navigating a once-familiar city First of Six parts

| 13 Oct 2015 | 03:16

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.”

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 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.

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.

This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to

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