IT HAS BEEN some time since this column weighed in on the rights of smokers versus fresh-air fanatics, those whiny, holier-than-thou members of the Health Gestapo who make a big show of gagging and coughing if someone lights a tobacco product anywhere within a city block of where they're standing.
OK, I know what you're thinking.
You're thinking: Well. We certainly know where he stands on the subject. He must engage in the filthy habit himself. It figures, judging by the kind of subversive trash he writes.
Well, for your information, Mr. or Ms. Goody Two-Shoes, I don't smoke. But that is neither here nor there when it comes to this argument, so why don't you just go . . .
No. I won't say it.
First, let's define what kind of smoking we're talking about.
Look, we're not talking about a pipe. If you want to smoke a pipe, that's your business. Personally, I think the damn things make a person look sort of nerdy. Stick a pipe in the mouth of a 30-year-old middle linebacker and he automatically looks like a tweedy 17th century literature professor at Yale who can barely work a toaster.
Not to mention all that work you have to do to smoke a pipe. You gotta lug around the pipe. You gotta lug around the tobacco pouch. You gotta put the tobacco in the bowl. You gotta tamp it down. You gotta light it.
Me, I'd have to take a nap after all that.
We're not talking about cigars here, either. I don't mind the aroma of a nice El Producto if it's a reasonable (key word) distance away. But if you're sitting on a bench in the mall and someone next to you lights a big, fat, smelly cigar, you should have the right to drop-kick that person into the coin fountain.
Technically, I suppose that's against the law. But believe me, no jury in the land would convict you.
So we're really talking about cigarettes here, the main issue in this bitter jihad between smokers and non-smokers.
Let me say this: In many respects, I am sympathetic to the plight of smokers, who have become the modern lepers of polite society.
I see them huddled outside of smoke-free office buildings, taking a few furtive puffs on their Marlboro Lights or Winstons before hurrying inside to mingle with their non-smoking colleagues, who tends to view smokers with a mixture of pity and scorn.
In the building where I work, smoking is allowed in only a few select areas, one being the men's room on the fifth floor.
To walk in there is to witness something out of a Fellini movie: An eerie cloud of thick smoke hovering about the room, with two or three or four smokers chatting or reading the paper while all around them men are relieving themselves.
Boy, there's an uplifting place to grab a smoke: the men's room! That'll really make a smoker feel good about his habit, huh? What's the matter, wasn't there any space next to the furnace for these poor slobs?
Which brings me (finally) to the point of all this. Can't all of us, smoker and non-smoker alike, show a little more tolerance toward one another? We don't have to link arms and sway and sing "We Are the World." But let's not constantly be at each other's throats, either.
Look, I'm not crazy about having someone's cigarette smoke swirling into my face, either. But as long as the smoker is a reasonable (there's that word again) distance away, I don't see what the big deal is.
What gets me is scenes such as the one I witnessed recently in a hotel courtyard, when a woman sprinted 25 feet to where one of the bellhops was peacefully enjoying a smoke and shrieked: "Please put that filthy thing out!"
Well. The man meekly stubbed out his cigarette, not even bothering to mention the woman's enormous ugly red hat.
Nobody asked, but I'll tell you what I'd do in the same situation.
I'd say: "Lady, I really should not be seen talking with anyone whose features are quite as pinched and prune-like, despite the best efforts of that ugly red hat to conceal them. Now buzz off."
Yes, that's what I'd say. Unless the woman was much bigger than me. Or was accompanied by a very large boyfriend. In which case I'd apologize profusely and quickly offer her the opportunity to stub the cigarette out on my forehead.
Time permitting, I'd also deliver a few kind remarks about her lovely hat.