Jacquie.

 

As she loses her sight, she wonders whether she will lose her independence. And she reconciles the dreams she has for herself with what she has actually accomplished.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Losing Sight, Gaining Vision

Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo

 

PART 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 -

Jacquie Murdock has been looking forward to this day for months.

 

Tonight is the annual benefit concert for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Jacquie works with the education department and feels close to the museum’s mission, as a jazz aficionado and lifelong dancer who grew up in Harlem and once danced in the Apollo Theater during its heyday. Jacquie managed to get an invitation to the VIP pre-concert reception and is excited to hear jazz singer Dianne Reeves and saxophonist Joe Lovano (both Grammy-Award winners) perform.

 

But today, the morning of the concert, Jacquie wakes up in her Greenwich Village apartment with intense anxiety. She is feeling vulnerable and uneasy.

"I have good days and bad days and today is a bad day."

 

She has been under much stress recently. For the past 40 years, Jacquie has lived in NYU subsidized housing (a benefit from her past NYU career). For the past five years, she has lived packed in a one-room studio apartment in NYU’s Washington Square Village complex with her daughter and granddaughter. Her lease is almost up and her rent will be increasing to $1,300 a month. She is not sure how she will be able to afford the increase, the third in five years.

 

She’s also unhappy about changes that are happening to her complex. The half-century-old Sasaki Garden, an oasis of trees, flowers and benches situated between two of the buildings that comprise Washington Square Village, is slated to be demolished in line with NYU’s expansion plan. A building will be erected in its place. Jacquie has spent hours in the garden listening to songbirds and finding refuge from the dense cityscape. NYU has also scheduled contractors to come in to replace windows in the building to make them stronger. Jacquie suspects it’s so they don’t break with the future construction.

 

"It’s so heartbreaking," she says.

 

The state of her eyesight is also causing her stress. Jacquie is legally blind and lost all sight in her left eye 15 years ago from glaucoma and cataracts. Changes to the environment - from the unpredictable daily weather conditions of New York City to florescent lighting in an office building - make the state of her sight a constantly changing unknown. A dismal cloudy day to some is a gift to Jacquie. The shade allows her to see well out of her good eye. A sunny gorgeous day literally blinds her.

 

"It’s just white. I see the shadows of people but I don’t see their features. They could be my family and I wouldn’t know. It’s like a shadow, a negative," she says.

She noticed recently that her bad eye has mysteriously turned from hazel to blue. She has put off going to the eye doctor since last fall. "He’s going to be very mad at me. I got sick with my heart and just couldn’t deal with any other doctors."

 

In addition to her vision loss, Jacquie, 84, has also been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, emphysema and some hearing loss. She is determined not to let her health issues dictate her life and she does not want to miss the concert. Getting out of her apartment everyday gives her purpose and keeps her going - whether it is to run to the bank or to attend a dance rehearsal in Harlem or to go to her church in Chinatown.

 

With great anticipation, Jacquie picked out the outfit she is going to wear days ago. It’s a floor-length cream, orange and brown wild-patterned dress with gold threads woven throughout, a large crystal necklace, four-inch long dangly earrings, and a leopard fake-fur coat. She finishes the outfit with black flat sandals. No high heels for her. "I never wear them anymore. They’re not good for you anyway. When you get to my age you don’t give a damn."

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It’s 5 p.m. and Jacquie is dressed and ready to head uptown.

 

The concert is being held at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College at E. 68th Street, and the reception will be across the street beforehand.

 

Jacquie generally feels confident navigating the familiar sidewalks. Her decades of dance are evident in the fluidity of her movement and in her posture, the extension of her long limbs and neck.

 

What she dreads is crossing the busy city streets. Using her cane to feel the clear street in front of her, she makes her way off the curb and onto the street, praying all the way and hustling across as fast as she can.

 

"I just hope I never get hit by a car. That’s my number one fear," she says.

She wishes the city would lengthen the traffic lights.

 

"The lights change too fast," she says. "I have gotten caught in the middle. That’s why I don’t follow people."

 

Jacquie uses the abundance of people in the city to her advantage, often relying on the kindness of strangers to help her get around.

 

"I ask people ‘Are you crossing? Can I cross with you?’ Usually they’ll say ‘Sure, take my arm’ and that’s the only thing I do if I don’t think I can cross by myself."

A nine-block walk later, Jacquie is at the Astor Place subway station on the 6 line. The Bleecker Street station is significantly closer to her apartment, but Jacquie never takes it. She finds comfort and safety in the familiar and the Astor Place stop was what she would take when she lived in her prior apartment. Besides, she considers the Bleecker Street stop to be dangerous.

 

"Not too long ago a 20-year-old was pushed off the platform by a homeless man. Imagine me without sight standing on that platform. It’s dark. Astor place is well lit, the lady in the window knows me. I love familiar places."

 

Recently, she was on the subway headed to a Duke Ellington Society meeting at Woodlawn Cemetery, the final resting place of the musician. She exited the train, at an unfamiliar stop, and realized she was on an elevated platform. She couldn’t see very well and was terrified of falling off.

 

"I was petrified," she says. "I said, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, I’m up here!’ When it’s [open on] two sides and you can’t see, that’s when you’re really scared.

Fortunately a man noticed her distress and offered to walk her to the staircase. Jacquie says she is often approached by strangers who either want to comment on her distinctive outfits or recognize her from "Advanced Style," a documentary and fashion blog of the same name which highlights stylish elders. She loves these conversations and it’s one of the many ways she fulfills her need for social connection.

 

The man walked her down the staircase and she made it safely to her destination. "God sends me guardian angels wherever I go."

 

She says she is reluctantly considering filling out an application for Access-A-Ride. She takes pride in her ability to navigate the subway system as a native New Yorker and her independence is extremely important to her. But it’s becoming a struggle to navigate the streets of New York alone as she ages.

"It’s getting harder for me to come out," Jacquie admits.

 

Jacquie makes her way down the steps at Astor Place, using the banister as a guide. She walks to the turnstile and swipes her reduced-fare Metrocard. She waits at the platform for the 6 train, and it comes quickly. Once on the train a young man in a gray suit pops up from his seat and offers it to her. Jacquie says this happens often. She graciously accepts and settles in.

 

The train halts at Hunter College, a stop Jacquie uses frequently. She exists the train and the turnstile, but somehow ends up at the steps of an unfamiliar exit. The sunlight is filtering in making it impossible for her to see. Confused, she accidentally grabs a nearby 20-something’s arm. The girl swirls around and instantly recognizes her. "You’re from that movie! It was a great documentary." Rattled, Jacquie doesn’t seem to hear her. She turns around frantically, searching for the exit.

 

She finds her way above ground and after a few beats regains her composure.

"This is my usual stop. I don’t know why I was so confused," she says.

 

She waits at a traffic light as she tries to figure out what buildings the reception and concert will be in, when a volunteer at the Jazz Museum, Robin, recognizes her, takes her arm and walks her across the street. Robin is not going to the reception but points out where the events will be held.

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Jacquie enters the lobby where the party is already in full swing.

 

Servers, clad in black, are weaving in and out of the packed crowd, carrying trays of champagne and hors d’oeuvres. The line for the buffet table dripping with cheese and crackers, crudités and a multitude of rich desserts is 30 people deep and wrapping around the edge of the room. The young jazz trio up front can barely be heard over the buzz of the room.

 

"This why I don’t like crowds," says Jacquie of the challenge of navigating the room without being able to see well. "I feel like getting my wine and going in the corner."

 

She scans the crowd for people she knows from the Jazz Museum but with her limited sight can’t see very well. She kisses some acquaintances hello, and has a hearty conversation with the night’s honoree, jazz bassist Reggie Workman. Pleasantries done, she finds an empty seat at the perimeter of the room and sits with a glass of red wine until it’s time to go. On her way out a photographer stops her and asks to take some photos. Ever the show biz professional, Jacquie instantly switches on and smiles and poses for the camera.

 

After a few minutes, she makes her way across the street to the concert venue, following the crowd. She is displeased to see that she’s seated in the balcony. There is no elevator upstairs. She’s concerned about climbing the dozens of steps needed to reach her assigned seat and the stress it might cause her heart. Without any other choice she climbs the steps, one by one until she’s at the balcony entrance, only to realize she now has to climb down a dozen more to get to her seat.

 

Jacquie sits down, fatigued. She recognizes another museum volunteer, Marlene, sitting next to her, and they chat. When Marlene starts coughing Jacquie kindly offers her a cracker, and says she wishes she had water to give her. Marlene thanks her and the music begins.

 

During the concert a blonde women of about 40 says "excuse me" several times as she tries to exit Jacquie’s row not seeming to consider or care that the older women seated in front of her might not be able to see or hear her. As Jacquie fails to hear her, she grows visibly impatient and aggressively huffs past when Jacquie finally responds.

 

Jacquie has no time to reflect on the women’s negative demeanor. Jazz singer Dianne Reeves is announced to the stage and Jacquie settles in as the sound of the soulful singer fills the air.

 

PART 2

Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo

Never Too Late for a Dream

Part 1 - PART 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5Part 6 -

It is a balmy Friday evening. The crowd at Local 802 is restless for the night’s entertainment to begin.

 

Jazz musicians and aficionados have gathered to celebrate pianist Reynold "Zeke" Mullins’ 90th birthday.

 

Jacquie Murdock’s health has been inconsistent and unpredictable lately, but she didn’t want to miss what she hopes will be a spectacular night of music. A crowd of about 100 pack into the austere club room decorated with red and black balloons. Local 802 American Federation of Musicians is the home base of one of the largest local unions of professional musicians in the world. Musicians throughout New York City drop in weekly to improvise together at their popular jazz jam nights.

 

Jacquie doesn’t know the birthday boy personally, but she knows many others in the audience, dressed in a mix of bright colors and suits and fedoras in honor of Zeke. Many are old-time musicians and dancers, their lives intertwining frequently at events such as this, giving them a dependable sense of community and camaraderie. Jacquie dresses up, as usual. Tonight she carefully applied her makeup, slipped on a long, lipstick red dress, and pinned her customary flower in her hair. She sits up front, right next to the stage as people mill about around her conversing.

 

Jacquie invited her friend Arlene to come with her, hoping they could make the trip from Greenwich Village to Midtown together. Arlene couldn’t commit and said maybe she’d meet her there. Disappointed but resolute, Jacquie traveled from the Village via C train alone.

 

Jacquie glances around, wondering if Arlene has made it yet and why the music hasn’t started. She has also brought a birthday card for Zeke but she doesn’t know how to get it to him. Because of tonight’s lighting and her vision, Jacquie can’t see.

 

Finally, the sound of a saxophone being tuned fills the air. A piano gives a chord and the snare of a drum reverberates through the room. Jacquie gets lost in the music.

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Jacquie was born in Harlem during the Great Depression to Edward Templeton Campbell, the son of a Scottish plantation owner and a Jamaican mother, and Icilda DeCosta, the daughter of a Cuban school teacher and Jamaican mother.

 

In 1920, they immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba. Jacquie was born in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Jacquie says her parents, whom she adored, shielded her from the harsh realities of the times.

 

She has great memories of growing up in the city.

 

"Girls jump roping and playing hide and seek. Boys hitting the ball," she says. "It was more innocent before TV came. You only had a radio. I used to sit on the rocking chair and visualize and choreograph myself while listening to the music."

 

Like many New Yorkers, Jacquie dreamed of pursuing her ambition—dancing—despite objections from her parents.

 

"I told my dad I wanted to be a dancer. That was like telling him I wanted to stand on the street corner," Jacquie said. "I was born with a dancer’s spirit."

 

One of Jacquie’s proudest moments was when she danced as a chorus girl with the Norma Miller Dancers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the age of 17, during the theater’s heyday.

 

Jacquie’s boyfriends and later, her husband, were not supportive of her dancing. And eventually, Jacquie found herself newly divorced and newly pregnant. Even though she went on to work a full-time day job at New York University, she held on to her dream of being a performer for decades, traveling in social circles with musicians, dancers and other artists, meticulously picking out her clothing every day and attending dance classes regularly.

 

Her preparedness and patience paid off most generously in the last few years. Jacquie was walking in Union Square a few years ago when she was approached by the photographer of the blog, Advanced Style, which highlights stylish elders. He asked to photograph her, and Jacquie agreed. He put her in his blog, and book. A documentary of the same name followed, along with an appearance for Jacquie on The Today Show.

 

As a result of the attention, at the the age of 82, she was selected to model for French luxury fashion house Lanvin in an international campaign shot by fashion photographer Steven Meisel at a photo shoot in Chelsea. Dressed in an emerald green peplum dress and long dangling earrings, with her hair swept up in a tight french chignon, she portrayed an elegant lady inside a opulent apartment. From a young age she had wanted to go to Paris and model. "I was just a little girl with a dream. It came late but it came true."

 

Jacquie says she is frequently stopped on the street, sometimes because people recognize her from Advanced Style, sometimes because they want to compliment her on her outfit, and other times just to see if she needs help crossing the street.

 

Despite the challenge of limited vision -- Jacquie has become legally blind in the last decade from glaucoma and cataracts -- she leads an active life. She typically travels alone to several different neighborhoods each week to go to dance rehearsals, jazz concerts, events and to run errands. She relies on public transit, the occasional taxi and the arms and eyes of her fellow New Yorkers to get her where she needs to go.

 

Jacquie is fiercely independent and she is ambitious. She has a list of things she wants to accomplish before her sight deteriorates further or before more ailments strike.

 

She wants to model again. She wants to finish writing her autobiography and give lectures at college campuses. She wants to travel to Paris, Cuba, and Africa.

 

"I don’t want to [give up]. Once I lose my spirit that’s when you give up the ghost," Jacquie says. "I’m a fighter, a survivor, no matter how hard it gets I want to keep going."

 

She credits dance and her busy life with giving her purpose. "I think it’s the exercise and doing what you love," she says. "Some people just want to sit down. They’re not into anything and just watch TV, and say ‘I’m old’ and that’s it."

 

In addition to the blindness and some hearing loss, Jacquie also suffers from atrial fibrillation and emphysema. She fainted on the subway early this year and ended up in the hospital. She worries about overdoing it and wearing out her heart.

 

Despite her vision impairment, Jacquie hasn’t been to her ophthalmologist in months because she’s been overwhelmed with medical appointments for her heart along with fatigue and weight loss from over exerting herself last year during the publicity period for the Advanced Style documentary.

 

"It’s a lot that I’ve been dealing with. I just let it go," she says. She still has a supply of eye drops that she used in both eyes and plans on making an appointment soon.

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The party for Zeke at Local 802 is in full swing and Arlene is still nowhere to be found.

 

Jacquie doesn’t seem to notice. She seems transfixed by the Harlem Blue and Jazz Band - composed of many older jazz musicians. They move through "Take the A Train," "When the Saints Go Marching In," and "What a Wonderful World."

 

In the next number, a women in a bright pink shalwar kameez picks up her Veena, a stringed instrument originating in ancient India, and plucks the beginning chord of "Amazing Grace."

 

Jacquie closes her eyes, taking in the melody. It’s one of her favorite songs.

 

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.

 

She sings quietly along, swaying her head as if in a trance.

 

"Beautiful. Beautiful." Jacquie says when the song comes to a close. "I’ve never heard it played that way."

 

Al Vollmer, founder of the Harlem Blue and Jazz Band, jumps on stage, breaking the moment, and reminds the crowd that there is much to get to. He calls Zeke up to the stage and presents him with a plaque and citation of merit from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Zeke shyly accepts and exits the stage.

 

Just below stage right, a younger man stacks two green school chairs on top of each other. He helps 100-year-old jazz saxophonist Fred Stanton onto the top chair and hands him his tenor sax.

 

Jazz vocalist Ruth Brisbane sings Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” from the stage as Fred plays the melody from the floor, right in sync. The crowd cheers enthusiastically. 

 

Jacquie is eager to get a photo with the legendary saxophonist during the party.

 

She knows the circle of musicians and aficionados loosely – some, like her tablemate Burt, are good friends, while others are friends of friends. Jacquie has lost many friends over the years, including one of her closest friends last year. She purposely surrounds herself with regular acquaintances as a way to buffer daily challenges, stay mentally sharp through critiques and conversation and avoid isolation.

 

"We are all social human beings. We need to connect with other people," she says.

 

Having an active social life, surrounded by fellow dancers, musicians and aficionados, supports her passion, forces her to stay physically active and gives her a sense of community. Seeing other people of her generation live so actively gives her drive.

 

"We have something in common. We all have a passion for that artistic thing—dance, music, art. You have something to talk about."

 

Jacquie chats briefly with the singer, Ruth, before the band plays another set.

"The only thing I don’t like is I don’t have a guy to dance with. We could get up [right now] and do the Lindy," says Jacquie.

Deep into the band’s set, Arlene finally arrives. They barely chat before the band switches to a roaring rendition of "Happy Birthday" and a large candle-filled cake is presented to Zeke.

After a few more songs, and to Jacquie’s regret, the party draws to a close.

 

"They were excellent. Any time you get an older musician, they will be better because they’ve worked with the best. They’ve worked with the masters," she says.

 

Jacquie immediately switches gears and sets out to find Zeke, the birthday boy, and Fred, the saxophonist.

 

Jacquie clutches the birthday card she’s brought for Zeke and a tear sheet from her page in the "Advanced Style" book, the way she prefers to introduce herself.

 

Today, Jacquie’s sight and the room’s lighting allows her to see the stage but not specific people.

"Where is he?" she asks into the air, searching for Zeke. "Where is he?"

 

With help from others, she eventually finds them both. She delivers her card to Zeke who is caught in a crowd of other well-wishers, and she poses for a photo with Fred.

People begin leaving the party. Jacquie searches for Arlene, who she expects will help her get home, but Arlene seems to have rushed ahead. Jacquie has trouble navigating the mess of discarded chairs and tables. 

 

A women stops her. She’s a photojournalist and asks Jacquie if she can take her photo at a later date. Jacquie hesitates—she’s distracted looking for Arlene and the exit—but agrees and gives the women her phone number.

 

Jacquie finally finds Arlene in the lobby of the building and they exit. Still unable to see very well, Jacquie relies on and follows Arlene’s disappearing figure through the night, ahead of her.

PART 3

 

Living on a fixed income, in style

Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo

Part 1 - Part 2 - PART 3 - Part 4 - Part 5Part 6 -

It is a typical morning for Jacquie Murdock.

 

She stands in her tiny Greenwich Village bathroom, bent over the mirror, rimming her eyes with the gray eyeliner she bought at the local drugstore. The smell of coffee wafts from the coffee maker.

 

"I wouldn’t go out without eye make up," she says.

 

A born and bred Manhattanite, Jacquie has survived 84 years in New York City—arguably the most expensive city in the nation—as a dancer, by being smart and resourceful.

 

Eyes complete, Jacquie picks up her curling iron and twirls the hot wand around small sections of her shoulder length mane.

 

"I dye my own hair. Revlon black dye."

 

She used to get it dyed at her salon but decided to cut the expense. She keeps her strands soft and silky with her secret weapon—two buck, drugstore staple Dax.

 

"While my hair is wet, I put Dax in. When it’s dry, it’s smooth."

 

A swipe of lipgloss follows, also a drugstore find. Meticulous with her appearance, Jacquie doesn’t believe that one needs to spend a lot to look good. Except for the foundation she swears by, from friend and cosmetic founder Arlene Hawkins, she isn’t picky about brands.

 

"You don’t have to pay a lot to look good," she says. "I have the eye for something different and special and it may not cost a lot."

 

Jacquie walks out of the bathroom and into the main room of her apartment. She opens the doors to her large wardrobe, which holds dozens of outfits and accessories and takes up a decent portion of the studio she shares with her daughter and granddaughter. She surveys her many options, most bought on sale and at thrift stores, some 40 years old: a robins egg blue tweed jacket she purchased at Courage b, a boutique on the Upper East Side; an orange tweed dress and matching jacket from Paris; a yellow, green and gold outfit that she had handmade in Harlem with fabric from Nigeria; a red handmade and heavily beaded jacket she picked up in Chinatown for about $20 years ago.

 

Jacquie lives a quintessential New York life, usually spending more time out of her apartment than in it. She typically attends multiple events and concerts around the city each week. Uptown she attends dance class twice weekly and sometimes works at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Downtown she runs errands in her neighborhood and travels to Chinatown to attend church.

 

She believes in dressing up both for events and daily life—"I’ll never be caught dead in jeans"—and cites her ample closet as a money saver.

 

"I can reach in my closet and find something," she says. "I’m not going to run out and buy a dress [for an event]."

 

Like many New Yorkers, Jacquie also struggles with finding the balance of how to enjoy the city to the fullest while living within her means. She’s on a fixed income, even as costs around her increase. Recently her rent went up, the third increase in five years. She supports her daughter and granddaughter and is extremely worried. She has a pension from her former job at New York University and receives social security but is unable to save. "I’m just keeping my head above water," she says.

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Born in Harlem during the Great Depression, Jacquie wanted to be a dancer from an early age.

 

Knowing how difficult a route that could be, her parents saved up money for her to go to college, but Jacquie couldn’t ignore her dreams.

 

By age 15 she had learned to dance and her career eventually took her to venues all over the city and the world, including the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem during its heyday.

 

As a young dancer Jacquie quickly noticed that dancers rarely received the fame and money that came with being a singer or movie star. They were often paid little. Performers would throw benefits for each other when they fell ill because they had no other way to pay their hospital bills.

 

"I said, is this what this business is like? That’s why I always took in-between jobs. I liked to always have money in my pocket."

 

Over the years Jacquie took a variety of side jobs to supplement her creative ambitions. As a teen she worked in a factory packing dolls and later in one that made American Indian hats for kids.

 

"All day long it was zoom, zoom, zoom, sewing the feathers. Feathers would be flying everywhere."

 

She worked as a waitress, which she hated, and later as a typist in the executive offices of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which she loved.

 

At the age of 40, she found herself newly pregnant and newly divorced without a reliable source of income.

 

"I was devastated," she says. "I did not know what to do. I was four months pregnant and an agent sent my picture to Canada to dance but because of my pregnancy I couldn’t do it."

 

She realized she needed full-time, stable employment and took a job as an administrative assistant in the computer science department at NYU. For 33 years she worked at NYU, dancing on the weekends and during vacations. She took advantage of NYU’s tuition program and earned three degrees while working full-time. As perks of her NYU career, she has a pension, lives in discounted NYU faculty housing and is on their healthcare plan. But living in Greenwich Village isn’t cheap and it’s growing increasingly difficult to make ends meet. She’s never been in debt and wants to keep it that way.

 

She often meets young creative types on the streets of New York and always encourages them to have a backup plan.

 

"I would advise them to get something else besides just dance. Take up something else where you can have a career you can count on," she says.

It’s a hot, bright summer day and Jacquie is in the middle of running her usual errands in the Village.

 

The intensity of the sun is making it difficult for her to see. She passes by her bank, Citibank, where she stops in almost daily.

 

"I have to stay on top of what’s in my checking account."

 

She is dressed for the weather in a breezy yet elegant pink dress with mauve polka dots that cinches at the waist. Gold bracelets and a few rings adorn her wrists and hands.

 

As she turns the corner, a 20-something women clad in yoga wear jogs up to her.

 

"I know you!" she says, recognizing Jacquie from Advanced Style, the documentary and blog she was featured in which celebrates stylish elders. "You look beautiful."

 

Jacquie thanks her and they chat briefly about about her outfit, Jacquie’s dance career and the joys of New York.

 

"God bless. It was so nice running into you to tell you how much I enjoyed you," she says as she dashes off.

 

Jacquie resumes her walk on La Guardia Place, but is soon interrupted by hunger. She hasn’t eaten all day and it’s past 2 p.m. She decides to stop into the Silver Spurs diner for a quick, rare bite out. Jacquie has always preferred cooking at home but has eaten out even less since her favorite restaurants raised their prices. She chooses a tuna fish sandwich—extra mayo—and a coffee.

 

Mid-meal, she reaches into her tote bag for the $20 she intends to pay the bill with. She can’t find it and grows increasingly worried that she has dropped it somewhere.

 

"I lose money all the time," she says.

 

After a few panicked moments, her hand finds the bill at the bottom of her bag.

 

Relieved, Jacquie goes back outside to continue her errands. She’s en route to the local Morton Williams supermarket to pick up a few ingredients for dinner, an errand she shares with her daughter. Pedestrians, bicyclists and yellow cabs zoom by at varying speeds.

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Despite the high cost and challenges of city life, Jacquie has never lived anywhere else.

 

"You can walk the streets of New York and it’s so exciting. There are so many things to do. There are so many free things to do."

 

Jacquie maintains a strong group of dancer and musician friends and often hears about events through them. She regularly searches the internet for free and cheap things to do in New York.

 

Recently she heard about a DanceBrazil performance that she wanted to attend at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea. She went to the box office to inquire.

 

"They said tickets were $35 and $55 and I said, ‘eh.’"

 

She was ready to walk out, but not wanting to lose a sale, they found an $11 ticket, discounted because of its front row location right next to the drum section. Jacquie pounced on the cheaper ticket. They even offered to throw in some earplugs.

 

"I said it won’t bother me because the drums are my favorite instrument," she says. "The drum to me is the heartbeat."

 

Jacquie uses the same sensibility when traveling. Despite the challenges of being legally blind, she typically chooses the subway over taxis, and if she has to take a cab somewhere, she’ll often take the train part of the way to cut down on the cost. Instead of shopping in pricey lower Manhattan, she’ll travel to cheaper neighborhoods to buy big-ticket items. Right now, she’s planning a trip to East Harlem to look for a new daybed.

 

Jacquie continues down La Guardia Place and stops when the bright aqua hue of a dress on a mannequin outside a shop catches her eye.

 

"I need clothes like a hole in my head," she jokes as she stops to gingerly rub the fabric between her fingers. "That’s my thing. I like to look nice. I’m a fashionista."

 

Jacquie hasn’t treated herself to anything in awhile, and the color is pretty—but she releases the fabric, deciding against the impulse buy and resumes walking down the sidewalk.

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Jacquie arrives at Morton Williams.

 

She crosses the lot and walks toward the entrance.

The automatic doors spring open. She steps into the cool air conditioning, a welcome relief from the 85-degree outside air. Unfortunately the bright intense sun has just been replaced with bright florescent lights and Jacquie’s sight is still minimal. She reaches down to grab a bright red shopping basket off the top of the stack.

 

Jacquie moves down the aisle of brightly colored carrots, celery and corn searching for the row of cabbages. She is looking for a green cabbage but can’t make out the differences between the green and savoy. She choses one and places it in her basket.

 

She easily selects a bunch of bananas, its shape distinct, and places it in her basket.

 

She turns to the nearby potato section in search of a sweet potato.

 

She grabs a spud but unsure, calls out to a man nearby.

 

"Excuse me. Is this a sweet potato? I can’t see."

 

He confirms that it is and she places two in her basket.

 

Jacquie navigates past the aisles named after local streets (Sullivan, Thompson, Greene) and ends up at the meat display.

 

She searches for a package of chicken wings but her hands find a pricier package of chicken breasts first. She feels the smooth shape of the flesh through the plastic wrap and knows it’s not right. Her hands quickly find the bumps that designate wings and she places them in her basket.

 

She looks for pork next but the generally smooth shape of the cuts are a challenge. She picks up a package of spare ribs and stares at it, struggling to make out the store printed label with small, thin font. She puts it down and picks up a few more before she finds the desired chops. She checks the price, the numbers fortunately bolded and larger, and decides it’s too much. She’s fine with the chicken.

 

A stop for milk and juice follow and Jacquie makes her way to the register to pay.

 

A jug of milk, cranberry juice, bananas, two sweet potatoes, a cabbage and the package of chicken wings go on the belt. Jacquie has stuck to her shopping list. A young cashier begins ringing. She almost overcharges Jacquie for a pricer savoy cabbage but Jacquie corrects her. She waits in anticipation to hear the finally tally, and is pleased when it comes in under budget.

 

She swipes her credit card through the reader, collects her bags and makes her way out of the store, with thoughts of dinner already on her mind.

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PART 4

 

Finishing my Assignment Down Here

Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - PART 4 - Part 5Part 6 -

Jacquie Murdock, 84, has been dancing her entire life.

 

It’s just past 11 a.m. on a Thursday, which means that Jacquie is in a small room on the second floor of the Beatrice Lewis Senior Center in Harlem beginning warm-up exercises with her class. Jacquie works out twice a week with the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, a senior dance troupe composed of professional and amateur dancers in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

 

Men and women in leg warmers, leotards, baggy T-shirts and dance shoes move their bodies in rhythm to the Indian music playing on a CD player and stare in concentration at the instructor who demonstrates from the front of the room.

 

"Demi. Straight up. Demi. Straight up. Two. Straight up. Three. Straight up," calls out the instructor.

 

Jacquie’s legs rise and fall just a hair behind the instructor’s words. The intense concentration is evident in her face.

 

"Point, close. Point, close. Plie." says the instructor.

 

Jacquie stands in the back of the room, clothed in a pink "I Love New York" T-shirt, cream colored sweatpants, and a pink and white Nikki Minaj trucker hat which she picked up at Kmart.

 

She is grateful to have a free class to practice in, but the room is a challenge. Jacquie lost most of her sight 15 years ago from glaucoma and cataracts and is legally blind. She can sometimes see out of her right eye, depending on lighting conditions.

 

Today is a lost cause. The bright sun streams through the windows that make up an entire wall, blinding her with an intense glare. Two other walls are filled with mirrors. They are helpful for checking one’s dance form, but horrible for Jacquie’s sight. She is accosted by light or the reflection of light from multiple angles.

 

"I can’t see with the sun. The glare from the sun is just impossible," Jacquie says.

 

She’s frustrated but is adapting. She has positioned herself in the back of the room so that she can follow the form of a dancer in front of her. Jacquie can’t see the woman’s features but can make out a shadowy foot.

 

This is not her favorite position to be in; Jacquie dislikes being in the back of any room.

 

"I was on a mission from an early age to be recognized," she says.

 

Jacquie was born in 1930 in Harlem to a middle-class family and grew up idolizing the glamorous Hollywood stars Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner.

 

"They weren’t just beautiful. They were strong career women and I said when I grow up, I’m gonna be like that."

 

She dreamed of being in show business. Jacquie’s affinity for glamour, paired with her love of music, made a career in dance seem attractive.

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Jacquie was barely five years old when she announced to her parents that she wanted to be a dancer.

 

Horrified, they tried to distract her by giving her piano lessons. It didn’t work. They tried sewing lessons but it only fueled her passion for fashion.

 

Naturally tall, she dreamed of running off to Paris to be a runway model but didn’t want to disappoint her parents by leaving. She realized that she already lived in one of the most exciting cities in the world, where countless performers reached their goals.

 

"I was just a little girl from Harlem with a dream. I used to say I was going to be somebody. I didn’t know then that I already was somebody," Jacquie says confidently.

 

Jacquie sees herself as a star—"a celebrity"—and won’t let anyone tell her otherwise.

 

An artist friend and admirer created and gifted her with a life-size mannequin of her stage persona, "Tajah." It stands in her foyer, dressed in an elegant black evening gown, dripping with jewels. It is a constant reminder of the dreams she has accomplished and the fame she still reaches for.

 

Jacquie has had personal and professional success, including raising daughter Pat and son Michael, and dancing in venues all over the world, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem during its heyday.

 

But she’s also had failures. At age 40, her marriage crumbled. Desperately needing money, she wanted her agent to book her for dancing gigs but couldn’t because of her pregnancy.

 

"I had a new baby. I was broke. It was the worst year of my life."

 

Her dreams of dancing had to make room for a new 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job as an administrative assistant in New York University’s computer science department. But she embraced it and adapted by continuing to dance on the weekends and during holidays.

 

Throughout her life Jacquie always dressed up for the glamorous life she envisioned for herself, never wearing jeans or "ordinary" outfits.

 

She was—and still is—frequently stopped on the streets by admirers of her distinctive outfits.

 

Knowing the strength of self-promotion (and with no agent) she always introduces herself as: "the legendary dancer from the Apollo" and often carries promotional materials. She wants to build a website but without the technical skills and with limited sight, the project has been stalled. She’s talked about signing up for extra acting work in movies but hasn’t actively pursued it.

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Jacquie got a break at age 80 when a photographer from the blog Advanced Style, which celebrates stylish older people, spotted her walking in Union Square and asked to take her photograph.

 

"I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘I have a website for stylish elders.’ I said, ‘Yes, but I’m a professional and I’m a legendary dancer from the Apollo Theater and if you use my picture without my permission I could sue you.’ I then told him that the jacket I was wearing was from Paris, and I just threw my hands up in the air and said, "Ta dah!,’ and he started taking pictures."

 

A 2012 book and 2014 documentary of the same name followed, as well as media promotions, including an appearance on The Today Show. Jacquie soaked it up, pushing herself as much as she physically could. In May 2014, she self-financed a trip to London for Advance Style’s London premiere.

 

"I have to leave my legacy," she says.

 

Meanwhile, Alber Elbaz, of the French fashion house Lanvin, was looking to cast "regular" people in his ad campaign, and Jacquie was on his radar. Before she knew it, she was in a Chelsea studio wearing an emerald peplum dress and trying to balance in high heels. The photos were unveiled in July. In October, Kim Kardashian wore the same green dress from Lanvin; Jacquie thinks it was because of her influence.

 

Photographs of Jacquie soon appeared in Marie Claire (Hong Kong) and she was interviewed by the German, British and Russian media. She was in early talks to do a makeover reality show, but it was never made.

 

The fame never materialized into much financially—she wasn’t paid for Advanced Style and wasn’t paid much for the Lanvin campaign—but she tries to think of the publicity as currency.

 

"It’s ok. I got the international recognition. I have a lot of fans out there," she says.

 

Jacquie had hoped to book more modeling jobs after the Lanvin spot, but hasn’t been able to parlay it into more recent gigs. At the beginning of 2015 she adds "find a modeling agent" to her list of goals. By mid-year, with other priorities on her mind, she’s let that dream go.

 

For the past few years Jacquie has been writing her autobiography, on-and-off, but put it on the back burner for Advanced Style and the Lanvin campaign. She also hit technical issues. Because of her sight, writing on the computer is difficult. She got speech recognition software a few years ago, but finds it inaccurate. She prefers to write on a typewriter but doesn’t have one.

 

As she creeps closer to 85, the realization that she may not have much time left in this world upsets her. She’s at peace with dying, but not without completing her book, her legacy. It’s given her a deep sense of urgency.

 

She plans to self-publish it through NYU’s bookstore. She hopes to travel to college campuses to share her story and inspire young people to follow their dreams.

 

"I was just a little girl from Harlem with a dream. It came late but it came true."

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"Move those arms! Hip. Hip. Keep going. There you go," says the dance instructor.

 

The dancers are now congregated on the right side of the room with the Black Eyed Peas’ "I’ve Gotta Feeling" beating through the room. They move across the floor, arms outstretched, rolling their hips as they alternate tapping and stepping with their right foot and then left foot. Jacquie is up last. She moves across the floor gracefully but with some stiffness.

 

"Can you give me a little hip bump there Tajah. Let’s do it Taj. Hip Hip Hip. Stretch out those long legs."

 

Jacquie finishes and the instructor changes the CD to an Indian song. The dancers move across the floor windmilling their arms as they do a drag step. Jacquie is in the middle of the pack and completes the movements with relative ease.

 

The dancers make a few more passes back and forth across the room. On the third pass Jacquie’s movements are more labored. She’s tired. Halfway across, she gives up and finishes the pass by walking.

 

"Taj. You’re doing fine. Can you keep your arms in the opposite direction? Taj?"

 

She continues walking.

 

The group assembles again on the right side of the room. The instructor demonstrates a new step, alternatively crossing both her arms and legs, and then extending them out to form an X. The dancers follow her across the floor.

 

"Cross. Out. Cross. Out. Cross. Out," says the instructor.

 

Jacquie starts strong but by the second pass has slowed down. Her movements are half a beat behind the music.

 

The music changes to a spirited Latin number, a genre Jacquie loves, and she picks up energy. At the end of the group sequence the instructor encourages the dancers to "freestyle." When it’s her turn to solo, Jacquie lights up. Soaking up the spotlight, she draws energy from "yeahs!" and "alrights!" directed at her and happily twirls across the room.

 

The instructor turns over the class to Ajaibo, the director and choreographer of the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, and a seasoned dancer at age 80. He was Jacquie’s partner in several performances in the 1950s.

 

Jacquie pushes through for a few more sets but soon grows tired again. Her legs seem stiff. Ajaibo steps in to correct her form. She tells him she’s too fatigued, but he encourages her to continue.

 

"I thought I was done after the last dance, but Ajaibo said I wasn’t done. I guess I’m not done," she says.

 

A new number begins. As the dancers begin, she stands in the back and bends over, stretching her legs in exhaustion.

 

She makes it across the floor one last time, but has reached her limit. She tells Ajaibo, and walks over to a nearby seat.

 

"This is too hard," she says. "I have to watch it."

 

Jacquie is worried about her heart. She has had palpitations and has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which leaves her feeling weak and dizzy at times. As much as she wants to complete the class, she just can’t.

 

She watches the rest of the class from the sidelines, frowning in frustration.

 

"When I see them doing it, I want to do it too."

 

As she says good bye to Ajaibo and the dancers, she shakes off her disappointment.

 

"Life is hard and you have your ups and you have your downs. I just have to take it day by day."

 

She’ll have class and another opportunity to dance again next Tuesday. The thought that one day her body may not allow her to is pushed far back in her mind. She says she can’t think that way.

 

What she is thinking of is her book. She plans on making an appointment with the NYU bookstore to inquire about the steps she would need to take to publish it. She needs to find that typewriter. She needs to ask permission from Lanvin to use her photo on the cover. She needs to continue writing.

 

"(I pray to God): Please let me finish my assignment down here before you call me up. Please let me finish my book."

 

Jacquie leaves class, takes the elevator down to the first floor and prepares to navigate her way home.

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PART 5

 

Take Me to Church

Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3Part 4PART 5 - Part 6 -

Jacquie Murdock, 84 was dealt a double whammy within weeks.

 

First, she woke up with an intense pain by her right ear. ("It feels like someone had an icepick and was stabbing me," she described.) A few weeks later there was a searing pain in her spine that traveled all the way down to her calf.

 

She was diagnosed with shingles and sciatica.

 

It’s been weeks since she was able to attend her bi-weekly dance class in Harlem, and weeks since she was able to attend her church in Chinatown. An active and spiritual person, this greatly bothers Jacquie. She hates being cooped up at home.

 

But today is a special day at Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church. It’s Homecoming, a time when members past and present gather together, and Jacquie refuses to miss it.

 

Jacquie’s faith is extremely important to her and it keeps her going through the disappointments and challenges in life, including her recent illnesses. It comforts her as she ages and thinks about the end of life, and the heavenly life she believes is beyond.

 

"I’m not afraid of dying," she says.

 

"To be out of the body is to be in the presence of God." Today, for her return to church, she took special care in dressing. She was going to wear a suit but was told to wear traditional ethnic clothing so she put on a yellow, cream and gold African dress that she had custom made in Harlem out of material from Nigeria. It’s one of her favorites. She added a string of grey pearls accented with crystals around her neck and a white flower in her hair. She is excited to debut the new Michael Kors platform sandals she bought the day before at Macy’s.

 

It’s just a few minutes before 10:30 a.m. when Jacquie heads down to the lobby of her apartment building in Greenwich Village. She stops by the front desk and chats with the doorman for a minute, mentioning the excruciating pain she’s been in.

 

When Jacquie was healthier she sometimes would take the train to the church on Henry Street, but isolated from close subway access, it would require a half-mile walk.

 

Although she lives with her daughter and granddaughter, they are not churchgoers so Jacquie travels alone. She can’t take the walk anymore and now reluctantly relies on cabs to get her there. She dislikes the added expense and has had to deal with cab drivers, whom she finds can be impatient with her at times.

 

Jacquie exists her building and walks a couple of blocks to hail a cab at Great Jones Street and W. 3rd Street. Cabs fly by as Jacquie stands on the corner.

 

"I’m in agony," she says. The shingles have gotten better but the sciatica has only grown worse.

 

Jacquie’s doctor prescribed both a strong pain killer and muscle relaxer to help her deal with her ailments. She wasn’t due to take the pain killer until 11 a.m., but her intense pain forced her to take it an hour early. It’s too soon to take another.

 

Jacquie mutters to herself that she has to figure out how to use Access-A-Ride. She’s been meaning to sign up for months.

 

Finally, after 10 minutes of waiting, a cab stops. Jacquie opens the door and slides into the car, wincing.

 

"I’m in pain when I sit down. I’m in a lot of pain," she says. She gives the driver the address of the church.

 

After just a few minutes, the taxi has hit traffic and is at a crawl.

 

"Please, I’m in a hurry. I have to go to church at 11," says Jacquie.

 

"There’s traffic," says the driver in an accent Jacquie can’t understand.

 

"What’d he say?" says Jacquie. "This is going too slow" she mutters to herself. "New York is overcrowded."

 

Another few minutes pass.

 

"This is taking way too long," says Jacquie. "Are we are Mott Street yet?"

 

The driver says something Jacquie can’t hear from the back seat.

 

"Is this Mott Street?" she says louder.

 

Again the driver says something inaudible.

 

"Can you turn?" Jacquie asks the driver.

 

Both are growing agitated.

 

"I already made a right on Mott," the driver says more audibly.

 

"Oh I didn’t realized," says Jacquie. He stops, and she pays the $9 fare, adding a tip.

 

"I’m sorry. I didn’t see. I’m blind," says Jacquie. She lost her sight 15 years ago from glaucoma and cataracts. On some days she can see a little out of her right eye but it depends on the lighting conditions. Today is a sunny day which means her sight is all but absent. Jacquie also suffers from some hearing loss and atrial fibrillation.

 

The taxi pulls over, double parking next to a grey car, which Jacquie doesn’t see. She opens the taxi door and it brushes up lightly against the other car. She lifts herself out and exits.

 

The car driver yells out "You moron!" but Jacquie doesn’t seem to hear.

 

"He was slow like molasses," says Jacquie. "I can’t see because of the sun and I can’t understand his accent because of my hearing."

 

She navigates the route to the church by memory, walking as fast as she can. The church, founded in 1795, is the oldest Baptist Church site in Manhattan.

 

Jacquie enters the lobby and a man sees and approaches her. "How have you been, Mother Murdock?" He embraces her.

 

"I’m late," she says.

 

Jacquie enters the sanctuary and immediately a few deacons approach to take her arm and lead her up the aisle.

 

The service has barely started and people are still walking in.

 

Jacquie sits in her regular seat near the front of the church, just as the pastor greets the congregation: "Welcome everyone. Happy homecoming to you."

 

The pastor gives the congregation several minutes to say hello to each other. Parishioners rise from their seats and greet one another with hugs, a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. "Hello Mother Murdock; Good to see you, Mother Murdock," they say to Jacquie.

 

"Thank you Lord, thank you Lord," she says, happy to have made it to back to church, a place that means so much to her.

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Jacquie has been coming to Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church for decades.

 

Born an Episcopalian, she switched to the Catholic Church before finding her spiritual home at Mariners’ Temple. Years ago her friend Arlene had said she found a "rocking church in Chinatown" and after one visit Jacquie was sold. She is drawn to the exuberant music, which includes tambourines and drums. "[When I’m at church] I am visualizing myself dancing to that music."

 

Jacquie sang in the choir for 20 years and once she turned 65 was invited to become a Mother of the Church, a special ministry for older women. The church means so much to her that she wants it to be the location of her final earthly celebration— her funeral.

 

She already has much of it planned out, including readings and the songs she’d like the choir to sing.

 

She is at peace with death and considers it to ultimately be a positive part of life.

 

"I was in choir. You know how many funerals I’ve sang at? I feel fine with it. Baptist funerals are all (singing:) ‘No more dying there. I am going to see the king. No more crying there. I am going to see the King.’"

 

Besides, so much has changed since her birth in 1930. She’s worried about the state of the world.

 

"I’ll be in a better place because this place is spinning out of control. It’s just horrible. I better start reading revelations," she half-jokes.

 

She’s already picked out—and changed her mind twice—about her burial dress.

 

First it was an off-white dress with a high lace collar and long sleeves. Most recently it’s a silky long bias cut dress. Both are hanging in her closet, ready for the day she meets the King.

 

On a recent visit to her apartment she tries on the dress and poses with her hands clutched together over her abdomen.

 

"I’ll hold the cross like this," she says, demonstrating. "I want to look beautiful and have a flower in my hair."

 

She’s written all of the arrangements in a book and is leaving her son, Michael, in charge. "It’s better than having them run around like a chicken with its head cut off," she says. "It’s a fact [that one dies]. It’s a reality. My sister died in her bed. I would like to die that way but it’s not for me to say. "

 

The one detail Jacquie still has to iron out is where she will be buried. She inquired about a plot in Woodlawn Cemetery but it was was more than she could afford. There was talk about a cheaper section opening up; she needs to inquire further.

 

"I would have to check out the payment plan, but I don’t know," she says.

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The service continues with prayers.

 

Jacquie asks the church Mother, who’s seated directly in front of her, if she can go up to the front of the church for a blessing. A lady helps her walks to the front and she sits in a chair in front of the alter. A dozen and a half others make their way up to the front, some sitting and some standing.

 

The music beings:

 

"Fill me up God."

 

"Fill me up God."

 

"Fill me up." 

 

People hold hands and the music grows louder.

 

A church leader says:

 

"Father God, we ask you to please bless us with your power. Father God, we ask you to come in this place of God. You are the God of healing. Father God we ask you to come right now and do your miracle work. Anoint these people with your healing power."

 

Jubilant clapping begins. In front, Jacquie raises her hands up and moves her head in prayer. She looks at peace.

 

When the music ends, the parishioners walk back to their seats. Jacquie is assisted by a deacon.

 

It’s time for tithes. The pastor explains that parishioners should tithe 10% of their salary. Jacquie is on a tight budget but wants to make a contribution. She fills out a check and slips it into an envelope.

 

"I want to contribute more, but I don’t have that kind of money anymore."

 

When it’s time, she joins the line to walk up to the front, deposits her envelope in the basket, and returns to her seat.

 

The choir sings:

 

"It’s so amazing, your love for me."

 

Parishioners are beginning to stand up and sing. Despite her pain, Jacquie slowly stands up and claps. She dances a little in her pew. She closes her eyes and sings along:

 

"Ohhh Amazing, amazing."

 

"It’s so amazing, your love for me.

 

"Yes, Lord," says Jacquie.

 

When Jacquie sings, she says the pain disappears for that moment. She’d rather sing the pain away than conceal it with a pill.

 

"I got an Oxycodone in my pocket but I don’t want to take it. I don’t want to get in the habit of taking it every time I hurt. That’s how you get hooked," she says.

 

The pastor launches into her sermon: "Think about how good God has been."

 

"God has been so good to me, even with the pain, he’s been so good to me," says Jacquie aloud. "I am so grateful."

 

"God is still providing. God is still protecting," says the Pastor.

 

"Hallelujah" says Jacquie clapping.

 

The service continues for a couple of hours.

 

After the service concludes, Jacquie enjoys a homecoming dinner with the other parishioners. She is seated at a table reserved table for the Mothers of the Church. She spends the afternoon talking to new parishioner whom she hopes becomes a friend.

 

"The spirit is here," says Jacquie. She feels better that she came in spite of her pain.

 

"I had to come. I was determined to come. It’s been too long."

 

Tomorrow, Jacquie will go to the doctor. She desperately hopes a doctor will be able to figure out an antidote to her pain. The pills, despite a recent increase in dose, aren’t working well enough, but she wants to avoid surgery.

 

In the meantime she will pray.

 

"I’m putting it in God’s hands."

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PART 6

 

Dancing to the Day I Die

Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3Part 4Part 5 - PART 6 -

On a Sunday afternoon, Jacquie Murdock, stands in the middle of the Cotton Club in West Harlem dressed in a floor-length white gown dripping with sequins, with her customary white flower in her hair.

 

She is surrounded by dozens of gold, black and white balloons and two gigantic metallic balloons—one an 8, the other a 5— symbols of the party being thrown in her honor.

 

Jacquie’s face is creased with worry. Her fingers, adorned with chunky cocktail rings, tap her side.

"It’s almost 4 o’clock. Why hasn’t the band started?" she says.

 

Her son Michael, decked out in a grey suit with a tan fedora and a matching patterned tie and pocket square, puts his hands on her shoulders in an attempt to calm her.

 

"Don’t worry," says Michael. "It will be fine.”


Moments later the sound of a saxophone tuning fills the walls of the dimly lit nightclub. A trombone’s wail follows.

This party almost didn’t happen. Despite the milestone birthday this year, turning 85 was the last thing on her mind.

 

Jacquie’s never been big on birthdays, but the death of her friend last spring was a sobering reminder that her time on earth is limited. Lynn Dell, a boutique owner, and Jacquie, a dancer, both co-starred in Advanced Style, a documentary which celebrates stylish seniors. In Lynn, Jacquie found a kindred spirit and they bonded over their love of show business. Jacquie put her personal projects on hold (like the autobiography she’s been trying to write for years) to promote the film and enjoy the perks that came with it, like a modeling gig with the fashion house Lanvin.

 

Then, suddenly, Lynn died. Jacquie has been filled with an intense sense of urgency ever since.

 

"After Lynn Dell passed I said you know you never know. Time is off the essence. [The book] was going to be my priority—and then I got sick.”

 

This past summer Jacquie was dealt two health challenges within weeks when she was diagnosed with both shingles and sciatica. Although the shingles have mostly abated, the sciatica still plagues her.

 

"It really came out of nowhere. Boom!…Every 6 hours I get this pain. Sometimes it lasts for hours.”

 

Still, her son Michael insisted that reaching 85 was a reason to celebrate and booked the event at the Cotton Club, the reincarnation of the legendary prohibition-era club which counted Duke Ellington and Count Basie among the jazz-legends on its roster.

 

A group of guests arrive and suddenly Jacquie is swept up in a wave of hugs, kisses and congratulations. She carefully selected the guest list, only inviting those whom she feels have influenced her life.

 

Her former dance partner Ajaibo arrives and Jacquie greets him with a hug and kiss. He’ll be leading his dance troupe, the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, a group composed of professional and amateur dancers in their 60s, 70s and 80s, in a tribute to her later.

 

Jacquie greets her good friend Burt, who attends jazz concerts throughout the city with her.

And Stephanie, Jacquie’s granddaughter, arrives with Jacquie’s newest great-grandson Enzo Javier. Jacquie coos over the baby.

 

The minister from Jacquie’s church, Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church, interrupts the revelry to bless the food. The crowd of about 40 line up to dig into the spread of fried chicken, BBQ ribs and fried fish. There are mountains of salads and sides including yams, collard greens and cornbread.

 

The band’s vocalist sings "Stand By Me" as party-goers eat. He walks over to serenade Jacquie.

 

She waves him away laughing.

 

When the band starts up again, a couple begins to dance. Jacquie wants to dance, too, but isn’t sure if she can. Her sciatica makes even walking painful.

 

Michael walks over to his mother and asks her to dance. She can’t resist this moment with her son. Despite challenging beginnings—she was pregnant with him while going through a divorce and was resentful that she had to turn down gigs because of her growing size—she adores her only son.

 

"I said, if I ever had a son I’d name him Michael. Michael is the archangel closest to God. People say he really lived up to his name….He’s the protector.”

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Michael escorts Jacquie to center of the dance floor.

 

Michael holds her and they sway gently to the music. He leads her into a turn but she tells him she can’t right now because of pain in her leg. They continue to sway for another minute.

 

But as the music crescendos she can’t resist.

 

Michael spins her and Jacquie comes alive. She moves more energetically and adds complex footwork.The crowd applauds.

 

Jacquie is in pain, but she puts on a smile and continues.

 

She releases one of Michael’s hands and performs to the crowd, spinning and twirling.

 

Towards the end of the song her leg stiffens, and she whispers to Michael. He pulls her close, and they finish the song as they started, swaying gently to the music.

 

Friends applaud and a few race up to compliment her.

 

"That was nothing, Honey. I was in pain. I couldn’t move," says Jacquie. But she’s smiling, reveling in the praise.

 

Jacquie introduces the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, and three members begin an energetic dance to "Sweet Georgia Brown." She’s thrilled they are here. 

 

Until her sciatica descended, Jacquie had been taking dance class with the group twice a week.

Jacquie returns to the dance floor to take photos with family and friends. She’s thrilled when Phillip, a relative of Jacquie’s close friend, the late Yolanda King, arrives. Jacquie had just gotten a hold of him this morning and wasn’t sure if he would make it.

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Jacquie takes the microphone to announce a special guest but with ownership of the mic can’t resist first spending a few minutes running through her dance history, which she says will be in her upcoming book. She also promotes "Advance Style.”

 

"If you have Netflix you can see it tonight when you get home," she says.

 

A gospel singer takes the stage and sings Jacquie’s favorite song, "Amazing Grace." Jacquie is visibly touched. She raises her hands to the sky and quietly sings along.

 

"Thank you Lord," she says very softly. "This is happy days.”

 

Soon the crowd all joins in to sing "Happy Birthday" as a white cake topped with strawberries and blueberries is displayed on a small table by the bandstand.

 

And then there are a series of tributes to Jacquie.

 

Michael’s friend from childhood takes the mic and reads the card he brought for "Mommy Murdock". He thanks Jacquie for acting as an adoptive mother to him and starts crying before Jacquie swoops in to hug him.

 

"I will never forget you giving me culture, confidence and most of all love," he says.

 

Philip takes the mic next: "You taught me to be courageous and stand up for myself. You have done more in the last year then many have done in a lifetime.”

 

"Yeah, yeah" says the crowd.

 

"I’m just so overwhelmed, and you know I’m not [ever] at a loss for words," says Jacquie. "I try to have people be inspired not to give up because dreams do come true, even if they come at a later date.”

 

Waiters march out with trays of champagne. Michael joins Jacquie and raises his glass in a toast to her.

 

Others follow suit.

 

"Because of you I have gone so many places. I look up to you," says her cousin, Queenie.

 

"I may not have my aunt’s grace, and I don’t have her poise, but I want to take the chance to say how much I love you," says niece Annette.

 

Jacquie walks up to hug her. "God is good. He put me on my feet today today.”

 

"We’re so proud you are one of our Mothers [of the church]," says the minister.

 

Jacquie is radiating through it all. "I’m just so happy," she says. "It warms my heart. Every one of you is special to me. Thank you for coming to celebrate with me. I hope we can come back for the 100th one, too.”

 

As Jacquie kisses her friends and family goodbye, high on adrenaline and full of optimism, Michael reflects on the night and his mother. He’s aware of her age and that at 85, any time with her is precious.

 

"It’s a blessing. I’m so happy to have had her in my life for so long," he says. "Mom is definitely young at heart and young of spirit. I try to be but it’s not easy."

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Three weeks later, Jacquie sits in Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue waiting for her friend Burt to arrive, and for the meeting of the Duke Ellington Society to begin.

 

While Jacquie is still holding on to the afterglow of the party ("everybody says it’s the best party they’ve been to") the pain from her sciatica is a constant, worsening struggle.

 

"It’s the most painful thing in the world," she says.

 

This morning she went in for a previously scheduled nutritionist appointment at her clinic and begged to see a medical doctor instead. The searing pain forced her to skip her usual subway and shell out money for a cab.

 

The doctor saw her and increased her pain medication. An epidural was suggested. Jacquie is terrified that she’ll be paralyzed (a serious but very rare side effect) but the pain is so intense that she’s considering it.

 

At the Duke Ellington Society meeting, Jacquie’s phone begins ringing and she fishes it out of her tote bag. She flips it open. It’s Ajaibo. She has a DVD of her birthday party and wants to see if he can make copies for her since he has the equipment. She offers to pay him. He says he’ll make the copies but declines her offer.

 

"Thank you. Money is tight," Jacquie says. "I’ve been pretty shaky. This thing took a lot of out of me, Adjabo…It’s only by the grace of God that I’m here. I don’t think I’ll be going to many places until I get my head on.”

 

Jacquie hangs up the phone and dips into her bag feeling for the small cylinder that will spell relief. It’s an hour early, but she can’t wait any longer. She wrestles off the cap and washes the tiny painkiller down with a sip of water from her water bottle.

 

While Jacquie is waiting for Burt, she seeks out a tap dancer she saw practicing earlier on a makeshift tap stage. She finds him and they talk for a few minutes. Burt arrives soon after.

 

They sit down and Jacquie takes out some photos from the party. As Burt riffles through them Jacquie talks about her recent visit to Michael’s new house in Long Island.

 

"It’s so light and spacious," she says. "I almost cried. Michael saw me, and he almost cried.”

 

Jacquie says seeing Michael settled gives her a great sense of peace.

 

"I said Michael, ‘I’m so proud of you.’”

 

His new house will likely be the site of this year’s Thanksgiving celebration. Despite the challenges of the past year Jacquie is looking forward to it.

 

"I’m just thankful to be alive because so many of my friends have passed away…at this stage of my life I just want to be peaceful and happy.”

 

Jacquie does want to finish her book. She recently hired a young woman to help. She decided to give up on her search for a typewriter and dictate the rest of what she wants to write.

 

Jacquie’s thoughts are interrupted by the sounds of singer-trumpeter Joey Morant and Catfish Stew as they begin their performance.

 

"Do do. Do do. Dooooo Do.”

 

Joey, clad in a shimmery orange blazer, encourages the audience to come up in front of the stage and dance.

 

"Even if you can’t dance you can shake, rattle and roll. The more you shake the longer you live," he says as he shimmies his hips.

 

He notices tap dancer Michael Shannon. "Gimme some tap!" he says.

 

Michael walks over to the taped together pieces of cardboard that compose the makeshift stage.

He begins shuffling, brushing and tapping his feet.

 

"Go Mike!" calls out Jacquie, delighted.

 

After several minutes of energetic dancing Michael returns to his seat.

 

"Wow, he’s really great," she said. "Mike said he’s just seven years younger than me.”

 

After a couple of songs, which attract a couple of dancers, Joey begins playing “Take the ‘A’ Train," one of Jacquie’s favorites. She pushes herself up out of her chair, takes a few short steps in front of the band and starts dancing as best she can. Her pains dissipates—if only for a moment—and all she feels is the beat of the music pulsing through her. She twirls around and a peacefulness washes over her face.

 

"Right now I’m in immense pain but I got up and danced. It doesn’t stop me," she said. "I’ll dance to the day I die.”

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© 2015 by Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health