Fight the Good Fight

In Roy T. Devaney's third-floor room at the Plaza Hotel, at the foot of the unmade bed, is a four-inch-thick book of poetry whose binding has been completely covered with aluminum foil. The sum total of Devaney's published work appears in small print on a crowded page of the vanity-press collection, an ode on John L. Sullivan, the legendary prizefighter:

In 1882, a champion was crowned "In my young life," he said, "I never have been downed."

He was a boastful chap, but good, we must admit
And on sporting records many new ones did he writ
He fought Jack Kilrain in 1889 (75 rounds over two hours was the time) "Listen boys," boasted John, "I'm still in my prime."

Roy T. Devaney is closing in on the end of his own fight. But while Sullivan won his match, years of battling landlords, ex-bosses, and bureaucrats have Devaney about ready to concede defeat. "I'm just too disgusted and fed up with the lot of them," Devaney says. "I knock against the wall and the wall knocks right back at me."

There isn't much room between the walls of Devaney's South Miami Beach apartment. He has a refrigerator but no sink or stove. No closets. No phone. No air conditioning. The bathroom and shower are down the hall. A small black-and-white television set sits atop the fridge, but the reception is lousy, and it only gets a couple of stations. Through a window above his bed, he has a perfect view of the tar-paper roof of the building next door. Taped to the walls of his room are newspaper ads and brochures for trips to Las Vegas and cruises to the Bahamas and Europe. "I love traveling," the confirmed bachelor says. "Maybe next year I'll go somewhere." His present accommodations are by no means deluxe, he admits, but on $480 per month in Social Security, $195 for a room at the hotel at Fifth Street and Meridian Avenue is about all he can afford.

Landlords have long been Devaney's nemesis. "I've never met one I've ever liked," says the retired member of the merchant marine who moved to Florida in 1972 and has been moving from hotel to hotel ever since. "After a while they raise the rent, and you've just got to keep on movin'."

Since being evicted from the Riviera Plaza Apartments in 1988 when the building was closed, Devaney has been trying to reclaim the $100 he put down as a key deposit. (He still has the now-useless keys, which he stores in a small white envelope for safekeeping.) He's also trying to recoup another $115 in rent; when the building was shut down, he was forced to move out in the middle of the month.

Devaney took PSB Properties Management, a subsidiary of the Professional Federal Savings Bank, to small-claims court that year. He prevailed, winning a judgment for $215, plus interest. And he did it without the assistance of a lawyer. "I did it all myself," he says matter-of-factly. That was three years ago. Despite the fact that his claim was legitimate, Devaney is still waiting to collect.

But he didn't give up. He wrote letters to the bank's attorneys and to the judge who heard the case. He telephoned Florida's Department of Banking and Finance, and asked whether a lien could be placed against any of the bank's assets. And he contacted Metro-Dade police to see what it would take to seize some of the bank's properties so they could be sold at auction to pay off the $215 judgment. To no avail.

It seems Devaney sued the wrong people. PSB Properties Management and Professional Federal Savings Bank, it turns out, only had a second mortgage on the building, and they lost that years ago. "He went after the wrong party," says Mike Bleakley, an assistant managing agent for the bank. "We don't own that property." Besides, as an attorney for the bank informed Devaney in a recent letter, PSB Properties Management "has no assets at this time." In fact, Bleakley confirms, the company is in the process of being dissolved.

"I know the best way to describe me," Devaney says. "Frustrated by the powers that be."

But for elevating Devaney's frustration quotient, the key-deposit fight had nothing on the war he waged against the former owners of the Kenmore Hotel. Devaney claims the former owners of the hotel, located at 1050 Washington Ave., owe him thousands of dollars in back pay. For nearly two years, he worked part-time as a night clerk. For his labors, he was paid $25 cash per shift. On February 3, 1991, the day before his 65th birthday, Devaney was told that the hotel had been sold and the new owners would no longer require his services.

That's when Devaney got the idea he should have been paid minimum wage for his ten-hour shifts at the Kenmore. With the notion firmly entrenched in his mind, Devaney unleashed a torrent of paper on officials from here to Washington, D.C. He wrote repeatedly to the U.S. Department of Labor, and he sent letters to the state Department of Labor and Employment Security. He notified state Sen. Jack Gordon and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. He requested legal help from the Florida Bar. He contacted the media, dispatching oddly bundled copies of his correspondence in large envelopes, complete with handwritten commentary - "The Establishment Sucks!" - at the bottom.

And his persistence paid off - to a point. A few months ago, after the U.S. Department of Labor received a letter from Ros-Lehtinen asking why no one had responded to her constituent's request for action, two investigators came knocking on the door of the Kenmore's former owner. They demanded that Norman Schwartz open his financial records for their perusal, or else they'd come back with a subpoena.

"Needless to say, it scared the shit out of me," says Devaney's ex-boss. "He's malicious. He just won't stop. He goes after everybody," Schwartz adds, with what sounds like a mixture of paranoia and annoyance. "You always get this feeling he's out to get you. I think he enjoys this game. It's the pursuit."

Devaney's claims against the Kenmore and Schwartz were rejected by each investigation, on the grounds that the hotel falls into a category of businesses that do not have to pay minimum wage to all employees. But Devaney kept on plugging, seeking out new people to enlist in his quest for justice. Letters and court documents are stored in cracker boxes scattered around his apartment. A copy of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1936 sits on the floor under a table, amid assorted legal papers and a half-empty bottle of gin.

"You've got to write somebody," explains Devaney, who admits that, physically, he hasn't been quite the same since he contracted the Hong Kong flu 23 years ago. "I'm allowed the privilege of at least bitching. I've got that.