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All Tied Up

By Clinton W. Trowbridge / January 22, 1999



Have yet to put on a necktie and not feel the tightening of the hangman's noose. After all, growing up in Manhattan, I couldn't even play in the coal bin without proper attire.

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Kindergarten marked the transition from sailor suit to business suit - made more ridiculous by the carry-over of short pants. The necktie was a fixture through boarding school, college, graduate school, and professional life. Thank heaven for the 1960s and the end of the dress code. As a professor of English, I could finally go to work in a T-shirt.

"I set out two ties," said Elaine. "Perhaps you'll want to bring both of them." Elaine and I had been married for just over a year. She didn't know all there was to know about me. We were off to New York for a few days -January shopping, restaurants, galleries, a play or two. Would I need even one necktie? I didn't think so.

When I was in boarding school, it was sports jacket and gray flannels six days a week, blue suits on Sundays - all day, unless you changed into something else at the gym. Stiff collars were still required for dinner as well, on Sundays. Oh, the rush to get into them in time, to not miss the bells, all thumbs when it came to the collar studs at the front.

Many boys took delight in the perfect tying of the tie: placing the knot just so, above the collar stud, snug, the plume of the tie rolling over and out and into the vest with the perfect arch of a circus horse's tail, shoes shined, pants creased, hair slicked down, the proper expression of patrician hauteur affixed as one chevied the younger boys to greater speed as they stumbled down the stairs. Not me.

Maybe my shirts were too tight, my neck too thick. Possibly I was insufficiently impressed by the models of gentlemanly decorum that surrounded me. Or perhaps I lacked the knack, resisted the pull of the tie, was too clumsy to deal with silk. In any case, whatever the reason, I have always hated ties. The necktie is a constrictor - a bow-a-constrictor, if you will. The eyes pop, the tongue protrudes, breath comes in gasps, when it comes at all.

"Are two ties enough, do you think?" said Elaine. "Are you sure you won't need your suit?"

"The blazer will be fine," I said. "I'll pick out a tie."

We live in Maine, a state dear to me for many reasons, most of which go back to childhood. Summers in coastal Maine, where my grandfather had built a house, were wild, tieless affairs. By summer's end you were nut-brown, callus-footed, and wild-haired. "Nature Boy" was the record of the day. Winters meant cities, ever-paler skin, schoolwork, and being stuffed into coats and ties.

Still, I had come of age, now. I could wear a coat and tie if I absolutely had to. At a funeral, say, or a wedding. I could enjoy the city, too. After all, there wasn't as much to do outside this time of year.

Elaine adores cities, New York in particular. She has fond memories of the Village, of student life at Cooper Union, of hobnobbing with Jackson Pollock and his friends. She had even been a museum curator for a time. But she loves Maine, as well -boating, the islands, the vistas of woods and fields against sea and sky.

"We can get you one in here," Elaine said. The tie. I'd forgotten to bring the tie. Now I would pay for it. And dearly. We were going into one of the most expensive designer stores in America.

Thankfully, I'd remembered to pack the coat.

"Are you sure it's necessary?" I said. "People go to the opera in all sort of clothes these days."

"Not if they're going with me, they don't," said Elaine.

A tie necessitated a shirt, of course. Shoes, anyone? A tattersall vest? Overcoat, perhaps? The leather wallet I picked up idly was marked $325.

But money is not the point. Comfort is. One's sense of freedom. Put your head through the noose of a necktie -silk, woolen, hemp, or ...

"Very handsome," Elaine said, giving a final straightening to my new tie. "And you'll need it for tomorrow night, anyway," she said. I gave her a questioning look. "You've forgotten that you promised to take me dancing?"