“Under no circumstances did I want a ‘normal’ life–a normal, regular, everyday Black life. No way. Being humiliated at work. Paycheck to paycheck. Church on Sundays. Regular clothes. Routine relationships that don’t go nowhere. Absolutely not. Not Miss Doris Payne. I wanted more than that. I wanted nice things. I wanted to travel the world. Normal was not me.”
Miss Doris Payne commanded our full attention at the Decatur Book Festival (DBF 2019). The place was packed as we eagerly await nuggets of insight into her life and career as a notorious jewel thief. She’s a phenomenal woman, graceful and refined, regal and beautiful for 88 years young. The motivation behind Miss Payne’s career left me eager to pick up her book to find out more.
Payne grew up in the segregated Southern US, a coal mining town in West Virginia. She was smart but recognized early in life she wanted independence for herself and vowed to never let a man beat (control) her as she’d seen her father do to her mother; Payne saw her father regularly beat her mother. There was one passage where young Doris takes matters into her own hands to, great her father of her mother. I won’t ruin it but I did think about Al Green. Payne was determined to get her mother away from the abuse and as she said at the book festival, she didn’t care what other people thought. As a young child she figured out a way to snub those who treated her as worthless because of her skin color, a lesson she learned in the store of a Jewish man named Mr. Benjamin. When she saw how he changed in front of a white man, treating her as inferior dismissing her, but forgetting he allowed Doris to try on some watches, Payne gets a glimpse into how she would create and finance the life she wanted.
Miss Payne started small, honing her skills and eventually took on the world in her jewelry heists. As she observed everyday life, shopping at the farmers market with her mother, she saw discovered a very important key to her work as a jewelry thief.
“But I uncovered the keys to getting away with stealing jewels: confusion and familiarity.”
It’s noteworthy too, that Payne had made the right connections, people in positions of authority, judges, the right lawyers, or other involved in some shady business dealings. In this way, Payne would sometimes go through the motion of turning herself in to the police, but it seemed like a mere formality. Because she didn’t have the jewels and there was no proof (security cameras or concrete evidence), her exploits grew by leaps and bounds. She stole a lot of jewelry but because she ‘played the part’ of belonging, being deserving, she could con (confuse) some of the most experienced jewelry clerks. I’m not sure many were ready to admit, they had been robbed by a young, pretty black woman.
Payne had a full and long career, but she spent little time incarcerated over the course of her work. I enjoyed her story but, there felt like some pieces were missing. I’m sure it’s not easy to document the many years of her work, but what bothered me most was the uneven tone/writing of the book. The tone felt unauthentic or maybe a better word, is the tone shifted. Perhaps the co-author made some of what Payne would have said many years ago sound too modern, like something a younger person would say today. Some of the idioms and terminology didn’t feel like something a woman in her late eighties would say, as she tells us her story. Especially since I heard her speak at the book festival too. I expected to hear the authenticity of Miss Payne’s VOICE as well as her exploits. I have a grandmother a little younger than Payne and I tried to imagine the nuances of her speech, being from the same generation as Payne’s, to capture and experience her voice while reading, but it faded in and out.
And there are soooo many instances of the sh** word, I wanted to ask if someone could have done a word search when proofing and used some synonyms because the repetitive use of that word was RIDICULOUS and UNNECESSARY. A few times, sure, but my goodness, I feel sure Payne had a larger vocabulary. I cringed every time it was fired off back to back to back. I asked myself, does Payne and everyone she knows speak this way? I know we can put our best foot forward when we introduce ourselves to someone, but based on the book festival interview, it felt off to me. These things took away from the overall tone of the book for me.
One thing for sure, Payne didn’t “catch a case” that involved her doing any long term jail time. She knew what she wanted, studied her craft and made sure she took care of herself and her family on her terms. I laugh when I think about her saying that, about not catching a case, when someone asked her at the book festival why she didn’t stop her career as she got older. Very sad she lost several family members and friends to cancer.