Fat City

If New York's the Big Apple, Cleveland's the Plum Danish.

All votes are in, and it's as official as a tub of butter in epaulets: Cleveland is the corpulent capital of the nation, if not the expanding universe. It's the worst news since sliced bread, or learning that Strawberry Pop Tarts don't count as a fruit serving. A travesty of tonnage, and a threat to Clevelanders' wishful image as svelte sex machines who pad their clothes with foam so they don't look pretentious.

Men's Fitness magazine rated Cleveland the fifth fattest city in 1997. And last month, an American Cancer Society study determined that Clevelanders are the most couch-bound and constipated in the nation. They don't eat their vegetables, nor do they exercise, "unless you count gardening and bowling."

Hearing the news, we must throw our dimpled arms in the air and ask, "Why? Why are we so fat? Are we just big-boned? Is there more of us to love? You gonna eat that?"

Be it Rubenesque or Reuben sandwich, Cleveland's figure is getting a lot of initial attention, but few second looks. The overwhelming national sentiment seems to be "Get off your duff and do something, you donut-eating Midwesterner." Yet such a reputation has a cream-filled center. Perhaps we can land a big natural laxative contract or lure the International Cheese-Puff-Crunching Competition to the Convention Center. After all, we're on the rolling edge of a national trend.

Obesity is on the rise everywhere, with 20 percent of Americans totally sedentary and another 60 percent getting "no direct benefit from exercise," says Dr. Gordon Blackburn, fitness cardiologist for the Cleveland Clinic.

"But Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania tend to be right up there as the most obese in the nation," he says. "They pass the title back and forth.

"Do I tell myself, "I live in the most sedentary state in the nation?' No. But it is perceived as a sedentary state. If you look at the image of California, it's rollerblading down the boardwalk, having a yogurt drink. The image that Cleveland portrays is the Dawg Pound and the blue-collar worker eating barbecued ribs and Polish sausage."

It's enough to make a babushka lady weep with joy. But being a member of the city's clean-plate club isn't just a matter of signing up. There are plenty of extenuating fat factors, including bad weather, low self-esteem, and an overabundance of cousins nicknamed Big Bertha.

It's All in Our Fatheads

Desktop calendar salesman Rick Ferrell is a case study in bad exercise karma. His workout was cut short in his youth, when he slipped on the ice while jogging, breaking his ankle in four places. It healed poorly, and the resulting inactivity helped him add 130 pounds to his 190-pound frame. He has trouble doing push-ups, so he does "sun salutations" -- modified push-ups in which he contorts his body into a horseshoe shape.

But it's hard to salute the sun when there isn't one, he admits, and even the palette of grays isn't particularly rich.

"My little brother grew up in California, and he's thin as a board," he says. "The sun's shining, the ocean's there, it's just more conducive to being outside. And Cleveland has the most unusual weather in the country. It could be raining and snowing and sunshine, all at the same time. It's very confusing. It's hard to make plans to do things outside."

For Cleveland fat ambassador Big Dawg, winter is the worst time for weight gain, though summer isn't that great either.

"We have five months to hide it all," he says. "Literally, it's like a big shield, it's like a rock that you want to hide under. "Hey, I'm chowing out, nobody can see me.' You're not self-conscious. You have an excuse. But if you live down South, you have to put on a T-shirt, and you can't put on a sweater or coat to cover it. It doesn't sound pretty, but it's true."

Then again, there are plenty of people here, usually men with breasts, who wear T-shirts, or no shirts, and shouldn't. So maybe the shield's just a state of mind. But few can deny that it's still durn cold, and a chisel wouldn't crack the winter cloud cover.

Besides Ferrell being really cold and wet, the 41-year-old grew up during the dark days of Cleveland baseball.

"The Indians were always in last place," he says. "A lot of people grew up with the Indians never winning, and maybe at the ball game, instead of watching the Indians lose 100 games a year, they ate six hot dogs and drank four beers, which may not have been a bad idea."

At Browns games, Big Dawg's repast included bratwurst and hot dogs, ribs, a special recipe for "Bernie Balls," and steaks. For dessert, he'd polish off a Go Browns Cake or two and some Dawg Bone Cookies.

Big Dawg has slimmed down from 501 to 421 pounds in recent months. Let's just say there's still no danger of him getting lost in the bleachers.

"[My weight] bothered me all the time," he says of his losing decision. "I prayed, did all kinds of weird things. I thought about many different things. Why me? Why our family? I questioned myself quite a bit."

Maybe an inflated physique is the consequence of a deflated ego, Ferrell says.

"[Obesity] could have something to do with the personality trait of Clevelanders," he surmises. "For such a long time, we had such a complex about being the butt of all the jokes. And since Clevelanders have grown up with that, when they're stressed, they go into themselves a bit and look for ways to fuel that inferiority complex, and maybe indulge themselves in eating."

David Falk, a Beachwood psychologist specializing in weight management, says the city's collective lack of self-esteem could make it want to stuff its face out of insular pride.

"There's this line of thinking that "we're big, we're tough, we're robust characters,'" says Falk. ""We can get through this weather, this city, this industry.' Eating what you want, doing what you want, could be part of a whole impression of our uniqueness."

A lot of younger people here tend to move away, he adds, and those left behind start thinking about the nice life they and a box of Hostess Cupcakes can build together.

"I think, more than in other cities, people are here because they have to be," says Falk. "Many, many people feel their careers are limited here and that there might be more opportunities elsewhere, and they might feel that they're stuck here, which might get them more into overeating."

Lack of stimulation is also a big problem, says Ferrell.

"I think it goes back to the boredom of the city itself," he speculates. "The activities that are available here -- a lot of them are, in a roundabout way, about going to the Flats, drinking, and eating.

"A lot of times, when somebody says, "Let's get together and do things,' what they mean is, "Let's go somewhere and drink.' In California, it's "Let's go to the beach and play some volleyball.' How many times have you heard that here?"

Strikes and Spare Tires

Memo to Joe Sixpack: Kielbasa has 100 calories per inch. Write that down on the arm of your La-Z-Boy.

As for a hearty European diet making your cheeks rosy, well, hello! -- do you see any mountain goats here? Europe has no suburbs, just rural and urban areas, so Europeans walk a lot more and take public transportation.

"People ask me about their grandmother from Germany," says Mary Beth Kavanagh, a nutritionist who teaches at Case Western Reserve University. "They'll say, "My grandmother ate lard spread on bread, and she lived until 85 and never had a heart attack.'

"Well, you can't compare apples to oranges like that. Your grandmother washed the dishes -- she didn't have a dishwasher, she didn't have a refrigerator, so she walked to the store every day. Exercise balanced it out, and people didn't live as long then, either."

As for Grandpa, the proverbial men who can bend steel with their bare hands are being replaced by men who can barely bend a tube of toothpaste, says Blackburn.

"The way technology has advanced, even our blue-collar workers don't have physically demanding jobs," he says, adding that more are pushing buttons than breaking rocks. Even in the 1950s, a long-term study of longshoremen lost its steam because, during the scant years it took to complete the research, the physical demands of the job "dropped off tremendously."

Old-fashioned leisure activities don't translate into modern-day sweat, either. Trimming the hedges or scoring strikes and spares by hand rather than using the automatic scorer isn't meaningful exercise, says Blackburn.

"Bowling is a very nice social sport," he says. "I don't wanna knock bowling. But when you talk about the benefits to be gained from an activity or social sport, bowling doesn't meet the needs. If you look at bowling, you walk six steps forward, six steps back, and then you sit down. In fact, the vast majority of time for the whole bowling activity involves sitting down."

Of course, he neglects to mention the 26 steps to the snack counter for nachos and 17 steps to the bar, located inconveniently on the opposite side of the alley, for beer. He even bad-mouths golf.

"We get a lot of people who come in, and when you ask them if they do any type of sustained activity, they say, "Yes, I golf three times a week,'" he says. "A lot of people take carts, and when they hit their ball, count it as sustained activity. I think they're deluded into that. Is it really helping their health? No."

A younger population without the blue-collar baggage may have helped colder cities like Minneapolis do better in the ratings, says Kavanagh. And while the snow there is more substantial, so is the economy.

"In [Cleveland's] inner city, there's a higher level of obesity," she says. "People may be less educated, and they lack the facilities. Not everybody can plunk down 60 to 70 bucks a month to go in the gym."

Extra cash is hard to come by for David Terelli, a Cleveland construction worker who cares for his invalid brother.

"Maybe if I was born in Bratenahl, somewhere like Seven Hills or Bay Village, and my parents made beaucoup money, and they were all laid back, yeah, that'd be different," he says. "I've never had enough money for extras."

Being poor is no excuse, reprimands Florine Mark, president of Weight Watchers.

"You can go to K-mart and buy an exercise bike," she says. "They're not that expensive anymore. But people buy them, and then they hang their clothes on them.

"We're all too tired. But we're not too tired to put the television on in the morning. If you're having a hard time, you can start by getting up five minutes early, turn on the TV, and ride in front of the TV for five minutes."

That and a case of Ho-Hos, and you're ready to face the day.

An Influx of Idiots

"Don't slam the door, dammit," yells the waitress. First shift is perhaps the most exciting at the 24-hour Pit Stop donut shop and convenience store, one of the few locales where one can order a chocolate-topped rainbow sprinkle donut with a side of live bait. Today's agenda includes a deconstruction of a recent performance of Lord of the Dance ("Boy, those little girls sure can dance!") and a private showing of a color copy of the famous Marilyn Monroe nudie photo, to prove that, no, she did not balance a pencil on her nipples.

Terelli used to write about tropical fish for an aquarium magazine: "Exposés on Mr. Smith goes to the store, buys the fish and the aquarium, and the next thing you know, they're all dead. It was basically the same scenario, but with a different twist every time." He and his friend, Les Moes, a semiretired math teacher, vehemently oppose couch potatoism from their seats in the donut shop, which they visit three to four times a day.

Though his TV gets 500 channels, Terelli, who now owns an independent construction company with his nephew, says he's too busy working and taking care of his brother to be a couch potato. Nor does he have the time or money to exercise.

Moes actually threw his couch away so he wouldn't be a couch potato.

"Bought a chair instead," he says. "It's silly. I've worked three jobs all my life. I didn't have time to be a couch potato. I taught, coached, bartended. I was a cottage director at a prison." He also worked at an ice cream factory, where he learned to tell "good ice cream from bad ice cream."

A former Ohio State wrestler with a bad knee, Moes tips the scale at 300 pounds. He and his wife, an industrial designer, have invested in matching exercise bikes. "But I don't use mine," he says. "It's too boring."

"You know what they should have?" ponders Terelli. "A bike that's like one of them video games where you drive the car and watch the road turn."

"Or, if you've got two of them, and you put the female in front, you're gonna pedal faster," adds Moes.

Actually, Moes relishes going to the Metroparks to bike or canoe. He wishes the outdoors were closer, though. How about building a bike path along Train Avenue and outfitting it with about 55 cameras and lots of cops, so people could ride at night?

"I don't give a damn about the stadium downtown," he says. "I care about having a bike trail down Train Avenue, so I can jump out the back door on my bike, like people in the suburbs can. For the average guy, it's hard to get motivated to exercise if there's no place near your house to do it."

Getting your jaw broken in broad daylight is one of the hazards of exercise, says Marge Nichols, Moes's neighbor. After she was mugged walking down West 43rd Street, she quit her newspaper delivery route, added another desk job to her two other desk jobs, and gained 40 pounds. Moes bought her a set of weights and an appointment book so she could make an appointment to exercise, and she lost the weight, thanks to a standing 6 a.m. rendezvous with a bench press.

"I knew that, if I didn't work out, I would gain and gain and gain, and I didn't want to weigh 300 pounds when I was 50 years old," says Nichols.

Not only is obesity on the rise; so is the Idiot Index, says Moes.

"There's a lot more idiots now than there was a few years back," he observes. "I mean real idiots. I never believed in bad people before, but these people are just bad people. For life."

Yeah, says Nichols. "Before, you just used to get hit on the head, and they'd take your wallet. Now they shoot you and take your wallet."

Moes starts getting all gushy on everyone, musing about a kinder, safer world.

"How many people out here do you think would love to just walk the streets, holding hands with their friends?" he asks. "Or go to the park at night?"

Time for another round of maple logs.

Where There's a Will, There's an Ex-Fatty

Being a survey, it was probably rigged, surmise George Minich and Ronnie Mondry, regulars at the Pioneer Lounge in Parma, famous for opening at 6 a.m. in deference to the graveyard shift. Minich and Mondry don't work the graveyard shift -- they work the normal ass-busting shift.

"They get the people in these high-tech industries," complains Minich. "I bet that's who they interview for these surveys. You know, at Tower City, the fat suit-and-tie people. They're all lazy. They'll charge you to do nothing.

"They oughta come with me to the union hall and check out the physical fitness. They oughta come to my construction site, where everybody's got bad backs. Sometimes it feels like all I have is my hard hat and sweat."

Minich has a washboard stomach, while Mondry's solidly in the stout category.

"What do you think about our bodies?" asks Mondry. "Look at him, he's 73 years old."

Actually, Minich, who was just promoted to foreman at Local 310, is the same age as blubber-boy Drew Carey, whom he went to high school with and thought was pretty damn funny even then, though they weren't friends or anything. Drew was a veritable twig then, and Minich was the one with the weight problem, which he cured after graduation by getting a job with a bricklayer.

"I'll share a little history with you," he brags. "When I graduated high school, I weighed 277 pounds. So here's an ex-fat guy talking. Now I'm 41, I weigh 197 pounds, and I feel better now at 41 than I did when I was 17.

"Out-of-shape guys, they should go work for a bricklayer. They won't be overweight long. But it's not easy work. I get home, and 20 minutes after I get home, the door slams. That's my ass going through the door. Dragging that far behind."

Mondry, who owns an excavating company, says that we live in a city of wusses, and the number of physically demanding jobs isn't dwindling -- the people willing to bust their asses are. He'll teach his trade to a warm body who doesn't know a shovel from a shoehorn, but finding someone willing to make $8 an hour shoveling concrete is a formidable task.

"It's not skilled people we lack, it's willing people," he laments. "Willing to work hard to make money. The schools now, you got to take a computer class, but nobody's thinking of anything else other than computers. They're not thinking about taking welding. People have more of a choice now, and they choose the desk work."

Instead of pumping No. 2 pencils, researchers should quit hiding behind their clipboards and dig ditches, says Minich.

"If they want to interview some people that aren't couch potatoes, they should see us," he advises. "As a matter of fact, I've got a shovel and a wheelbarrow with their name on it. Let's see if they can do it. I got a 90-pound jackhammer with their name on it."

Make no mistake; despite ragging on the entire population, Minich and Mondry are Clevelanders to the core.

"Cleveland's one kick-ass city," says Minich.

But they'd like Big Dawg, Sports Illustrated cover canine, to be the first candidate for their shovel-and-jackhammer regimen, to get him in shape.

"Big Dawg doesn't epitomize Cleveland," gripes Minich. "Apparently, he doesn't work very much, because he's always at the games. The guys who built the new stadium, we epitomize Cleveland."

The Call of the Cheetos

Big Dawg couldn't agree more -- at least with the declaration that he's huge.

"As far as couch potatoes go, I was a big potato," he says. "I was so out of shape, I couldn't get around. I was at the point, I'd come home and sit down and have people get me things, because I couldn't do it."

Growing up behind a pizza shop and having a diminutive Irish mom, who heaped dumplings on her sons' plates to a sadistic extent, he was always big.

"She always ate smaller portions, and she'd get the family to eat the huge ones," he says. "We'd be yelling at her to eat, and she'd say, "I ate in the kitchen.'"

Obesity often begins in youth, says Kavanagh, and there are few programs for obese kids.

"I think we've got a lot of kids doing a lot of sports," she says. "But the problem with overweight kids is that it's difficult to participate. They get teased if they're fat. They're the last ones to be picked on the team. It's really difficult for them.

"I had a kid I was working with, no matter what he brought in his lunch, the other kids made fun of him. When he brought in lower-calorie things, they made fun of him, and when he brought in sweets and treats, they made fun of him. It didn't matter, because he was fat, so he must be eating the wrong thing. And when self-esteem goes down, eating was the one thing that made him feel better."

Big Dawg battled to keep his burliness in check -- even winning a lifetime membership at Scandinavian Health Spa for being in shape -- until 1984, when he switched from a construction job to doing telemarketing for his wife's uncle. Though no longer sweating through three T-shirts in a day's work, he was still inhaling Big Macs and milk shakes.

"I blew myself out to about 385 pounds," he says. "I stayed there for quite a while. Then, last year, I hurt my knee, and I started to gain weight rapidly, and I went up to 500."

"Now I don't really eat at the games at all," he says. "And I don't drink beer, I drink water."

And instead of sitting around the house watching sports, he spends a big chunk of his time at Dad's Cigar Shop -- which has a TV, but no refrigerator -- and smokes cigars and drinks coffee. So much for lung capacity.

Cheetos and being around the house all the time helped Shari Barghouty overindulge. She lives with her husband and two small daughters in Medina, in a wooded area where new houses are popping up like popcorn. In her cream-colored family room with a brick fireplace, the TV's on with the sound turned down low, and the light streams in at womb-level.

"Nurture me!" the place screams. "I want to lose myself in a vat of marshmallow frosting."

"When I was pregnant, I craved a lot of candy," Barghouty is saying. "Peanut M&M's. I craved Peanut M&M's. I told my husband, if we ever have a third child, which I know I really don't want, but if we do, it's like "Shari, remember the candy. Do not eat any candy.'"

McDonald's -- which she revisited as an adult when her oldest daughter, now 4, developed a taste for Chicken McNuggets -- was one vice that contributed to her gaining 50 pounds, up from about 135. She calls that her "Happy Meal phase." Cheetos were another demon.

"I would say, "I really feel like Cheetos,'" she recalls. "I'd put some in a bowl, and oh, they were just so good. And I kept going back and putting more in the bowl, and it's just like "Stop! You don't have to eat them!' But they were calling me, I swear.

"It was either hide them or throw them out. "God, these are so nice and cheesy,' and you'd just keep eating them."

Barghouty is relatively thin for Weight Watchers, having lost 25 pounds since she joined in November. She doesn't have a history of obesity, only putting on pounds after having her first child and moving to Cleveland from Farmington, Michigan. Unlike Medina, Farmington had a recreation center with a day care, where she swam and worked out. She became more housebound after she moved here, where the seasons seem more severe.

"In the winter, it's too cold, you don't want to go walking, and in the summer, during the day at least, you could be dying of humidity," she says. "So yeah, I guess that's why people in Ohio don't do anything. We just have crappy weather."

Not to mention a persistent conservatism.

"One problem I think that Ohioans have is people are so narrow-minded," she says. "Oh, yeah, try this veggie burger. "A veggie burger? Ewww!' If it's not ground beef, it's like "Oh, I can't eat that.' Well, try it, it's not gonna kill you.

"You have to grow. You can't just stay in one set way all your life. I don't know what it is. Maybe they're afraid. It's like getting an older person on a computer. They're afraid they'll mess it up."

County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, who's dropped from 410 to 285 pounds within the past two years, was never afraid of food of any kind.

"Whaddya call it? An eating machine? Yeah, an eating machine. I could eat with the best of them," he says. "I could really plow through some food. I used to really look forward to what was at this event or party to eat, and just stuff myself until sometimes, I was almost ready to throw up."

Having been on "every diet imaginable," he could outfit his constituents as well as represent them.

"My kids tease me about going clothes shopping when I go in my closet, because I come out with new things that I find in there that fit -- that didn't fit before," he says.

"It's like a clothing store in there. I got those round rings on the bars with the different sizes from 40 to 57, all the way up. I have a pretty good selection of double extra-large, triple extra-large, four extra-large, and five extra-large."

The extra-large lifestyle isn't necessarily bad, says Dimora. Some Clevelanders "are natural people that just don't care," he theorizes. "They're happy that they can eat what they want to eat and not worry about it. I think Cleveland can be considered a very healthy city. Healthy by the fact that people are good eaters."

Now that Dimora's on a protein diet, he forgoes the pasta mom loves to force on him and has spaghetti squash with meatballs and sauce. His favorite snacks are no longer entire boxes of Oreo cookies, but Slim Jims and Jell-O with lots of whipped cream. So he may not be able to eat his favorite glazed donut twists, but at least he's reaching his recommended daily allowances of salted meat and fluffy toppings. Let's just say that four out of five doctors aren't beating a path to support that diet.

But at least there's some truth to the big-boned theory.

"Genetics is a huge part of how much we weigh," says Kavanagh, the Case Western nutritionist. "Fifty to 60 percent is genetically determined. But I always tell people, you don't have to be a slave to genes."

And emancipating yourself is as easy as melting a Twinkie on a hot car hood, at least according to the prez of the WWF Without the F.

"You can eat a pierogi and have a beer at Weight Watchers," Florine Mark chirps. All you have to do is sell your mother and spend 32 years in a Third World prison, or rack up 1,037,063 penalty points on your food scorecard for that week.

Sounds like a meal. Then again, the food pyramid is always a handy guide, and the paper it's printed on tastes great with a little horseradish.