The man seated at the table on my right is smoking. Actually, he is just holding. The cigarette is smoking. Nevertheless, due to my own charm and magnetic appeal, the smoke has chosen to drift directly from his left hand to my right eye.
With a gesture born of years of experience, I subtly wave my menu at the offending current. The man doesn't notice. I then lean over, tap him on the shoulder and ask if he would mind redirecting his smoke. The man apologizes sheepishly, and shifts the cigarette from one hand to the other.
The smoke now begins to drift into the eyes of another diner. This man tips his chair back, touches the smoker on the arm and asks if he would please rechannel the flow. The smoker sighs and with a gesture of defeat, squashes the glowing offender into the glass ashtray.
At the moment his cigarette meets its premature end, it occurs to me that the same vignette is being repeated a thousand times a day in a thousand restaurants, offices, airports and shopping lines.
The smokers who once owned the air are being pushed back into special zones and corners and closets. They can be seen searching desperately for ashtrays, stepping out for smokes and holding their cigarette over their heads, directly under an exhaust fan.
It's all a bit like watching the Virginia Slims reel go into reverse. Smoking in public is again becoming bad manners. The private label "impolite" may ultimately have more effect on people's behavior than the surgeon general's label "unhealthy."
If so, it won't be the first time that social pressure has made social history. This is precisely what happened to an ancient and honorable habit known as spitting. In Norbert Elias' book, "The History of Manners," he describes a host of changing attitudes and habits from medieval times to ours. He even gives a brief chronology of how spitting became a victim of "civilization."
Medieval etiquette authors started with the basics: "Do not clean your teeth with your knife. Do not spit on or over the table." Spitting under the table in those days was allowed even among the best company.
Sometime during the 16th century, our genteel ancestors were being advised to refrain from spitting during mealtime. By the 17th century, they were admonished not to spit on the ground.
The spit repression went on for centuries. In 1859, when spittoons had become a proper substitute for the ground or the napkin, one arbiter of good taste was advising: "Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. I need say nothing more than -- never indulge in it." Fifty years later, by 1910, even the spittoon had vanished like some relic of a coarser age.
By now, public spitting itself has virtually disappeared except among the crude, the coughing and the baseball players. Even writing about it feels vaguely improper. We now consider spitting "uncivilized," and this whole change in social behavior is called "progress."
As Elias describes the evolution of manners: "The decisive role (was) played in this civilizing process by a very specific change in the feelings of shame and delicacy."
Admittedly, during the past half- century smoking flourished. There was little support in this era for the virtues of "shame and delicacy." People worried more about repression than rudeness. I suspect that smoking was an example of pseudo-freedom.
But now, with the help of medical researchers, civilization is creeping up again on the tobacco barbarians. You can see it in clear signs -- "Smoking Not Permitted" -- and dirty looks. The balance of embarrassment has shifted from nonsmokers to smokers. The balance of rudeness has shifted from the critics of smoke to the purveyors of smoke.
Will smoking go the way of spitting, from rude to extinct? Remember what happened to the spittoon. If you have any stock in ashtrays, sell.