[Baltimore Sun] Dan Rodricks: Tied up for a few meaningful minutes on a downtown Baltimore street | STAFF COMMENTARY

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During Wednesday’s rush hour, I decided to make myself useful. I aimed my camera at overflowing Dumpsters in the unit block of West Saratoga Street to document the disgusting trash there for the mayor of Baltimore (for a third time!), but a shout from behind stopped me.

“Excuse me!”

A young man approached on the sidewalk. He was tall and thin, in a black wool topcoat, dark suit and a bright white shirt buttoned at the neck. I took him to be in his mid-30s. He seemed a little out of breath. There were beads of sweat on his brow. He held a manila folder in his right hand.

“Sir,” he said. “Do you know how to tie a necktie?”

I had to weigh that for a moment. I’ve been approached countless times on the streets of this city — panhandlers asking for money or smokes, out-of-towners asking directions; or maybe someone hands me a camera and asks me to take their picture. But I’ve never been asked to help a guy tie a tie.

“Sure,” I said. “Do you have one?”

The fellow held out a silver-and-black tie with a diamond pattern, folded neatly and still in cellophane.

“Go ahead,” I said, “take it out of the wrapper.”

The young man seemed to be in a hurry.

“Thank you, I have a job interview,” he said.

“Oh, yeah? Where?”

“University of Maryland.”

He slid the tie out of the wrapper, unfurled it and handed it to me as an MTA bus roared past.

At first I considered slinging the tie around the stranger’s neck and tying it for him. But that would have been awkward and not the most expeditious way of accomplishing the task.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll tie it around my neck and you can watch how I do it.”

“Ok,” he said.

I then demonstrated the simplest of knots. With the thin end shorter than the wide end, I wrapped the wide end over the thin end twice. I pulled the wide end through an upper loop formed by the wrapping, then through a lower loop. I pinched at the knot, tugged at the wide end, then pulled on the thin end to finish the job.

“Did you follow that?” I said. “You want me to show you again?”

“I think I got it,” he said. “Wide end over the short end twice.”

But he seemed a little unsure and a little fidgety, and understandably so; he had a job interview in about 20 minutes a few blocks away.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll tie it for you and put it around your neck. OK?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Pull up your collar, all the way around.”

I pondered the pleasant young man who stood before me: He had reached the age of 30-something without ever having learned to tie a tie. Had no one ever shown him how to do it?

Maybe he’d never had the benefit of a father or older brother willing to teach him such things. Maybe he’d never had a need for a tie, never considered it de rigueur for a wedding or funeral; maybe he’d never been to either. Maybe he’d only worn clip-on ties. Maybe he’d been in blue-collar work all his working days, and now, changing career paths, he was trying to step into the white-collar world.

“Put the tie around your collar,” I said, handing it to him.

“I really appreciate your doing this,” he said.

“Now hold the short end and pull the wide end down.”

Like magic, the tie finished at the right length, with the tip of the wide end just above the young man’s belt buckle. I helped him turn his shirt collar down and back in place.

“Looks good,” I said. “Almost perfect.”

“Feels good,” he agreed.

I thought about all the things I learned from the men in my life — my father, an older brother, uncles: The proper way to shave with a safety razor, how to shine shoes, fix a flat tire, start a campfire, drive a car, shoot pool, play poker, make a chip shot with a pitching wedge, operate a lawn mower, set up a fishing rig and, if lucky, filet a flounder. Those instructions were delivered within an all-male domain, and there was an assumption that, with each generation, men would continue to teach those things — either directly or by example.

It’s changed over the years; mothers and sisters can, and do, teach those things now. There are also thousands of DIY videos. The fellow I met on Saratoga Street probably could have tied a tie based on a short how-to video on YouTube.

But, had he done so, we would not have met.

It’s easy to become isolated these days, to slip into the shadows without even knowing it. Since the pandemic, millions of us have lived in the distance — away from the office, away from school, away from stores, away from colleagues, customers and even friends — and, while that lifestyle has benefits, it can leave you yearning for the human touch.

“Good luck,” I said, shaking the young man’s hand. “What’s your name?”

“Angel,” he said, with a big smile, and he thanked me again before rushing off.

But I walked away even more thankful — thankful for a meaningful moment, thankful for the stranger who made me feel useful.

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