All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a free-lance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

The End of Taupa

arrested-in-handcuffs

When former CEO Alex Spirikaitis was arrested on the afternoon of Monday, October 21, 2013, he had been on the run for three months, accused of embezzling more than $10 million from the $23.6 million Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union in Cleveland, Ohio.

He had changed his appearance by growing hair on his formerly shaved head and shaving his goatee. Despite speculation he had fled to Europe or South America, he was apprehended in the Collinwood neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side.

“He was actually walking down the street when they spotted him,” said FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson. Although he had left behind multiple semi-automatic weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition stored at the credit union, he was arrested without incident. “He did not put up a fight.”

The FBI would not say how he been tracked to Collinwood, only that they had “developed information based upon advanced investigative techniques that led to his apprehension,” a brief statement said.

He was less than three miles from the shuttered Taupa Credit Union.

Modern credit unions date to mid-nineteenth century Germany, where they were conceived as ‘people’s banks’ leveraging social capital to serve farmers and the working class. The first credit union in North America began operations in 1901 with a ten-cent deposit. Today more than 8000 credit unions in the United States serve over 90 million members with total assets of nearly $800 billion.

Managed by their members, most credit unions are non-profit cooperatives taking in deposits, promoting thrift, and making loans.  Unlike banks, individuals combine in them to manage and control their own money. Credit unions range from corporate to community institutions serving local schools and churches.

When Augis Dicevicius emigrated from Lithuania to Cleveland in the early 2000s, he opened an account at Taupa. “It was like loyalty,” he said, describing why he kept an account there. The employees at Taupa were from the immigrant community, spoke Lithuanian, and over time became more like friends than bankers.

“There is a level of trust from both sides of the counter at Taupa because you know who you are dealing with,” explained Algis Gudenas, former chairman of the credit union’s board of directors, three years before the National Credit Union Association liquidated it. “I think the slogan of Taupa more or less says it: save with one of your own.”

From the 1930s when the federal government began to charter them, credit unions grew steadily, especially among immigrant groups. They were instrumental in helping establish Poles, Germans, Italians, and the more recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants in their new homeland. When creating the Office of Ethnic Affairs in 1976 President Ford cited “the ethnic church, school, and credit union” as fostering “a sense of neighborhood.”

Wherever Lithuanians have settled they have formed their own credit unions, from coast to coast. Founded in 1969, the California Lithuanian Credit Union has assets of $72 million. The Boston Lithuanian Federal Credit Union celebrated its 33rd anniversary in 2013. From its roots in the basement of a hall in the early 1950s, Toronto’s Parama has grown to be the word’s largest Lithuanian credit union.

Already by 1906 in Cleveland the Lithuanian Building and Loan Association, sometimes known as the Lithuanians’ bank, had been established, even though the community numbered less than 1000 at the time. After World War II it evolved into Superior Savings and Loan. In the 1980s, when Cleveland was by then home to more than sixteen thousand Lithuanian Americans and their descendants, Taupa was founded and served the community for almost thirty years.

With approximately 1100 members and $24 million in assets, located a short walk from both their church and the Lithuanian Village cultural center, Taupa was stable, healthy, and growing, year after year, even in an economy often troubled by bank failures and recessions.

Until the evening of July 16th, when police and federal agents surrounded Alex Spirikaitis’s $1.7 million home in Solon, a bedroom suburb 25 miles southeast of Cleveland. It was four days after the decision had been made by the state to liquidate the credit union, determining it was insolvent and had no prospect for restoring viable operations.

Armed with a warrant for his arrest for fraud, when authorities approached the home they were met by his family, who told them he was inside, but refused to come out.

“Family members left the house with us and we thought, from the information we gathered, that he was not going to willingly come out,” said Special Agent Vicki Anderson.

The police decided to regroup, the size and layout of the large house playing a big part in their decision to wait for daylight.

After a nightlong standoff, the neighborhood cordoned off for safety’s sake, and TV news crews at the ready, tactical teams entered the house in the morning.

But, the police came up empty. He was not there.

Before the first members made their first deposits in 1984, the credit union was just a hope and a dream. “We were in our kitchen having coffee one morning, talking about it like we had for months,” recalled Angele Staskus, ”when my husband suddenly said that yes, we were going to go ahead.” Believing Cleveland’s Lithuanians would be better off banding together for their savings and loan needs, Vic Staskus took his brainchild to an ad hoc committee made up of Vytautas Maurutis, Vacys Steponis, Gintaras Tauras, and Vincas Urbaitis. Taupa was coined as its name and chartered by the state.

At a meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church attended by fewer than twenty people, they collected $4000 in deposits, convinced local Lithuanian attorney Algis Sirvaitis to donate space for an office, and hired Rimute Nasvitiene, who became Taupa’s first employee.

“At first we did everything by hand,” said Vic Staskus. Later that year the Toronto credit union offered them their old computing machine. “It took four of us to bring it into our office, since it was as big as a table, and on top of that we lost most of our small space to it.” Fortunately, through a friend at IBM, they were soon able to secure a more modern system.

After they purchased their own building from a retiring Lithuanian doctor in 1985, deposits began to pour in.  “That was a problem,” Vic Staskus recalled shortly before his death in January 2011. “We had no loans, so we were earning very little. We asked one of our board members to take out a loan. He said he didn’t need anything. Every time we asked him, he said no. But, we were finally able to convince him and he took a loan out for $500, and gradually people began to realize we were lending.”

By 1990, when Vic Staskus left Taupa, the credit union had nearly $8 million in assets and delivered most of the same services banks did. “I knew we could offer better rates and interest, and I always believed we could offer as many advantages as banks to our members,” he said.

Alex Spirikaitis joined Taupa in the early 1990s, at first working at the front counter as a clerk, later promoted to assistant manager, and eventually taking on the role of CEO, as the credit union quadrupled its assets in those years.

“He lived on the same street as we did, in the neighborhood, just down the street from the credit union, when we were children,” said Rita Zvirblis, who served as secretary for Taupa’s board of directors in its early years. “He was a really nice kid, really quiet.”

Former board director Ricardas Sirvinskas described Spirikaitis as well liked, especially by older members, because he spoke Lithuanian fluently. “The older generation of Lithuanians, they really liked Alex very much.”

After he was arrested, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth McHargh unsealed an affidavit revealing the extent of the embezzlement, more than $10 million, making it one of the largest cases of fraud against a credit union in the country. The largest, recently involving St. Paul Croatian Credit Union, was coincidentally also in Cleveland, Ohio.

The criminal complaint against Alex Spirikaitis is for allegedly making false statements to a credit union from 2011 through 2013.

“He printed out numbers he wanted to report to auditors and the National Credit Union Association and taped them over the real numbers from the true Corporate One Federal Credit Union bank account statements,” the affidavit states. “Spirikaitis then photocopied the altered documents resulting in a document that mimicked the appearance of a statement coming directly from Corporate One.”

“Everybody accepted the financial statements Alex provided us, and everybody appeared to be happy with them,” said Vincas Urbaitis, a founding member of the credit union who sat on its board for more than 25 years until resigning in 2011. “I guess everybody just got duped.”

During the summer as Spirikaitis remained at large federal prosecutors seized his wife’s luxury SUVs and moved to take legal possession of his home. Court documents reveal that the down payment for the house, the construction of which took a year, was paid with two checks totaling $100,000 from Alex Spirikaitis’s personal account at the credit union.

“All remaining checks, totaling approximately $1,555,132, came from Spirikaitis in the form of Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union official checks,” court documents say. “While working at the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union, Spirikaitis never made in excess of $50,000.”

The Adirondack-style house on a five-acre lot features two full kitchens, indoor swimming pool, entertainment room with big screen and movie projectors, five-and-a-half bathrooms, and an elevator. “No Trespassing” signs surround it.

“I don’t think anybody from the board of directors knew or anyone within the Lithuanian community knew he was building a house,” said Vincas Urbaitis. “He was not very social. But he was not antisocial. He would talk to you about the business aspects of the credit union, but I don’t even know who his close friends were.”

Ricardas Sirvinskas described Spirikaitis as a quiet person, keeping to himself, and only rarely attending social events in the Lithuanian community.

Although court documents are not completely clear regarding the final tally of money missing, Vincas Urbaitis asked why examiners had not verified the statements prepared by Spirikaitis.

“They never went to the bank, Corporate One, and asked independently as to how much money was in the accounts,” he said.

Vytautas Kliorys, board president of Taupa at the time it was closed and liquidated, also questioned the credit union’s third-party audit firm and examiners. “The board believed that it had all the procedures in place to prevent this sort of event,” he said. “We had received excellent and very good reports from the annual state exams, and we had even gone one step further than required and used an outside CPA firm to perform annual independent audits.”

Paul Hixon, VP of marketing at Corporate One, had no comment other than to say the National Credit Union Association was investigating. Officials said it would take up to six months to complete a full forensic account process.

The Lithuanian community reacted to Taupa’s closing with dismay. “For those in Cleveland that have been watching the news for the last few days know that the Lithuanian community in Cleveland has been in the spotlight,” said Regina Motiejunas-McCarthy, co-host of Siaurinis Krantas: Lithuanian Radio. “Not because of something good but because of a tragedy.”

The unexpected closure of the credit union affected all its members, freezing their accounts for a month-and-more, even though they were insured, as well as severely impacting several businesses, including the Lithuanian Community Center.

“Like many other businesses that have their accounts there, we are all scrambling to open new checking accounts with basically no liquid cash other than from sales over the weekend,” Ruta Degutis, president of the center, said when the credit union was closed.

“Alex assumed a public trust when he became CEO of Taupa, to help better the lives of others,” said one of the members. “It was not given to him as an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” After 30 years Cleveland’s Lithuanian community had lost one of the pillars of its community.

After his arrest U.S. Magistrate Keneth McHargh found Alex Spirikaitis indigent and qualified for a court-appointed public defender. Since a “Go Bag” filled with blank identification cards, mobile phone cards, and stored value cards that could be used as cash had been found in Spirikaitis’s office, the magistrate also ruled he be held behind bars without bond. Assistant federal public defender Darin Thompson did not challenge the no-bond ruling. Spirikaitis agreed to waive his right to a detention hearing. The case was bound over to a federal grand jury.

Alex Spirikaitis left the U.S. District Court in downtown Cleveland as he had entered it, hands handcuffed behind his back, looking at no one in the crowded court.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Here Comes the Sun

sign for Acropolis nestling beneath the fig tree

The temperature was in the 90’s, just like it had been for weeks, and the humidity was mosquito-like, which it had been for weeks, also, when my wife and I went for a walk on the multi-purpose path in the Rocky River Metropark.

The Metroparks, more than a hundred years in the making, are a series of nature preserves, more than 21,000 acres, which encircle Cleveland and its suburbs. There are hundreds of miles of paths and horse trails, picnic areas and fishing spots, and eight golf courses.

Our home is perched alongside the eastern edge of the Rocky River valley and we are able to get to the park in minutes, where it is considerably cooler in the shade of the forest and along the river.

We walked down the Detroit Road entrance to the park, past the marina, the Dog Park and the soccer fields, as far as Tyler Field, before turning around. As we neared Hogsback Hill, an isolated high point on the near bank of the Rocky River, I suggested we go up to see my friend Barron Cannon, whom we hadn’t seen since the spring.

“You know I don’t want to,” my wife said.

“I know,” I said.

Barron Cannon is a trim young man in his 30s who lives in a yurt he built in the backyard of his parent’s house at the top of Hogsback Lane. He has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Philosophy and is a committed yogi as well as a radical vegan.

“He needs to be committed,” my wife has said to me on several occasions, usually right after we have visited him and are out of earshot.

“Why can’t he occupy Wall Street instead of his mom’s backyard?” she likes to add.

Barron Cannon does not have a job or a car or a television. He has never voted.

“I’ll vote when anarchists are on the ballot,” he once told me.

I wanted to remind him that anarchists who vote are like atheists who pray, but I thought, what was the point?

We found Barron Cannon in the backyard, lying face-up in the sun on an Elmo Sesame Street beach blanket on the south side of his yurt. He was naked except for a fig leaf covering his private parts.

It was a literal fig leaf.

My wife looked away when he propped himself up on his elbows and the fig leaf rolled away

“Sorry,” he said, pulling on a pair of cargo shorts. “I was getting my daily dose of sunshine here on the acropolis.”

He was tan, from tip to toe. I could see he hadn’t been using an SPF lotion of any kind.

“You should be careful,” I suggested. “Too much sun isn’t good for you.”

“That’s where you’re right, but even more wrong,” he replied.

“Too much sun may be bad, depending on your skin and heredity, but avoiding the sun is not good for anyone. Remember, we evolved in the sun, living outdoors for almost all of our two million years on this planet.”

He put on a pair of old-fashioned Ray-Ban black frame sunglasses and leaned towards me.

“Then, not very long ago, we started messing with Mother Nature and started avoiding the sun. When you avoid the sun you may not get rickets, because you can always take a pill, but all the pills in the world can’t replace the real thing.”

He pointed up to the sky.

”When you strictly avoid the sun you increase the risk of dying from internal cancers,” he added.

I must have looked skeptical, because he tilted his dark glasses down his nose Lolita-style and exhaled.

“Look it up,” he said.

It turns out the International Journal of Epidemiology more than 30 years ago reported that colon cancer rates are nearly three times higher in New York than in New Mexico. Since then many other studies have found solar UVB induced vitamin D is also associated with reduced risks of breast and rectal cancers.

“When the government and our medical organizations started telling us to avoid the sun, they literally forgot to tell us we would need to get our vitamin D somewhere else,” he said`.

By this time my wife had wandered off and was commiserating with Barron Cannon’s mother about the flower garden her son had torn out and replaced with a root vegetable plot that spring.

“Vitamin D is a hormone,” he said, “and it’s produced naturally when skin is exposed to UVB in sunlight.”

He told me vitamin D sufficiency is linked to a reduction in 105 diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer. Some researchers believe vitamin D deficiency contributes to nearly 400,000 premature deaths and adds a $100 billion dollar burden to the health care system.

By some estimates vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic, with some studies indicating greater than 50 percent of the global population at risk.

77 percent of Americans are considered vitamin D deficient, according to government data.

“Do you know why?” Barron Cannon asked me.

“No,” I said.

“I think overzealous sun avoidance is the only plausible explanation for the 50 percent increase in that figure in the past 15 years,” he said, slapping a fist into his palm for emphasis.

“I take vitamin D every morning,” I said. “I don’t have to go out in the sun. Besides, it’s been unbearably hot this summer and there are lots of bugs since we had such a mild winter.”

“You think science is complete and knows everything,” he said. “You assume modern science understands all the benefits of sunlight and that the only good it does is make vitamin D.”

“Yes,” I said.

“That is not true,” Barron Cannon said. “Let me give you an example.”

He told me about a recent study authored by Dr. Bryan Becklund and Professor Hector DeLuca of the University of Wisconsin and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. They discovered that vitamin D, or something in UV light, retarded progression of an animal model of multiple sclerosis, which is a painful neurological disease for which there is no cure. While vitamin D suppressed progression of the animal model, UV light worked even better. The report concluded that UV light was having an effect independent of vitamin D production.

“If it’s true in humans, it means that sunlight, or UV light, contains something good in addition to vitamin D,” he said. “We just don’t know what it is.”

Our ancestors evolved naked on the plains of equatorial Africa.

“The sun was directly overhead. We have a long, long evolutionary bond with the sun. Humans make thousands of units of vitamin D, and who knows what else, within minutes of whole body exposure to sunlight. It is unlikely such a system evolved by chance. When we sever the relationship between ourselves and sunlight, we proceed at our own peril.”

Barron Cannon gave me a sharp look and leaned back on his elbows

At a loss for words, I was grateful when my wife reappeared.

“I’m getting a little toasty in all this sunlight,” she said.

I agreed that we should be going. We both bid Barron Cannon goodbye and made our way home.

After dinner that night, as my wife watched ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on Turner Classic Movies, sitting on the front porch in the orange-red light of a quiet sunset I skimmed a review of a paper in the British Medical Journal by Professor Simon Pearce.

“Some people are taking the safe sun message too far. Vitamin D levels are precarious in parts of the population. They stay at home on computer games. It’s good to have 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to the sun two to three times a week.”

As I put my iPad away I thought I might give it a try in our backyard, without slathering on any sunscreen as I normally did, but definitely wearing a pair of shorts.

Where did Barron Cannon get fig leaves, anyway, I wondered?

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Raise High the Roof Beam Mel and Berdie

golrghakola-e1449877325970.jpg

Every Sunday morning Mel Hakola, at the front of the auditorium, leads the congregation at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River, Ohio, across from the town’s high school, in three hymns during the service, as well as singing a solo, accompanied by his organist Berdie d’Aliberti.

“The church has a wonderful atmosphere,” said Mel. “It’s a fabulous place to sing.”

Berdie d’Aliberti plays a Schantz organ, manufactured in Orrville, Ohio, from a recessed nook to the side of the reader’s platform.

“It’s a small instrument, but it’s an excellent pipe organ,” she said. “And the pipes are real.”

“We’re the music,” said Mel. “We help the people have a good religious experience. My role as a singer is to create a spiritual atmosphere for the worship of the congregation.”

Mel Hakola began singing at the church in 1974, when its members were looking for a new soloist, and Berdie d’Aliberti joined him twenty years later.

“We were at college together, and when the organist left I talked her into coming here,” he said.

Mel Hakola began singing in churches in Painesville when he was nine-years-old. “I sang in a boy’s choir in an Episcopal church, although I’m not Episcopalian. I am Finnish, so I was raised in a Lutheran family.”

As a boy he spent his summers at Camp Waliro, a choir camp on South Bass Island, named after Warren Lincoln Rogers, an Episcopalian bishop. “I worked there in the summers, as a dishwasher, because my family didn’t have the money for lessons, from when I was nine until I was seventeen-years-old. The camp ran for eight weeks, and every week boy choirs from different churches would come to the camp, but since I worked there I stayed all summer. I learned so much about music, in general, and sacred music especially. It helped me become the musician I became.”

A professor emeritus at Baldwin Wallace University, Mel taught voice for 38 years before retiring. The Conservatory of Music at BW created the Mel Hakola Prize for Academic and Vocal Excellence to reward voice students who demonstrate vocal and musical abilities and ‘who have the potential to make a significant contribution to music performance.’

Berdie d’Aliberti was born in Brilliant, Ohio. “My father was a Methodist minister and I am his brilliant daughter. I played prayer meetings from when I was seven-years-old.” She is a distinguished alumna of the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music. She has served on faculties at BW and the University of Akron, and is a piano accompanist at concerts throughout the Midwest, and most recently, at Carnegie Hall.

Neither Mel nor Berdie are Christian Scientists, which matters neither to them or the church. Music praises God, and in some respects music is a church’s greatest adornment. “In church, sacred music would make believers of us all,“ wrote the American journalist Mignon McLaughlin.

“I do a prelude before the service, ten minutes of organ music,” said Berdie. ”I play an offertory, a postlude at the end of the service, Mel leads the congregation in three hymns, and he sings a solo. The readers of the church pick the hymns, he picks his own solo, and I pick my own organ music.”

“We both have libraries of sacred songs, so many of them you wouldn’t believe it,” said Mel. “All the classical composers from Bach onward have written sacred songs, Handel, Mendelssohn, John Rudder. We have sung many songs by Ralph Vaughn Williams in this church.”

“You get good stuff here on Sundays,” said Berdie.

Mel Hakola sang in a G. I. chorus during his service in the army. “That’s when I decided I would go into what I always wanted to do, which was music.” After he was discharged he earned a degree at Baldwin Wallace and a Master’s from Case Western Reserve University. He began singing at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland, and from there he migrated to the Jewish Temple on E. 107th Street. ”That was a huge place, and the organ in the temple was tremendous. I sang there from 1951 until I came here. I loved singing there. Even after I left I kept singing the high holy days.”

In the early 1950s he won a scholarship with the Singer’s Club, whose conductor was Robert Stulfert.

“He had a program at the Church of the Covenant, and one time he was talking about a piece of music, and said his job was to choose music that would create a spiritual atmosphere. That’s when I realized why I should be playing sacred music, so I could be an important part of the service.”

His career includes being a concert artist in more than 250 performances, a frequent guest artist with the Cleveland, Akron, and Columbus symphony orchestras, as well as a long-time church and synagogue soloist.

Berdie d’Aliberti has directed choirs and served as an organist in several area churches. She was the choir director at the Westlake Methodist Church for twelve years, and later played the Holtkamp organ, with its eleven racks of pipe, at the West Shore Unitarian Church. The Rocky River Christian Science Church might be her favorite. “I don’t know if it’s acoustically regulated, but it sounds just fine. It is a very comfortable place to play, and the people are just great.”

Music has always been an important element in Christian Science church services. In 1897 Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the religious movement that emerged in New England in the late 19th century, wrote, “congregational singing is the best song service for the Church of Christ, Scientist. Why? Because singing is, if harmony, an emotion more spiritual than material and must, to touch my heart, or ear, come from devout natures.”

Mary Baker Eddy wrote the lyrics to hymns that are still sung today, including ‘Christ My Refuge’ and ‘Communion Hymn’.

“Berdie and I choose the music for the services, planning it three months in advance,” said Mel Hakola, “so it meets the qualifications of the weekly lessons.”

“People come up and thank us for the music,” said Berdie, “for what we’ve chosen. That’s another nice thing about this church. You just don’t walk in and nobody gives you the time of day. I think it is because it is a Christian Science church, and nothing negative goes on in the church. Sometimes people have a hard time with chords in more contemporary sacred music, it doesn’t suit their harmonic specifications. But that’s all right, that’s how you grow.”

“It makes it interesting to do the singing, too, so you don’t fall into a rut, “said Mel. “We don’t have time to fall into ruts.”

Since retiring both Mel Hakola and Berdie d’Aliberti have remained active. “I have sung the Messiah more than 75 times, all over creation,” said Mel, “and Bach with the Columbus Symphony and at the BW Bach Festival.” Berdie d’Aliberti is a frequent collaborative pianist in vocal performances. Longtime friends, they are planning several recitals together.

“I sing when I am happy and I sing when I am unhappy to make myself happy, “ said Mel Hakola.

“I’m just glad to be singing at age 86.”

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Our First Zumba Class

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On a recent Saturday morning, Olga Capas, Rita Zvirblis, and Vanessa Staskus ordered late breakfasts and early lunches at the Diner on Clifton after finding a table in the shade on the patio and easing into their seats after their first Zumba class. Over cups of steaming coffee, three-cheese omelets, patty melts, and shared sweet potato fries they caught up with their breath and the Zumba experience.

“We got there early and found our space in the back,” said Vanessa Staskus, “but then everybody went behind us, so we became the front row.”

“I thought they were going to kick me out,” said Rita Zvirblis, “ because I have no rhythm, but it’s so fast, you can’t think about anything.”

A dance-fitness program created by exercise instructor and choreographer Alberto “Beto” Perez in Colombia during the 1990s when he improvised salsa music into an aerobics class, since 1999 Zumba has expanded to 125 countries, taught by more than 20,000 certified instructors. Practiced weekly by approximately 14 million people worldwide it is today’s most popular dance-fitness phenomenon.

In 2012 Zumba was named the ‘Company of the Year’ by Inc. Magazine and is today the largest fitness brand in the world, practiced everywhere from big-box gyms to church halls and community centers.

At the Harrison Elementary School, sponsored by the Lakewood Recreation Department, classes are taught by Amy Annico, a trim, black-haired young woman sporting a quick smile, very bright blue sneakers, and carrying a yellow Dewalt boom box the size of an air compressor.

“One minute she was monkeying with that yellow thing,” said Mrs. Zvirblis, “and then at nine o’clock exactly that yellow thing was blasting.”

“I’m not really for nightclubbing at nine in the morning,” said Mrs. Staskus, “but she makes it a lot of fun. It’s like partying yourself into shape.”

Zumba is different than many other fitness programs because people don’t always take it for the fitness benefits, although the results can be transforming.  It is a cardiovascular calorie-burning hour of twisting and turning in varying states of synchronization to loud, infectious music.

“They are taking it for the happiness and joy that they feel while they are doing it, and the fitness is just the result of this,” said Alberto Perlman, who with Alberto Perez was a co-founder of the Zumba enterprise.

Zumba is a fitness program, including core fitness, married to dance routines. Set to bouncy Latin American beats, it burns between 360 – 530 calories an hour, according to Harvard Health Publications. Sweating is not optional, since everyone starts sweating within minutes and doesn’t stop until the end of class.

“Zumba is hard,” said Olga Capas, “but it’s not like going to the gym. I have to force myself to do that, but with Zumba the music is going and you just want to move.”

“It’s fast-paced and you’re just watching her feet up on the stage,” said Rita Zvirblis between bites on a Reuben sandwich. “It’s those blue shoes the whole time, trying to follow what she’s doing, and then you immediately start sweating.”

“Immediately!” echoed Vanessa Staskus. “Sweat was dripping down the small of my back before the warm-up was even over.”

Amy Annico, a music teacher as well as part-time actress, has taught Zumba since 2008 at area YMCA’s, Live Well Lakewood, health fairs, and retirement homes. She regularly attends the annual Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida, upgrading her skills

“I’m trained in Zumba, which is for everyone,” she said, “and Zumba Gold, which is for older, active adults, and Zumbatomic for kids.”

There is even Aqua Zumba, a water-based workout integrating Zumba with traditional aqua fitness disciplines. A great deal of jumping and splashing is involved. Strapless bathing suits are strongly discouraged.

“The Harrison school class is a great community class,” Amy said. “Everyone’s dancing, it’s like a party, people are hooting and hollering and shaking, and the hour flies by and you don’t even know it.”

By all accounts shimmying, shaking and sliding, hooting and hollering, as well as chest pumping and bootie shaking, are generally subscribed to and applauded.

“I always say, don’t be shy, give it a try,” said Amy Annico. “It’s all about spreading the joy of music from around the world with fantastic fitness and dance moves.”

The word Zumba is Colombian slang and means ‘to move fast and have fun.’ It has been described as exercise in disguise. Set to four basic rhythms based on salsa, merengue, cumbia, and reggaeton, it is a non-stop workout that works out endorphins as well as muscles.

Some lose inches off their waistlines, others see their cholesterol drop and their energy levels rise, while still others simply reduce their stress levels. Some men even learn to dance and not make fools of themselves at weddings anymore.

Just as sweating is mandatory, so is staying hydrated.

“I told Vanessa to bring water, even though she doesn’t like water, because I had heard you get really thirsty at Zumba,” said Mrs. Zvirblis.

“My bottle of water was gone before half the class was over, and I never drink water, “ said Mrs. Staskus. “Everybody was going back and forth to the bench getting more all class long. You don’t get winded, even though it’s non-stop dancing, but you do get thirsty.”

Their dishes cleared, coffee cups re-filled, and lingering over dessert, the three women agreed that Zumba was the best way they could think of to exercise without actually exercising.

“The salsa moves are really good for you, your whole body is going, your hips are going,” said Mrs. Zvirblis. “Amy is so animated, she makes all these noises, like she is definitely having fun doing it, and she makes it the same for everybody.”

“It’s just dancing from beginning to end, but it’s exercise, too. You do it with joy, and afterwards you feel so good,” added Mrs. Capas. “It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.”

They all agreed Zumba is the best of both worlds. There are shortcuts to happiness and dancing is one of them.

“Your whole body is moving and you don’t have time to think about working out,” said Mrs. Staskus while walking back to their car. “It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.”

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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On the Loose

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On a recent May morning my wife and I visited Barron Cannon, whom we hadn’t seen much since the previous fall when we met him picketing The Hungry Conscience, a vegan restaurant in our neighborhood.

The first time we encountered Barron we were attracted by the flashing lights of a police car 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.

The two patrolmen who had been called to the scene by one of the outraged cooks were politely asking if he would refrain from protesting without a permit. Although he insisted he had more than enough reason, he reluctantly agreed to go home, and strode off, his picket sign thrown over his shoulder.

He was going our way, and after falling into step with him, we 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 leather. He eschewed all animal products for any reason, at all. He considered eating honey exploitive and avoided it.

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

As least as long as they weren’t his parents.

“My parents are the worst,” he said. “They are always bringing chickens, pigs, ground beef, Slim Jims, beef jerky, Spam, and sardines home from the grocery. I see them in their kitchen every day, sticking forks into decomposing flesh and animal secretions.”

It turned out he lived in a yurt in the backyard of his parent’s home overlooking the Metro Park, barely a mile south of Lake Erie. 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.

A philosophy major with a Master’s degree and more than a hundred thousand dollars in unpaid student debt, Barron Cannon was unqualified for nearly any job, even if he had been 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 elderly 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.

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

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

He lived on an allowance his parents begrudged him, shopped at a local farmer’s market, practiced yoga every day for two hours, followed by an hour of meditation, 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 buried a concealed electric transmission wire.

“I found out we are on the nuclear power grid now, 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 compact fluorescent bulbs were strung from the rafters.

Barron Cannon had previously refused to 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, it comes from kegs lined with gelatin. They are too busy ringing up the cash register to even know what they are doing!”

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

“I can put up with vegetarians if I have to,” he said, which I reluctantly admitted to being when he quizzed us. He gave me a mirthless grin.

My wife, who describes herself as an omnivore, on the side of free range and organic, aimed a dazzling smile at Barron Cannon, keeping her eating habits to herself. As we approached the road overlooking the Metro Park valley we gazed out across a sea of green treetops, always a welcome sight after a long winter.

Barron Cannon’s yurt was on the backside of a sprawling backyard on the edge of the valley, where Hogsback Lane intersects with Stinchcomb Hill, named after the founder of the park system. It is a bucolic spot in the middle of the city.

I 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.

“Vegans are the worst, the whole lot of them,” he said. “Show me a vegan who isn’t an elitist, or 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, and I’ll show you the real invisible man.”

Since Barron Cannon did not own a phone, or even a doorbell, we were relieved to find him at home. He was laying out rows of seeds and tubers inside his yurt, where he had opened the flap over the roof hole and hiked up the walls. We joined him, sitting down on the canvas field chairs that passed for his living room, my wife remarking how pleasant and breezy it was inside his home.

I 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.”

Barron led us out 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. Freedom is a better idea.”

As we prepared to leave, Barron scooped handfuls of birdseed from a large barrel into a small brown paper 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 sidewalk in front of his parent’s ranch-style house, Barron Cannon touched the brim of his baseball cap in farewell.

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

On our way home my wife was unusually quiet. As we passed a small café with outdoor seating, we thought we would stop for refreshments.

“I know chocolate brownies have eggs in them,” my wife said, “and cappuccino has milk in it, and I know Barron wouldn’t like this, but right now I think I need to sit down in the shade and enjoy myself for a few minutes.”

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

We had espresso and cappuccino, raisin scones and chocolate brownies, watched the sun go down over the western edge of the valley, and walked the rest of the way home in the dusk in a happy buzz.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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

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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.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Happy Meal

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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.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.