One of the great things about being an ex-smoker is that you get to act so sanctimonious in front of smokers.
This is a pleasure that is vastly underrated, and one all ex-smokers should experience from time to time.
Take it from me, there's nothing quite so satisfying as approaching the lone smoker at a cocktail party, flashing a superior smile and saying in a loud voice: "Yeah, I used to smoke. Surprised anyone still does."
Or you might prefer to pass a knot of smokers huddled outside an office building in the dead of winter, shake your head and mutter: "You people ought to wise up, you know that?"
For the record, I used to love to smoke.
There was nothing better than a smoke with my morning coffee. And a smoke in the car. And a smoke at the word processor. And a smoke with a beer. Not to mention a smoke after dinner.
I wasn't finicky about what I smoked, either.
Marlboros were my brand, but if I couldn't get my hands on a Marlboro, I'd fire up Winstons or Merits or Parliaments.
Regular or menthol, filtered or nonfiltered, it didn't make any difference to me.
Why, I even smoked Raleighs once.
Remember Raleighs? With the coupons on the back? Save 2,000 coupons and win a ceiling fan? Save, I don't know, 10,000 and win a washer and dryer?
Anyway, I bummed the Raleigh off former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, which is a story in itself.
To set the scene, I was a sportswriter aboard the Orioles charter some years ago as it flew through the inky pre-dawn darkness over Pennsylvania. Suddenly, I realized I was out of smokes.
Then I noticed Weaver puffing away merrily a few rows up. So I hit the little fella up for a butt. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out this ugly red, orange and white pack.
And I thought: "God almighty, look what I'm reduced to. Bumming Raleighs! And look at Weaver! Here's a man making half a million dollars a year and he's saving coupons to get a new living room sofa!"
Anyway, I stopped smoking many years ago for the same reasons that everyone else stops smoking.
Oh, the nicotine-stained fingers and the wheezing and hacking cough were still fun, but the idea of lung cancer sure wasn't.
Now I confess to being woefully out of touch with what's happening on the smoking scene.
For one thing, they have cigarettes out there that I've never even heard of: Scotch-Buy Ultra Lights. Sterling 100s. Capri 120s.
Or how about Newport Stripes? Cambridge Light 100s? Eve Lights?
I was in a saloon not long ago and the man next to me lit up something called a Players 100.
He had half a load on and was therefore extremely talkative. In the course of a memorable conversation about his new pickup ("She's got a 5-speed tranny, jump seat, chrome package, the works"), I asked: "What exactly is that you're smoking?"
"I dunno," he said. He stared at his Budweiser for several seconds and then added: "I'm trying to quit, and this is about the worst cigarette I ever had. You wanna quit after smoking this garbage."
Saloons, of course, are the last places in this country where smokers and non-smokers mingle at least semi-peaceably.
In every other venue, the relationship can be best described as near-zero tolerance, with the fresh-air fanatics leaning slightly to the right of the Gestapo on this issue.
I still remember an ugly incident a couple of years ago in a hotel outside Boston.
I was having lunch in the hotel's open-air restaurant when I noticed a bellhop lean against one of the far brick walls and light up a cigarette.
Apparently he was taking a break. By my calculations, he was at least 75 feet away from the nearest diner or passer-by.
Suddenly, though, this ferocious-looking woman came goose-stepping up to the man and proceeded to berate him for smoking.
She accused him of everything from poisoning the air and ruining her meal to lowering the hotel standards and outright complicity in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
The poor bellhop just stood there with mouth agape, evidently so stunned that he failed to point out to the dear woman that she was wearing the most hideous-looking hat most of us had ever seen.
I could have used a smoke at that moment myself.