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I met him at the entry door to the News-Leader; I was surprised he was wearing a mask.

I also was surprised at how unassuming he looked. I thought he’d look more like a microbe. Instead, he was sharply dressed with an American flag pin on his Polo shirt.

“What did you expect? The big bad wolf?” he asked, smiling with perfect teeth.

I led him into the newsroom where there have been a lot of empty desks in recent years and even more since the pandemic started. Most of my colleagues work from home.

“But you still come to work,” he said. “You know why? Because you’re a patriot.”

Not at all, I told him. It all started because my kitchen was being remodeled when you showed up and there’s only a couple of us here in this great big newsroom.

“Don’t be modest. You’re a patriot. I mean that sincerely.”

He had the ability to smile with his eyes and he sure seemed sincere. 

He stuck out his hand and said, “Just call me Nineteen.”

I took a pass on the handshake. 

“Elbow bump?”

“No.”

“I understand,” he said. “But you really don’t have to be afraid of me.”

I offered him the chair at the other end of the conference table.  

“You run don’t you?” he asked.

I have to admit I was flattered that Nineteen, the most famous person on the planet these days, would know anything about me. 

“Yes, I run,” I said.

“Me too. That’s why you don’t have to be afraid of me. You’re in good health; great health. Nothing to fear.”

“I don’t think that’s true; I’m also 67 years old,” I said.

“Don’t be such a worrywart, dawg.”

“Please don’t call me dawg.”

Interview must be at least 15 minutes

I wasn’t sure how much time I had for the interview so I asked.

“All the time you want,” he answered. “Let’s make it at least 15 minutes.”

“That’s generous of you,” I said. “I know you’ve had thousands of interview requests.”  

He said something but I could not fully understand him through his mask. To be honest, it almost sounded like he was deliberately mumbling. 

“I can’t understand you,” I said.

He took off his mask. “Is this better?”

“Yes, but … ” Then I thought about it. I have an exclusive worldwide interview with Nineteen and the last thing I want to do is misquote him because I was afraid to admit I couldn’t fully understand him.

“OK.” But I kept my mask on.

I commenced with my toughest question.

“You’ve killed over a million people worldwide and 215,000 of my fellow Americans. Why shouldn’t I be afraid of you?”

“Listen,” he said, rolling his chair closer. “Let be completely honest with you, Steve. It wasn’t me. I’m no different than a bad cold or the same-old-run-of-the-mill flu. C’mon!  Look at me! Do you see me spewing viral air particles? Do you?”

Well, no, I didn’t. 

“See? Fake news.”

“But people are dying.”

“But you haven’t died. Am I right?”

“Of course you’re right.”

“Then what do you care?”

“Of course I — “

“Hey! I wrote a poem I’d like to read.”

“What?”

He reached into a pocket of his chinos and took out a piece of paper.  He stood from his chair and stepped even closer to me as he read with vigor and projection:

“I think that I shall never see/a virus so maligned as me.”

He projected his voice so well I could feel his saliva mist down on my forearm.

“Please back up,” I said.

Question 2: “When you make people sick, Nineteen, why do some have no symptoms or mild symptoms while others die?”

“First,” he said, “you’re assuming it’s me. Second, as Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Most people are about as sick as they make up their minds to be.'”

“That’s not what Lincoln said. He said most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

“‘Happy,’ ‘sick’ — what’s the difference? And let me tell you something else about Lincoln.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I didn’t kill him.”

He then looked at his watch.

“Twenty-two minutes,” he said. Then he left, that beautiful smile still on his face.

These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper 8½ years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, spokin@gannett.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 N. Boonville, Springfield, MO 65806.

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