SMOKING or nonsmoking?"
The smart-aleck in me always wants to reply, "None of your business."
The cowardly social conformist puts the lid on that impulse. He knows the futility of trying to be witty with the help.
For one thing their feet are tired, and they are steaming internally because the straw boss has been throwing his weight around, and they didn't want to grow up to be headwaiters and grocery checkers anyhow.
He wanted to be a croupier at Monte Carlo; she, a Navy fighter pilot detached from the fleet for special duty as an astronaut. A miserable run of rotten luck with schoolteachers, followed by love, marriage, children and the rise of downsizing made them what they are today.
They have enough to put up with. I spare them the wit. "Nonsmoking," I say, thinking how awful it must be for those who have to say "Smoking."
Of all the nasty punishments for smoking nowadays, the worst must be the smoker's sense of being a Typhoid Mary. Imagine a whole society hating you, isolating you from the good, strong, healthy people whose lives you imperil, you smoke-drenched swine!
Imagine entering rooms filled with good, strong, healthy people and being confronted by a suave inquisitor -- "Smoking or nonsmoking?" -- and having to say it out loud:
How sweet to be able to say, "Nonsmoking." It creates that warm feeling of mob fellowship that accounts for adolescence's herd lust for purple hair and droopy-drawer trousers, not to mention adulthood's joy in the occasional lynching.
For a while, because proclaiming myself part of the upright majority seemed slightly ungentlemanly, I refused a direct answer to "Smoking or nonsmoking?"
"It doesn't matter," was my reply.
What a nuisance. The help had to guess: What was this guy up to anyhow? Was he one of those militant smokers who planned to light up as soon as they seated him in the non-smoking area? Or would he whine and go into hysterics when, seated among the smokers, fumes from the gaspers engulfed him?
Why should a man who has dreamed of dealing with James Bond and Onassis at Monte Carlo be reduced to betting on what some eccentric restaurant patron may have in mind?
Actually it doesn't matter to me. Smoke-filled or smoke-free, most air in most places of public assembly is pretty awful, and the air in the great outdoors is often worse. Many people, of course, are finicky about which variety of bad air they inhale, and they're entitled.
Whether a tobacco cloud in a saloon is worse than an exhaust cloud in a summer traffic jam strikes me, however, as a dispute about the difference between a tittle and a jot.
However, this new business of letting customers choose how to segregate themselves according to taste, vice and idiosyncrasy could also lead to a more civilized America. Dennis Grady, of Columbus, Ohio, for example, writes to suggest that it could cut the national toll of deaths by gunshot. Thus:
Many states are now licensing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed guns. Are you nervous about being surrounded at dinner by compatriots so tetchy that they're packing shooting irons? Let's make public accommodations show you the same courtesy they grant nonsmokers.
Entering a restaurant, you would first be asked, "Smoking or nonsmoking?" and then, "Armed or unarmed?" This civilized division of diners would lead naturally to more complex inquiry:
"Armed smoking, armed nonsmoking, unarmed smoking or unarmed nonsmoking?"
From there we might move to accommodate the public's varying attitudes toward lunacy in a heavily armed nation:
"Armed maniac smoking, armed maniac nonsmoking, armed non-maniac smoking, armed non-maniac nonsmoking, unarmed maniac smoking . . .?"
Then on to people with odious political views: "Armed liberal maniac smoking, armed liberal non-maniac nonsmoking, unarmed liberal maniac smoking, unarmed non-liberal maniac nonsmoking . . .?"
Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.