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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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 www.exceedingexpectations.ny
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