Hello? Cough. Cough. Are you there? My eyes are watering, and I can't see too well. Whew. This place smells terrible. Do you think it's the smoke?
Well, maybe you're right. It could just be the Dumpster we're leaning on. It's getting harder and harder to find someplace to relax and have a cigarette. Remember when you could smoke anywhere?
Boy, those were the days. The world was our ashtray.
We could smoke in department stores, on airplanes, in doctor's offices. Remember those little ashtrays on stands? You hardly ever see those anymore. We used to be allowed to smoke in hospitals, for Pete's sake, as long as we didn't light up next to somebody in an oxygen tent.
Our personal lungs
We could lean back after dinner in any fine restaurant and puff away anytime we pleased. If there was no ashtray on the table, it was an oversight. The really good restaurants, the Maisonette, for instance, had waiters who prided themselves on being able to light your cigarette before you could fumble a match out of the handsomely engraved black-and-gold match box - which was, of course, on every table.
If other diners complained that they couldn't taste their bouillabaisse and chocolate mousse over the aroma of your Winston, well, they were just poor sports and weenies. What we did with our own, personal lungs was none of their business.
Sometimes people would actually refuse to let us exercise our God-given right to blow nicotine and carbon monoxide all over the planet. Unless they were in an iron lung, we insisted on a darn good excuse. For instance, "I'm allergic." And they'd better have the hives to prove it.
If, for some inexplicable reason, we weren't allowed to smoke at work, the company would thoughtfully - and apologetically - provide a smokers' lounge. Chairs, tables, ashtrays. It was splendid, really, especially by today's standards.
Well, my fellow buttheads, those days are long gone. The only reminders we have of a world when everybody was expected to smoke is the automatic inclusion of ashtrays and lighters in our automobiles. Well, that and all the lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema.
And even though the poor, ignorant tobacco companies find themselves still unconvinced that their product is lethal, the rest of us know the truth. Cigarettes were killing us. Worse, they were killing the people around us.
The turnaround has been absolutely amazing. Now maybe we can rethink alcohol and guns. Even the most avid anti-smokers (we buttheads like to refer to them as the smugheads) would have to admit that nobody ever smoked her brains out then climbed into a car and killed somebody, or had a little too much to smoke and then beat his wife.
For the past 13 years, I have been a recovering smoker. It was the worst thing I ever did to myself. Giving it up was terrible, and knowing I was responsible for sending ambient smoke into the lungs of my husband and daughter for 20 years haunts me still.
But tobacco's days as an unregulated vice are numbered. If you don't believe me, look what's happening in Kentucky - home of burley, and therefore Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson. The No. 1 cash crop in the state represents about a billion dollars just to farmers.
Yet, Florence Mall now has a smoke-free policy, and a Kentucky father last week asked a judge to revoke his ex-wife's custody of their children because she smokes. This summer, the FDA will make its pitch to regulate cigarettes on the grounds that they're a delivery system for the addictive drug nicotine.
Think of it, ordinary cigarettes could become illegal, forbidden fruit, a wonderful new lure for teen-agers, who already are getting hooked in record numbers. I'm sure the marketing departments of RJR Nabisco, et al will be alert to this opportunity.
A controlled substance with jolly Joe Camel as mascot. This could click with a whole new generation. It's thrilling. They'll love it.
In fact, it will take their breath away.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.