It was a fall Saturday night in 1997, during the first Mack Brown era at UNC.

The Tar Heels were hosting Florida State’s very good football team, and the once-raucous crowd calmed down considerably when it became obvious that the home team—despite a valiant effort—wasn’t going to win.

I whipped out a cigar and lit it, and the crowd seated around me at Kenan Stadium rose as one once again. Only this time, they weren’t united in cheering the boys on the field. They were united in telling me—literally—where to stick that cigar.

Shouts of “YOU CAN’T SMOKE THAT IN HERE!” were accompanied by unprintable suggestions.

In here?” 

I looked around to make sure we were outside—we were—then dutifully mashed out the stogie. Chastened, my ears began to burn.

So did my thigh: turns out I hadn’t completely extinguished the cigar before stuffing it into my pocket.

As we filed out of the stadium, fans aghast that someone would so brazenly breach stadium etiquette were still giving me the fisheye and the business.

The same umbrage and dirty looks I inspired that night 23 years ago should be inspired by everyone who now runs around in the Age of Coronavirus without a face mask.

What is wrong with these people?

I was, in my defense, an ignorant country boy from Rockingham who, as the folks back home liked to say, “didn’t know no better.” What’s the excuse for people who refuse to mask up today, when public health officials tell us unequivocally that wearing masks can slow the spread of COVID-19? 

It can’t be ignorance: We’ve all heard the exhortations to put on a mask when near others, and even the president—after five months of poo-pooing PPEs—was recently seen wearing one.

There are, sadly, people who care nothing about convention, even when it comes to the coronavirus.

Some, like the maskless musclebound mofo I saw shopping in Harris Teeter recently, think they are too cool to cover their mugs with a piece of potentially life-saving cloth. Do you think I like covering up this luscious beard that makes me look like Frederick Douglass—if you look at me while squinting real hard through your bad eye after three Gin Rickeys?

No, but I do it for the common good.

But others don’t care about themselves, so you know they don’t care about you and me.

That was not the case with the unmasked muscle head in the Teeter. He was so conscientious about his own health that he was, I swear, minutely inspecting greens and squeezing avocados to make sure they were perfect for whatever healthy concoction he was fixing to go home and toss into the blender.

Yet, his lack of concern for the minimum-wage earning employees who’ve been declared essential workers was such that he refused to mask up for the few minutes he was shopping. This chump personifies the reason my cousin, instead of celebrating the fact that his teenage daughter recently got her first job, is instead lamenting the fact that it is in a grocery store.

Sir Elton John, in his underrated songI Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford),” sings “If looks could kill, then I’d be a dead man.”

So would that dude in Harris Teeter. He’d have keeled over right there in front of the kumquats.

While drinking coffee last week at Brier Creek shopping center with my friend Jeff—he sat at one end of the bench, I, at the other, both masked and staring straight ahead as we talked—told me of a recent encounter with a neighbor who claims to have been a Navy SEAL.

Jeff: Where’s your mask?

Alleged SEAL: Oh, I don’t need one.

The man, Jeff said, has had several heart attacks and is of an age that makes him vulnerable.


As someone—I think it was Shakespeare—once wrote:

      Alas, don’t be a schnook

      Cover your face no matter how good you look.

      Your ignorance society cannot brook

      If you can’t wear a mask

      stay home and read a book.

BARRY SAUNDERS is a former columnist for The News & Observer. He now publishes Comment on this column at

Voices is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club.