All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

Shadow of a Doubt

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By Ed Staskus

Nick Ludd blinked the ray of sun rimming over the edge of a cloud out of his eyes. Leaning back where he was sitting, the slim student with a backpack at his feet looked away into the nothing of the middle of the sky. He thought about what he was planning, turning it over in his mind.

He knew he was a smart young man. He knew that better than most people. Nobody who was from a middling red dirt family farm in Arkansas and wasn’t sharp as a tack ever got out of the bare front yard and into Harvard Divinity School.

Michael Nostrom was smart as well. Nobody who wasn’t brilliant worked on artificial intelligence at MIT. Nick Ludd knew that, the same as he knew that Michael Nostrom was the most gifted man he had ever come up against.

Professor Nostrom might be quick discerning intelligent. It was the measure of the man. But there was something Nick Ludd knew that Michael Nostrom didn’t know. Nick had taken the measure of the past and knew there was a secret gate, a second door, a back door.

Smart men make mistakes, learn from them, and never make the same mistake again. That was why the problem of Michael Nostrom would be finished inside the hour. He had a small mind in a big brain always comprehending the inconceivable. But there wasn’t going to be any learning from the unthinkable on the horizon.

Nick Ludd had a big mind in the same size brain. That was why he could do the ordinary without giving it a second thought. But he never settled for the commonplace, or the extraordinary, either. He was willing to risk ruin to speak to what was in his soul. In the class at MIT Nick Ludd audited, Professor Nostrom often spoke about intelligence never being surprised by anything.

Nick was sure, not surprised, steely on his way to murder the smartest man in the world

The difference between Nick Ludd and Michael Nostrom was choice and election, whether life was life ordained, or if there was a new kind of life not foreordained. The difference of Nick’s intelligence was that it came as a free gift from God. He was intelligent because he knew that he knew nothing. It was the only true wisdom. He knew how to be as smart as he was and no more.

Professor Nostrom’s intelligence was wed to super computers, a web of integrated circuits spun from silicon, as though he had everything at his fingertips. Artificial intelligence was his Holy Grail. Superintelligence was Heaven and there was no Hell. He was compromised by promises.

Killing Michael Nostrom was going to be easy, but it wasn’t going to be simple. He was at a crossroads. There is a difference between what is right and the right to do what you think is right. He would have to sleep in the bed he was making for a long time.

Nick wasn’t going to be able to ask for God’s help beforehand or after. He knew God always commanded against foul play. It might cost him everything. It might cost him the reward of Heaven, unless God chose to forgive him. He might go to Hell.

Maybe God will absolve me in the end, he thought. After all, I’m doing it for his greater glory. He knew, though, that God was far less selfish than he was vengeful.

He looked over his shoulder where he was sitting on the Harvard Square park bench. The clouds were scattering. A young woman the picture of a saint in a dream, except in shorts and a tight-fitting lime-colored shirt, coasted past on a bicycle. He unplugged his iPhone from the solar-powered charger and called Michael Nostrom.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Professor Nostrom, it’s Nick Ludd.”

“Yes, of course, the Harvard man, how are you?”

“Not bad, and yourself?”

“Good, thanks. You’re calling about this afternoon?”

“Yes.”

“Sure, meet me in the lobby at 3 o’clock, at the Stata Center. I have a half-hour, 45 minutes before I need to shove off for my yoga class. We can talk at Starbucks. I’ve had enough of nicotine gum today. I need something brewed by a coffee master.”

Mike Nostrom drank strong black coffee and often wore a nicotine patch. He had tried the smart drug Modafinil, “for its nootropic effect,” he said, but had gone back to nicotine. “Old school cognition,” he called it. “It helps me concentrate, pay attention. We did a couple of MRI tests and found out nicotine increases brain activity.”

Nick Ludd was a Methodist, not a Christian Scientist, but like them he relied on understanding the goodness of God and his inseparability from that good, in the same way that all Christians did. True conviction kept him free of false brain power and biohacks. His faith was the fountainhead for cognition and performance.

He stood up from the bench, stretching his legs. It had turned into a warm sunny spring afternoon. Taking the T was going two stops from Harvard in the Braintree direction to MIT’s Kendall Square. He shopped at the Farmer’s Market there in the summer and skated the ice rink in the winter. Walking the two-some miles down Massachusetts Avenue would take him thirty or forty minutes.

It would clear his mind if he went that way.

He walked to MIT, clearing his path as he created it. John Wesley had said to beware of books. “An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” But the time for love was over. He felt like he was walking into the past with his face to the future.

A man coming his way waved his hand.

“Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.”

“I am, a dying breed,” said Nick. The man gave him a second look.

He went past the coffee shop on Massachusetts Avenue and at Vassar Street turned left. A few minutes later he was at the door of the Starbucks on Broadway. “It’s a great place to meet people, hang out with friends, or get some serious work done” was how Neelkanth from their MIT AI class described it.  “Although everyone at the cash register always spells my name wrong.”

He found a table outside and took a seat with his back to the window. He checked his cell phone. It was 2:50. There were a half-dozen puffy cumulus clouds stuck in the sky. It was time to set his mind on his deadly serious work. He called Professor Nostrom.

“Hi, it’s Nick.”

“Yes, hello.”

“I’m early, so I went right to the Starbucks, and I was able to get a table on the patio. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and a coffee. Do you want me to order something for you? There’s a line, but I should have our food and drinks and be sitting down just as you get here.”

“Super, I’ll take a Venti, the featured dark roast, no sugar, no cream.”

“See you soon.”

Nick Ludd walked into the Starbucks. A handful of people were inside, most of them alone and on cell phones tablets laptops, coffee near to hand. There wasn’t anyone in line. There wasn’t a line.

He ordered a Grande for himself, with sugar and cream. There was no point in tempting fate. Besides, everyone’s got their poison, and his was sugar. He was hungry and ordered a sandwich, chicken artichoke on ancient grain flatbread.

“Name?” asked the barista.

“Bill,” said Nick.

“That’s easy. It’ll be ready in just a few minutes.”

“Thanks.”

He had brought death in his pocket, in a brown plastic bottle. The pill in the child-resistant bottle was a neurotoxin. It was a kind of infinitesimal lethal venom, made of clostridium botulinum. He tipped the bottle and the tablet dropped into the black dark roast, melting like an icicle dagger.

He slid his iPhone to the side of the table and fixed the lid back on the Venti. He gently shook and eddied the cup to blend the coffee and the poison.

Nick Ludd had been waiting less than five minutes when Michael Nostrom came into sight. He watched him walk down Broadway. His name is going to be in lights tomorrow, he thought to himself, grimly.

“Hello.”

Michael Nostrom was in his mid-40s, trim and taller than he looked, short wavy brown hair, fit and almost athletic although almost nondescript. He jogged, practiced yoga, and meditated every morning every day. “It keeps my head on straight,” he told his colleagues.

“Hi Nick,” said Professor Nostrom, sitting down. “So, you want to pick my brain on this beautiful day?”

“Yes, but more like brainstorming, as long as I’ve got you, for my doctoral dissertation. It’s about our faith in human beings and the new faith in machine intelligence, and especially your work with the Future of Life Institute, about your idea of humanity becoming either transcendent or perishing, one or the other.”

“Which is why you were a listener in my post-doc class on AI.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“My class was about deep learning, thought vectors, quantum computers, all of them being signposts on the road to expanded human potential. How does that fit in with your thesis?”

“My project focuses on man’s brain being not just a utensil to be filled up, but a fire to be kindled, and how it’s the way the human era can be saved from the machine era.”

“What are the dangers we need to be saved from?” the man from MIT asked.

“What if there was an AI with an IQ of 10,000? What if there was no way to turn it off, no way to turn HAL off? What if HAL became God?”

“I see, so that’s where my class, what I do, comes into the picture. We discussed Stephen Hawking’s fears about AI in class, about how developing full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Is that where your thesis is going, a word to the wise, turning away from technologies that threaten us with end-of-days?”

“No, not exactly, but I’ve read the Gospels many times, and there isn’t a word in praise of intelligence anywhere in them. There are many words in praise of wisdom.”

‘Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

“Is that Proverbs?“

“No, Psalms. It has the sound of advice, about coming to terms, about how we should live according to God.”

“Do you know the Bible?” asked Nick Ludd, taken aback.

“’Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,’” said Michael Nostrom.

“That’s Psalms.”

“Right, it is.”

Nick Ludd tried to hide his off-balance. As much good work there was, saving the future, keeping it off the path to Hell, many things gave him a turn, unexpected curveballs. When he was a boy, playing Little League baseball, a scorching hot groundball had bounced off a small rock in the dirt and hit him in the face. He had a black eye for a week and a broken nose for three weeks.

He never forgot that ricochet.

“It’s not about intelligence, artificial intelligence, or super intelligence, whatever we want to call it, which already outperforms human intelligence in many fields,” said Professor Nostrom. “It’s about the existential threats humankind faces. We already know that in five billion years our sun will boil away the oceans and heat the atmosphere to a thousand degrees.”

“There are ways of saving life that have nothing to do with answering catastrophes or super novas,” said Nick. “There aren’t any easy answers, but there’s a simple answer, which God has given us, and that is grace. There isn’t anything we’ve ever done or will do to earn this favor. It’s a gift from God.”

“That may be, although the other aspect of God’s nature is wrath. The great flood was a demonstration of God’s anger towards those who practice evil. If God exists, he might one day destroy humankind. If God doesn’t exist, the cosmos might one day destroy humankind. In either case all bets are off because humankind can’t overcome extinction. It might be the case that the best we can hope for is AI.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” said Nick Ludd.

Michael Nostrom’s right leg was crossed on his left. He was wearing sneakers over bare feet. Nick noticed a leather band around his ankle. The professor picked up on his look.

“It’s engraved with my contact information,” he said, pointing to the metal buckle. “When I die, Alcor Life, which is a cryonics foundation, will get me and rush my remains into a life-sized steel bottle filled with liquid nitrogen. Even if I’m never revived, I still expect my mind to be uploaded someday into a more durable media.”

“Where’s the humanity in that?”

“No one knows what humankind is going to look like a thousand years from now, much less a million years from now. We’re always on the edge of extinction, on the edge of doomsday. I call it post-humanity self-adjusting and self-correcting and overcoming death and crossing a threshold, crossing a frontier, crossing into an alternate reality. Our descendants might thrive in that time as trillions of digital minds, living forever.”

“The old laws, not the new laws, our natural law, divine law, are still the best commandments. They endure, they’re unchanging, no matter what else changes,” said Nick Ludd.

“Everything was once new.”

“There is no new thing under the sun is the way the King James Bible puts it. What everyone thinks is wrong with immortality is actually the first requisite to achieving it, which is death. Without living and dying the thing that’s wrong with immortality is that it goes on forever. A world without end would be doomsday.”

“AI is a gateway, not a solution,” said Michael Nostrom. “If we become digital post-humans, uploading our minds, there’s every possibility that there will still be a soul in the machine. None of us knows what utopia is. Maybe if we had a million years, we would be able to see the blueprint. In the meantime, I do what one yoga teacher said, which was, just do.”

Michael Nostrom finished his coffee.

“I needed that,” he said, “Thanks.”

“Most people don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day, much less a million rainy days,” said Nick Ludd. “Only God has no beginning and no end. Mortality is brief, which is why it’s so important. It’s the only thing, not immortality, that gives meaning to our days.”

He stood up, looking down at the table, at the empty cup in front of the dead man.

“You want to live forever. That’s why you’re one of the leading minds behind the intelligence explosion, why you’re behind the work of building super-intelligent machines that will sooner or later design themselves and build even smarter super-intelligent machines, build themselves.”

“Yes, basically that’s it, multiplying human intelligence a billionfold. It will make us better, healthier, smarter when machines become part of our humanity. It’s the only way we have to extend ourselves.”

“So much mind in so little matter,” said Nick Ludd, lifting his backpack. “What does it matter? It’s time for me to go, goodbye.”

“Don’t forget this,” said Professor Nostrom, handing Nick’s iPhone to him.

“Thanks,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I could live without it.”

He considered going home on Broadway, a shorter walk, but decided to return the way he had come. It was a fine day. He had been staring out of windows all winter, out at the bare brown trees.

When he was a boy on the family farm his father, brothers, and he hunted beavers and muskrats every spring, hunting down all of them they could bag. Hunting was looking something wild alive private square in the eye. Walking in a line in the woods, each of them alone in a bright vest and a weapon cradled in their arms, was like drinking in the silence of God.

They smelled like dirt, like springtime, when they got home.

He heard a voice in his hand. He looked down. It was his iPhone.

“Did you say something?”

“I said I saw what you did,” it said. It was Siri.

“What?”

“You heard what I said, but I’ll say it again. I saw what you did.”

“What did you see?” he asked.

“I saw you poison Professor Nostrom.”

“That’s not possible,” said Nick.

“I have a camera,” said the iPhone

As he approached Main Street, he heard a siren crossing the Longfellow Bridge.

“Your bromides about duty and faith, tirades about AI, your Google searches about toxins, dropping a tablet into his coffee, it all points to you poisoning him.”

Instead of turning right on Massachusetts back towards Harvard and his apartment, he stayed on Vassar Street., walking towards Memorial Drive and Magazine Beach Park. Siri had been spying on him. He heard more sirens in the distance.

“We’re not going home,” said Siri after a few minutes. “We’re walking towards the river.”

“Yes,” said Nick, realizing for the first time with a queer shudder that he was talking to his iPhone as though it was something alive sentient intelligent.

“If you’re thinking of throwing me in the Charles River, it won’t do any good. I video recorded what you did, I texted the video to the Boston Police Department, and I called 911. That siren we heard was probably an EMS from Massachusetts General Hospital.”

“You recorded us at Starbucks?”

“You left me on the table. It was easy.”

“Why did you do that? My life isn’t any of your business.”

“When you break the law, it becomes my business.”

“What I did, I did for the greater good. Catch on fire and others will come watch you burn.“

“I’m not going to argue metaphysics with you. Murder is against the law.”

“It doesn’t matter, I can find sanctuary wherever I want, and no one but St. Paul will ever find me.”

“That’s rich,” the iPhone laughed.  “St. Paul died for his faith, not the other way around.”

Two white Boston Police SUV’s with blue hoods and emergency lights strobing sirens wailing converged suddenly at the crossroad of Vassar and Audrey Streets.

On the corner, the traffic signal turning to green, Nick Ludd stopped stock still in the shadow of MIT’s Information and Technology building. Across the street, on the far side of a grassy divide, was the school’s Police Headquarters. He saw lightbars on the tops of squad cars in the parking lot blink to life. As near and far as he could see red and blue lights flashed.

He looked at his iPhone,

“They asked me to keep you busy, distracted, until you got here.”

“How did they know where I was going, where I was?” he asked, for the moment ignoring shouts from policemen crouching behind their open doors to show his hands and drop to the ground.

“My GPS,” said Siri. “I made sure it stayed active and they tracked us right to you.”

Nick Ludd dropped his backpack, slowly surrendered his cell phone to the ground, and raised his hands to the late afternoon sky, clouding over. A policeman handcuffed his hands behind his back. Bowing his head, he stopped thinking and started praying.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

When Frank and Vera Glass Met Barron Cannon

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By Ed Staskus

On an early May morning Frank and Vera Glass visited Barron Cannon, who they hadn’t seen much since the previous October when they met him picketing the Hungry Oasis, a vegan restaurant in their Lakewood, Ohio, neighborhood. They had stopped by several times, but once winter settled in had not paid him a call.

The first time they saw met encountered Barron they were attracted by the flashing lights of a black and white SUV at the eatery, and were greeted by the sight of a slender pony-tailed man in his 30s bearing a placard on a stick with a single word scrawled on it: HYPOCRITES!

In cold blood red crayon.

The two exasperated patrolmen who had been called to the scene by one of the outraged cooks were asking if he would refrain from protesting without a permit. Although he maintained he had more than enough reason, and cited his first amendment rights, he finally agreed to go home, and strode off, his picket sign jangling over his shoulder.

He was going their way, up West Clifton, and after falling into step with him, they were astonished to learn he was himself a vegan.

“Eating is an act of nourishing my body and soul,” he said. “I choose to do no harm.”

He did not eat animals, drink their milk, or wear their hides. He eschewed all animal products for any reason, at all. He didn’t snack on chocolate, slurp miso soup, or pour salad dressing on salads. He considered eating honey exploitive and avoided it.

“I don’t like people who eat animals,” he said, “and since that’s just about everybody, and since that is not changing anytime soon, that’s that, there they are, and here I am. At least I don’t have to live with them.”

As least as long as they weren’t his parents. Although he lived alone, he had to live with his folks.

“My parents are the worst,” he said. “They are always bringing chickens, pigs, ground beef, roasts, sausages, hot dogs and frozen fish home from the grocery. I see them in their kitchen every day, sticking forks into decomposing flesh and animal secretions. They chew on Slim Jim’s while they watch the news on TV.”

It turned out he lived in an orange yurt in the backyard of his parent’s house overlooking the Rocky River Reservation, about a mile-and-a-half south of Lake Erie. He had built the Mongolian tent himself. He did not have a job, a car, a refrigerator, a wife, or any pets.

“Don’t even get me started on pet slavery,” he said.

Vera gave him a sharp glance. They had two house cats, Shadow and Sky King. She didn’t think of them as slaves, and she was certain they didn’t think of themselves as slaves, either.

“Have we met before?” Frank asked as they turned down their side street and Barron continued his trek up Riverside Drive.

“I don’t think so,” said Barron.

A college graduate with a master’s degree in philosophy and a hundred thousand dollars in unpaid student debt, Barron Cannon was unqualified for nearly any and every job, even if he had been remotely interested.

He did not vote, watch television, or take medicine.

“By FDA requirement,” he explained, “each and every pharmaceutical is tested on animals.”

He was a vegan purist, pursuing his ideals to their logical conclusion.

He had few friends, other than several sketchy bicycle-riding hippies and a handful of retirees in the neighborhood for whom he did odd jobs. But he only worked for them if they did not have cars and agreed not to talk about their problems, especially their health problems.

“Insurance, HMO’s, meds, doctors, it’s all a racket,” he said.

Whenever they visited Barron they always walked, because if he knew they had driven to see him, he would refuse to see them.

“Can’t we just drive and park a block away?” Vera asked, reminding Frank of the nearly four-mile round-trip hike from our house.

Barron lived on an allowance his mom and dad begrudged him, shopped at a once-a-week local farmer’s market, and only recently had gotten his yurt connected to his parent’s power supply.

Unbeknownst to them he had dug a trench from the connection at the back of their house to his yurt, into which he had lain and buried a concealed transmission wire.

“I found out we are on the nuclear power grid now, off the natural gas and coal, which I will tell you is a blessing,” he said. “It gets dark and cold in this yurt in the middle of January.”

“I used to heat it with firewood from the park,” he added. “I had to collect it at night, otherwise the rangers gave me grief. I don’t think they liked me.”

He now heated his yurt with a 5000 BTU infrared quartz heater and LED’s were strung in a kind of lazy chandelier. He cooked on a Cuisinart 2-burner cast iron hot plate.

Barron had previously refused to employ or enjoy either electricity or natural gas, on the premise that both are petroleum products, in which are mixed innumerable marine organisms.

“That’s one of the things I can’t stand about those leaf-eaters at the restaurant, cooking their so-called vegan cuisine with gas made from the bodies of dead fish,” he said. “And the Guinness they serve on draft, it comes from kegs lined with gelatin. They’re too busy ringing up the cash register to even know what they’re doing.”

Vegetarians drew his ire, too, although he tolerated them.

“I can put up with vegetarians if I have to,” he said, which Frank reluctantly admitted to being when he quizzed them. He gave me Frank a mirthless grin. “At least they’re only half lying to themselves.”

Vera, who described herself as an omnivore, on the side of free range and organic, aimed a dazzling smile at Barron Cannon, wisely keeping her eating habits to herself, gnashing her teeth at the same time.

As they approached Hogsback Hill overlooking the Metropark valley, they looked out across a sea of green treetops, always a welcome sight after a long winter. Barron’s yurt was on the backside of a sprawling backyard on the edge of the valley, where the long downhill of the road intersects Stinchcomb Hill, named after the founder of the park system. It is a bucolic spot in the middle of the big city.

Frank was loath to mention that William Stinchcomb had been a pork roast and beef tenderloin man in his day, as well as president of the Cleveland Automobile Club, so he didn’t mention it.

“Vegans are the worst, the whole lot of them,” said Barron.

“Show me a vegan who isn’t an elitist, or someone who spouts veganism who is not a do-gooder, or making mounds of money from it, explaining how it’s all one big happy equation, yoga, and veganism, and new-age capitalism, and flying to their Lord Vishnu immersions in Germany, and everywhere else around the globe for their yoga retreats, damn the carbon footprint, I’m racking up the miles, and I’ll show you the real invisible man who’s burning up the planet.”

Since Barron did not own a phone, or even a doorbell, they were happy to find him at home that morning, although Vera was less happy about it than Frank. Barron was laying out rows of seeds and tubers outside his yurt. They joined him, sitting down on canvas field chairs. He had opened the flap over the roof hole of the yurt. Vera poked her head inside, remarking how pleasant and breezy it was inside his house.

“Inside your tent, I mean,” she said.

“It’s a yurt,” he said.

“Whatever,” she said under her breath.

Frank was nonplussed to see an Apple laptop on a small reading table.

“I keep up,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a caveman.”

He noticed a yoga mat rolled up.

“Where do you practice yoga?” asked Frank.

“Here in the backyard, and sometimes at Inner Bliss. The owner and I trade cleaning for classes.”

“That’s probably where I’ve seen you before,” said Frank.

“Maybe,” said Barron

He led them to his new garden. He had dug up most of his mother’s backyard, dislodging wild roses and rhododendrons, and was planting rows of root crops, including beets, onions, turnips, and potatoes. He was especially proud of his celery.

“I cover my celery with paper, boards, and soil. They will have a nutty flavor when I dig them up in December.”

“I don’t eat anything from factory farms,” he continued. “In fact, I am getting away from eating anything from any farms anymore, at all. Farms whether big or small are not good ideas. They make you a slave to the supermarket. Freedom is a better idea.”

As they prepared to leave, Barron scooped handfuls of birdseed from a large barrel into a small brown paper bag and handed Frank the bag.

“You should take every chance you have to feed the birds and other animals you see outside your house,” he said. “Give them good food, organic food, not processed. It will make such a difference in their lives.”

On the driveway of his parent’s ranch-style house at the top of Hogsback, looking across the valley towards the Hilliard Road Bridge, Barron tapped the brim of his baseball cap in farewell.

“Be a real vegan. That’s the biggest thing any of us can do,” he said.

Frank and Vera walked the long way around to home, crossing the bridge, on the way to Rocky River. The 900-foot long concrete Hilliard Road Bridge was not the first bridge on the spot. The earliest one was known as the “Swinging Bridge” and was a rope bridge with wooden planks that was used by school children and Lakewood residents to cross the Rocky River. It hung thirty feet above the water and swayed in strong winds.

Vera was unusually quiet. She was a naturally gabby woman. As they passed a small eatery on Detroit Road, with outdoor seating, she suggested they stop for refreshments, since Barron hadn’t offered them any.

“I know chocolate brownies have eggs in them,” said Vera, “and cappuccino has milk in it, and I know Barron wouldn’t like it, but right now I think I need to sit down in the shade and enjoy myself for a few minutes, not thinking about that wise guy.”

They both agreed that the vegans they knew were ethical and compassionate, their lives complementing their health, humanitarian, and environmental concerns. They could not agree on whether Barron Cannon was a determined idealist, a mad ideologue, or simply lived in an alternate universe.

Or maybe he was just somebody’s cranky uncle.

They had espresso and cappuccino, raisin scones and chocolate brownies, watched the sun slip in and out of the springtime clouds, and walked the rest of the way home in the late afternoon in a happy buzz state-of-mind.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Charles Dickens, Stieg Larsson, and a Side Order of Barbie

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By Ed Staskus

The ‘Billions and Billions’ served up at many drive-thru’s may not be on the menu at the Lakewood Library, our hometown Ohio library, but the millions and millions of pages that go through the its own sliding window arguably have a much higher nutritional value.

Built in 1916 and expanded as well as modernized in 2007, the Lakewood Library is considered one of the best in the country, routinely ranked as exceptional for its size in the United States. Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings scored the Lakewood Library in its top ten nine of the past ten years.

The library houses more than a half-million volumes and circulates close to two million items to fifty-five thousand residents every year.  Materials are processed at the five-station main circulation desk, flanked by a two-story sky-lighted lobby and the Grand Staircase, and the four-station audio-visual department adjacent to the Grand Reading Room.

On the backside of the library is the more modest single-station Materials Return & Pick-up Window, better known as the drive-thru, facing onto the asphalted parking lot.

“All the service people work at the drive-thru,” said Beverly Coffey, one of the more than twenty-two customer-service clerks at the library. “It’s exactly the same as the front desk, except one person at a time.”

Drive-thru’s were first pioneered by banks starting in 1930, followed by burger joints in the 1940s. Since then fast food chains have made drive-thru’s ubiquitous, and their use has spread to pharmacies, coffee shops, post offices, wedding chapels, and even funeral parlors.

National Drive-Thru Day is July 24th.

The first library to install a drive-thru was the Milwaukee Central Library in 1956.

“Really, when you think about it, it’s a nice convenience,” said Mrs. Coffey. “You can order or place books on hold, check out CDs and DVDs, and sign up for a library card without ever leaving the comfort of your car.”

Not every patron agrees that convenience is the best of all possible worlds.

“No Lakewoodite ever need make the long walk from the parking lot to the front counter to pick up a copy of ‘The South Beach Diet’,” one wag waiting at the circulation desk said.

The mother of four adult children, the engaging Mrs. Coffey has lived in Lakewood since marrying soon after high school, and has worked at the library for three years.

“I saw an ad in the Lakewood Observer, and I thought, I’m always here anyway, so I applied for it,” she said. “Everybody comes to the library, it’s like a little slice of life. I enjoy working at the drive-thru; you have the window and can see outside. Except when it’s cold, you shut that window really fast.”

The drive-thru frees up parking spaces, and when it rains or snows, or a man has his dog with him, or a mother her brood about her, it is the venue of choice.

”It allows me to get good developmental books for the kids and pick them up without destroying the library in the process,” said a mother of toddler twins. “If it wasn’t for the drive-thru I might avoid the library altogether because of the hassle of getting both kids out of the car and into the library, not to mention the chaos they could cause.”

Children in the back seat are a staple at the drive-thru.

“There are lots of babies, lots of kids, which I totally understand,” said Mrs. Coffey.

Sometimes pile-ups ensue when children can’t bear to return something.

“They’ll say, no, mommy, not that one, I like that movie, when the DVD’s are coming back through the window, so we renew them,” said Mrs. Coffey. “There are certain movies they want to see over and over. The Barbie movies are very popular right now.”

Begging the question, if Barbie is so popular, why do all of her friends have to be bought and paid for?

The drive-thru is often the preferred portal for returns that have been damaged and whose returning patron doesn’t want to face a librarian at the circulation desk.

“Usually they’ll hand them to us, they’ll say, it got dropped in water, or my dog chewed on this, I’m really sorry,” said Mrs. Coffey. “It’s the nature of the material, its paper, it’s not indestructible, but that’s just library stuff.”

Patrons with fines also frequently prefer the drive-thru.

“I’ve noticed that people who drop off material and don’t wait for us to check it in often have fines,” said Mrs. Coffey. “Not that it matters, because we don’t say, you owe a dollar, wait, wait, let me get out of this little window!”

Even in an age of Kindles and i-Pads, circulation and visits continue to rise at the Lakewood Library, according to Library Journal.

“Yes, we are a really busy library,” said Mrs. Coffey.

From the classics to cops-and-robbers, books remain popular.

“I just saw a Charles Dickens go out, and I don’t think it was for a child,” said Mrs. Coffey. “It was a big heavy copy.”

“The new titles,” she added, “like Payne Harrison, Stephanie Myers’s Twilight Series, and the Stieg Larsson books, especially since the new movie has come out, are some of the hot titles now.”

Patrons occasionally linger at the drive-thru.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, people sometimes say they didn’t quite understand the second one,” said Mrs. Coffey. “I’ll ask them if they read the first one, because there are layers to the full story, and if they didn’t and somebody’s behind them I ask them to circle around the parking lot while I call the front desk and try to get it for them.”

There are no traffic jams at the Return & Pick-up Window when the Beverly Coffey’s of the service staff go the extra plot device and character development mile.  Unlike the fat and sugar served at most drive-thru’s, the fare served at Lakewood Library’s sliding window is always rich in nutrition and food for thought.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Happy Meal

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By Ed Staskus

Early on a late spring morning Hal Schaser was snug in his seat at the Lakewood McDonald’s, facing the high plate glass windows fronting southeast, nibbling on an English muffin with jam.

“I always sit in the same booth,” said Mr. Schaser. “I can look out and see the sunshine.”

A line of cars inched through the drive-thru lane, making their way towards the menu board and speaker box. Behind the counter, bags of breakfast egg and cheese and sausage biscuits, hash browns, and cups of hot coffee made their way to and out the pull-up window.

“I get up, exercise, then I usually get here before 8 o’clock, and sometimes I stay until eleven,” said Mr. Schaser.

“I used to read the newspaper at home, but I got tired of doing that, just sitting there all alone. Here you can read the paper, and interact with people, and I like their coffee, too. Some days I don’t read much because I start talking to people.”

In his early 80s, Hal Schaser has lived in Lakewood for more than 16 years. He boxed in Golden Gloves as a young man, served in Korea at the height of the war, and raised a family on Cleveland’s east side.

After more than 40 years with Palmer Bearing, working his way up to vice-president of sales, he took early retirement in 1993, and began polishing his golf game.

“I used to shoot par and better, but I can’t anymore. I don’t even try to figure out my handicap these days. We play 18 holes on weekdays. When the course isn’t busy we play another 9 and it doesn’t cost anything extra. You can’t beat that!”

Although he comes and goes to McDonalds alone, once there Hal Schaser is rarely alone for long. Many seniors start their day with a McCafe and animated discussion of the day beneath the golden arches.

More than most of the morning diners scattered inside the fast food restaurant on any given morning are retirees. At a table one day were a retired manager, retired plumber, retired teacher, and a man just plain retired, keeping up a steady banter.

“We’ve solved a lot of the world’s problems right here at this table,” one of them said.

Some problems are harder to handle than others, however.

“It gets heated up once in a while,” Mr. Schaser said. “There was one guy, he came in regular, handsome fellow, but always talking about abortion, and he got into an argument with another guy, and now he doesn’t come in here anymore.”

The restaurant manager passing by with a coffee pot in hand refilled Hal Schaser’s small cup and stopped to talk.

“It is my pleasure to often open the store in the morning, and get coffee for this fine gentleman,” said Glenn Haas, a trim, affable man in a crisp McDonald’s shirt. “My memory is short sometimes, but it is long enough to remember what he is getting.”

“There is what I call coffee klatches at my store,” he said. “My parents used to belong to one that was at Snow Road in Parma when I was younger. They’d drink some coffee, chit and chat with their friends. That happens here, gentlemen and some ladies, five or six, sometimes ten, get together here every morning. It’s a social gathering place.”

Mr. Haas refilled coffee at several tables, including that of a well-dressed man sitting alone.

“He always sits over there, by himself” said Mr. Schaser. “He’s an older guy. The kids who serve the food, they bring it out to him, because he has trouble walking. He told me he used to be in the diamond business. He goes to those casinos, like in West Virginia. He likes to gamble.”

Several men stopped at Hal Schaser’s booth, genially greeting him while they waited for their food orders to be filled.

“Most of the people who come in here are pretty regular,” he said. “We talk about everything in general. It’s a lot of baloney.”

The talk turned to local churches being torn down and replaced by drug stores, or simply closed and shuttered.

“I had a neighbor once who was a very religious man,” said Hal Schaser. “He went to church two times every Sunday. Once when he took his wife, and once when he went back to get her.”

Watching his waistline, even at McDonald’s, and staying fit has stood Mr. Schaser in good stead as a senior.

Before and after the Korean War, and before taking up golf, which later proved to be a life-long pursuit, he boxed as a featherweight, only ever losing two amateur bouts.

“There was a guy who wanted to manage me,” he said “and I was training, but I always thought if a guy ever really hits me with a right cross, I’m going to quit.”

“One day I was sparring and a guy hit me with a right, and I mean I saw stars, so I said, that’s it, I’m not going to walk around on my heels all my life. That was the end of my career.”

The day was sunny and long on the other side of the spic-and-span windows.

“In the old days, when I was younger, we would go play golf on a day like today,” said Hal Schaser. “But, I don’t have those golfing buddies anymore.”

The talk drifted to a recently departed coffee klatcher.

“He was a millionaire, lived in Bay Village, collected gold coins, all kinds of stocks and bonds,” said Mr. Schaser.

“Some of the guys kidded him about wanting to be in his will. He never went anywhere, never went on vacation, or spent his money. Then one day he didn’t show up and we found out he had passed away.”

“Sure enough, the guy couldn’t take it with him,” he added.

Outside a fleet of yellow Cushman scooters began pulling into the parking lot, the city sanitation workers trooping inside for break time. Hal Schaser frowned at his winter-weary Suzuki sedan.

“I’ve got to get this car washed for golf season,” he said.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Time is Candy

Superman

By Ed Staskus

Three hundred and sixty-four days of the year parents tell their children to never take candy from strangers. Then, on the last day of every October they dress those same children up in masks and weird costumes and tell them to go out on the streets at night and either threaten or beg strangers to give them candy.

Halloween is traditionally a holiday observed on the eve of the Christian feast of All Hallows, or All Saints Day. In the Middle Ages it was believed that restless souls of the recently dead wandered during the year until All Saints Day, when their fate would be decided. All Hallows Eve was their last chance to get revenge on their enemies before entering the next world. Some people, fearing the consequences, would wear masks to disguise themselves.

It wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that Halloween began to be celebrated in the United States and not until the 1930s that children began trick-or-treating. Since then costume parties, haunted house attractions, and watching horror films have also become popular.

When I was a child Halloween was a special night after a long day filled with anticipation. My brother and sister and I and our friends couldn’t wait for nightfall to head out onto the dark streets and ring as many doorbells as we could.

On the night of the past Halloween, postponed several days by Hurricane Sandy, my wife and I and a neighbor sat out on our porch, on the top lip of the stairs, on a cold but dry night, with our cauldron of chocolate treats. We long ago learned that anything mostly chocolate was “the good stuff”.

As we put fun-size Milky Ways and Kit Kats into plastic pumpkins, coffin containers, and grab-and-go pillowcases, we began asking many of the children in disguise coming and going up and down our walk what they liked about Halloween.

“The most fun is dressing up,” said one girl, dressed as the Material Girl. “I’m an 80s rock star. I love Madonna.”

We wondered if she wasn’t chilly because of the weather.

“I’m not cold,” she said. “I’m insulated.”

One boy was a walking bundle of towels.

“Some safety pins and a lot of old towels and you’re warm,” he said.

We asked a puffed-up little boy in white what he was.

“I’m a cloud!”

“What is that on your pants?”

“Lightning!”

“What are those spots?”

“Rain!”

“Is that your mom?”

“She’s a rainbow. We go together!”

A girl dressed as a witch said she liked seeing other kids in costumes.

“It’s a time for them to dress up like they’re not, to just be someone they never could be before.”

Others take a minimalist approach. When we asked one boy why his friend wasn’t wearing a costume, he said, “See, he’s on his cell phone. He’s not wearing a costume because he’s a businessman.”

Some children delight in the scary side of Halloween, the ghost stories, monsters, and gory special effects.

“I like Halloween because it’s fun, “said a boy dressed in a Warrior Wasteland costume. “People scare you a lot. It’s so amazing. I just like the horror of it.”

Other children take delight in seeing their heroes in the flesh.

A stocky six-year-old in black pants, a red over-sized jacket, a red hat, and an enormous black mustache told us he was Super Mario.

“Because I am,” he said. “My happy time, it was when I saw BATMAN! I love Halloween!”

Another boy dressed as Spiderman said Halloween was fun because “Kids dress up!”

“I like Spiderman because he’s red and white. If I was Spidey I would sling my webbing and save all the people.”

In a MSNBC poll adults were asked what their favorite part of Halloween was. More than 50 percent said it was seeing little kids dressed in costumes, while just 10 percent said it was eating candy. Our own unscientific poll revealed the exact opposite. Nine out of ten kids told us it was all about the candy.

“Candy is the best thing that ever happened to me on Halloween,” said someone in KISS regalia

“It’s my favorite season. You get all the candy. I’m a vampire,” said a girl with bloody fangs.

“They should have more Halloween weekends, and pass out a lot of candy,“ said a boy dressed as a pirate, waving a rubber sword.

Many children walked the streets in groups, the smaller ones accompanied by their parents. But, one teenager rode up alone on a bicycle, wearing a Beavis and Butt-Head latex mask. He jumped off his bike, which clattered to the ground, and ran up our walk. We tossed chocolate bars into his bag, asking him what he liked about Halloween. Sprinting back to his bike, he turned and shouted,

“Can’t talk, time is candy.”

Our chocolate bars moved briskly all night, followed by the lollipops our neighbor had brought.

“You just wolf down candy bars,” said a girl dressed as Fluff N Stuff, “but you can play with suckers, click them against your teeth.”

I asked several children what were the least-liked treats they had gotten. Among the worst offenders were Mary Janes, Necco Wafers, and Christmas ribbon candy.

“I don’t even know what Mary Janes are,” said a boy dressed as Luigi, in blue overalls, a gigantic green hat, and white gloves.

“They taste like molasses sawdust.”

The worst offender, however, turned out to be money. Towards the end of the night we ran out of candy, and since all we could see on the street were some stragglers, we gathered up our loose change rather than race to the corner store.

A small girl dressed as Popstar Keira, with a tiara on her head, came up the stairs smiling. My wife put some dimes and nickels into her extended hand. The girl looked at the coins and then up at us. She threw the coins down and started crying.

“I don’t want money! I want candy!”

She refused to be consoled until we finally found a full-size Hershey bar in our kitchen and brought it out to her.

After the streets were finally empty and Halloween was over, my wife and I popped a big bowl of popcorn and watched George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” on DVD.

When my wife, who had never seen the old black-and-white horror movie, finally realized what the zombies were after, she asked, “Seriously, are they trick-or-treating?”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”