Volume 17 • Issue 37 | February 11 - 17, 2005

Downtown activist now battles cancer

Photo by Annie Shaver-Crandell
Keith Crandell

By JERRY TALLMER

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil . . .

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.

And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for naught? . . . Put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.

- Job, chapter 1

In a rambling checkerboarded apartment in Noho, one complete old floor of a long defunct factory, Keith Crandell said: “Well, they tell me there’s not much they can do for the cancer. I have no pain. I can breathe. People my age who get cancer [he’s 77, and it’s lung cancer] often live a long time.”

“Or they fall over in a heap,” said his tall, good-looking, cheerfully undaunted wife, the painter Annie Shaver-Crandell. “Meanwhile,” she said, “we’re signed up with the Hospice of New York, and this past Sunday, I think for my aid, we helped organize a Share-the-Care group.”

“The Keep Keith Kicking Group, I call it,” said her even more undaunted husband.

In the next room his motorized wheelchair was parked and waiting. High on a wall in this room, on faded brown paper, was the message: “HELLO! DEMOCRATS CHICAGO,” a relic of the tumultuous Democratic National Convention of 1968. Crandell laughed as he recollected: “All [Eugene] McCarthy’s kids were stoned.” That isn’t why they were beaten up in their hotel rooms by Mayor Richard Daley’s storm troopers.

Crandell, who has written columns for The Villager (sister publication of Downtown Express) on a wide variety of topics since the 1980s, and for whom that wheelchair is now a total necessity, held out his left hand.

“At 70,” he said, “I began to have no feeling in this hand. It turned out to be caused by something called cavernous hemangioma, a defective blood vessel at C-6, the sixth cervical. It leaks blood and destroys nerve tissue. I didn’t even pay attention to it. Now it takes over my life.

“I was about to go out to Cleveland last October before the election — Ohio was a swing state — but I fell apart. Instead I went to the hospital and then a nursing home for six weeks.”

This phase of Crandell’s afflictions, his wife said, had started with a stroke in 1999.

“Let’s go back a little bit,” he said, “to 1945. My father was picture editor of the Herald Tribune and we lived in White Plains. I wanted to join the Navy. I was 17. I went down to New York to enlist, and passed out at the enlistment place. An epileptic seizure. First one in my life.”

“What they call grand mal,” said Annie Shaver-Crandell, who was an art historian at The City College of New York for 32 and a half years. “Be sure you put in the ‘The,’ ” Crandell said. “They like it that way.”

They wouldn’t take him into the Navy, of course, so he went to join the Coast Guard — and had another seizure. “That brought my military career to a close.”

But not a handful of other careers, including public-relations person — “Can you imagine?” — for General Electric in Schenectady, Syracuse, and — “big deal!” — New York City.

“Kurt Vonnegut was also doing lovely P.R. for GE at the time. Once, going by train to Washington for a demonstration, I bumped into Vonnegut. ‘Hey, weren’t you in Building 27?’ ”

Crandell the lifelong community activist and political activist is also the kind of guy who would put his writing talents hard and tirelessly at work — in these pages — to win parole for a man named James Davis who had spent what Crandell felt was an unjust 17 years in prison at Otisville, N.Y., and elsewhere.

“Last May,” the self-proclaimed “cripple” now said, “I went down, alone, to see my granddaughter [8-year-old Haley] in Houston. On the way back I stopped for a week in Corsicana, Texas, to take part with 12 or 15 senior citizens in putting into a computer system a collection of Civil War documents, including the remarkable letters of a soldier from New York named James Kelly.

“Came back, got off the train, and Annie was there. She told me James Davis had been paroled. My oldest friend, Frank Irwin, a commercial artist, cartoonist and voice-over actor, had sent one of my pieces about Davis to every member of the Parole Board. Annie gave me the news and tears ran down my face.”

Two days after the interview here, Crandell telephoned the interviewer to throw in what he called “factoids” — that he had traveled to all 50 states through the years, including by bus to Alaska, and that he himself had been jailed three times — once for taking part in a squatters’ movement for poor people who needed apartments (“and we won!”); once, in Washington, during a protest against the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America; once, down at City Hall, to protest the 41 bullets the New York City police fired at Amadou Diallo in a Bronx doorway.

“Those plastic handcuffs are always squeezed as tight as possible — very unpleasant,” says our Noho felon. “Then, on February 15, 2004, in my first real outing in a wheelchair, I was nearly ripped up by the police on the Upper East Side during a protest against the war. Mounted police surrounded me. Very brutal.”

How’d you get to be this radical-type fellow, Mr. Crandell?

“I consider myself to be a moderate,” came the reply.

(Some other Crandell “factoids”: He won the New York Press Association’s Best Columnist award in 2000 for his Villager columns; he has been a member of Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2 since 1981 and was its chairperson for two years in the 1980s — though he says he worked hardest when he chaired the board’s Social Services and Health Committee when the AIDS, crack and homelessness epidemics were raging — “Mostly, we were able to stave off the NIMBY people to get a lot of facilities built. We worked with Bowery Residents Committee, Housing Works. We saved a library for the blind on Sixth Ave. from being developed; today, it’s still God’s Love We Deliver.” — he was a Democratic state committeeman for two years; and, in the 1980s, he lost Village Independent Democrats’ endorsement for Democratic district leader by six votes to Tony Hoffmann.)

Crandell asked his wife to unearth “that rooftop photograph that has all the players.” She did so. The players, left to right, one sunny day on the rooftop of this building, were Keith’s son Nathaniel, daughter Louise, son Zachary, wife Anne, Keith himself, and son Ben.

The children are all from Crandell’s previous mariages. Zachary is an editor of a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nathaniel is dead.

“Worst thing ever happened,” said the man to whose shattered nerve system, pneumonia, epilepsy, stroke and a heart attack or two has now been added lung cancer. Said it quietly, matter-of-factly.

“Nathaniel was damaged in an automobile accident. Make that a wreck,” Crandell corrected himself. “We shouldn’t keep calling it an accident. November 5, 1989. It eventually killed him. He died of tuberculosis he picked up in the hospital.”

“Nat came up from Houston and stayed with us,” said Mrs. Crandell. “Couldn’t decide which to put on first, his socks or his shoes. He said he wanted to go to church.”

“I was surprised,” said Nathaniel’s father. “He’d never gone to church. I’d never gone to church.” A close family friend, Katherine Wolpe, a parishioner at St. Mark’s-on-the-Bowery, came to tell Nathaniel about that church.

Annie Shaver-Crandell: “Nat said: ‘Sounds fine to me,’ but he couldn’t find his way there.”

Keith Crandell: “I started to take him to church every Sunday. The [Episcopal] priest was David Garcia. That was three or four priests ago. Then Nat went back to Texas, and St. Mark’s was stuck with me. So eventually I became a member of the vestry. It’s become a large part of my life.”

Mrs. Crandell brought forth a picture of Nat and his wife Mona and their daughter Haley. The pneumonia diagnosis came through on the day Haley was born.

“Kind of like Keith getting his lung-cancer diagnosis on this past election day. Every time George W. Bush runs for president, Keith winds up in the hospital. The first time it was a heart attack. Until that heart attack, Keith went everywhere by bicycle.”

Mr. Crandell, are you a smoker?

“I quit 30 years ago.”

“On my watch,” said his wife.

When did you two meet, anyway?

“I was his fourth wife. I met him originally in 1968. He was up on a ladder painting ‘PEACE ON EARTH,’ in Dutch, on a series of buildings on Sixth Avenue between 16th and 17th Sts. To my mind, this happened sometime between the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I lived only a block away.”

“And I was being evicted in Chelsea,” said Crandell.

“And we actually photographed each other, that day, holding paint brushes. Then — a New York story — he went and married someone else. We got together again when he called me in 1976. The third Mrs. Crandell — Vivien, her name was — Vivien with an ‘E’ — had taken off to complete her training as a Scientologist.

“When Keith called me, it was two days before the final deposit of my Ph.D. in Art History at Columbia, and I was afraid that nobody would want to sleep with me if I got my doctorate.”

“I had moved here,” said Crandall. “To this floor in this building. It used to be a factory that made wire racks for drugstores — “

“Badly,” Mrs. Crandell threw in.

“A number of people and I bought separate floors. We are now what you call a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.”

Except that Keith Crandell has not retired from anything or anywhere in his miraculous powered wheelchair. “It came into my life two years ago. Goes everywhere, even on buses. I get tremendous respect from bus drivers.”

On airplanes?

No. I don’t like to fly. You can’t see anything through those portholes. I like looking out the windows of trains.”

“I think airplanes are famous for destroying power chairs,” said Mrs. Crandell.

He’s been, by motorized wheelchair, to a wildlife refuge out in Queens, to the far-north reaches of the Bronx, even, more than once, to ballgames at Yankee Stadium.

As a kid born in New York City on October 7, 1927, he used to be a St. Louis Cardinals fan. “The old Gas House Gang: Medwick, Durocher, Enos Slaughter, Paul Dean, Dizzy Dean. Then Jackie Robinson came along, and the Cardinals turned out to be the racist team. Then the Dodgers went out to California, and I’ve been a floater ever since.”

Annie Shaver-Crandell had her own crisis five years ago. Her first solo painting show, after retiring from The City College of New York, was to be at the Civic Center Synagogue on White St. in Lower Manhattan. As the exhibit was about to open, she was told she had breast cancer.

How’s that coming along, the interviewer asked.

“I’m good. Cleared the five-year mark. I’m still vigilant, but O.K.”

She laughed, said: “Wait a minute,” fished around a corner of the room, and dragged out a street-peddler’s sandwich board Crandell had made for a party maybe 25 years ago.

“GOOD WRITING DONE CHEAP!” it proclaimed across the top, and under that: “MANY HARD WORDS SPELLED RIGHT! ASK ABOUT OUR PLAGIARISM SPECIAL . . . UMLAUTS AT YOUR SERVICE.”

She turned the board around. On the reverse the headlined offering was “FOUR-LETTER FAVORITES.” Unlike Job, but a little like Beethoven — if Beethoven had only had a sense of humor — Keith Crandell, even back then, was shaking his fist at God.


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