this disease, they need somebody to help them eat."
Every morning for an hour, home health-care workers assist the brothers with bathing and dressing. Friends help them at other points in the day; the brothers call on their grandmother only as a last resort, they said -- to help them on with their coats, for example.
"Grandma helps us out, but since we are grown men, we let our buddies help us out," Charles said. "That would be too much work on her."
Tomlinson, who lives nearby, is glad to lend a hand, he said. He has thought a lot about the brothers' situation. "Maybe this was God's way of stopping them from doing things they shouldn't do," he said. "It's the ultimate test for them. I do know that if they were on their feet, we wouldn't have taken the time to know each other so well. They've been a big help to me -- I have a short temper, and they have been my guardian angels."
Tomlinson was one of the friends who drove the brothers around in the vehicle they had hoped would bring them even grater mobility: a 15-year-old GMC van they bought in August for $1,500. For two months, they had a grand time, leaving their wheelchairs behind as friends picked them up and strapped them into the passenger seats. They rode throughout the metropolitan area, seeing new sights and trying different takeout food.
But one rainy night on the Capital Beltway, the vehicle died, and despite several efforts, no one has been able to fix it. Just like that, it was back to the wheelchairs exclusively.
Through government programs, each brother gets a new wheelchair every five years. But because they are young and active, the wear and tear comes at an accelerated pace. Mike, for example, has been using LaVaughn's chair a lot lately while his own is getting new tires, but LaVaughn's chair is no prize -- a strip of loose rubber flops around one of the tire rims.
The chairs are good for about 25 miles before they need to be recharged, Charles said. If there is a breakdown, the rider is stranded; none has the upper-body strength to push himself. "Sometimes I wish I wasn't in the chair. Sometimes girls don't want somebody in a chair," said Charles, who goes by wheelchair each weekend to Club U on 14th Street NW or 2K9 on Eighth Street NW to hear go-go music. "But I get phone numbers. I have female friends."
"I do, too," added LaVaughn.
At times, they said, the fact that they are in wheelchairs has led to new experiences and new friends. After Jerome Thomas moved in up the street three months ago, he noticed the flurry of wheelchair activity in the neighborhood.
"I would see them in passing, two of them at a time, and I had no idea they were related," said Thomas, a federal airport screener. "I remember I said to my roommate, 'There are five or six guys in wheelchairs racing up and down the street.' "
Thomas and roommate Nels Olson attend the D.C. Church of Christ, which meets Sundays at nearby Cardoza High School. One evening, they heard someone across the street call for help, and they found LaVaughn with a malfunctioning wheelchair and needing a final push up the hill. After helping him, Thomas and Olson talked to the brothers, and the next Sunday, Eric started going to church. The others also have begun to attend.
"I'm working on my brothers," Eric said.
Charles, for one, said he has been listening.
"Eric says we're not supposed to worry," he said about the future. "We're supposed to put it in God's hands."
For now, he figures, he still gets around.
On a recent cold, raw day, he was getting ready to make a trip to one of his regular haunts, the Chesapeake Deli, a couple of blocks away. Everybody there knows him, and his brothers, too.
Charles Payne touched the controls and rolled lickety-split up the sidewalk. "I do fly past people sometimes," he said. "I like to do that."