Life Here: An Expansive Tie Collection Moves to Larger Quarters

  • The author hangs his ties from a railing in his home. (Paul Keane photograph)

For the Valley News
Friday, October 26, 2018

My neckties have come out of the closet. Not because they were gay and needed to declare their identity. But because they simply didn’t fit in my closet any more. Now they are on a 10-foot curtain rod on the wall of my family room stairs, all 43 of them, from silk to Scottish wool.

Why would I own 43 neckties, and actually wear them? Especially in informal Vermont, where wearing a tie means you are on the way to a funeral or a wedding, or maybe to court?

Because I was a high school teacher in Vermont for 25 years, from 1988 to 2012, and wore a necktie every school day. One day I arrived at work to discover I had forgotten to put on a tie and actually made the short drive home to get a tie before school started.

There was no dress code for teachers that required a necktie. In fact I was the odd man out; very few, if any, teachers wore ties. By the time I retired only the principals wore ties. Some teachers actually wore shorts and twirled their keys on a colored lanyard, like the very teenagers they were teaching. Oh well. So I was stuffy.

So what. I was raised to believe that wearing a necktie was a sign of respect for the people you were serving and the profession you were working at, hence my obsession with ties.

When I first began teaching, I was poor. My salary was $27.50 a day as a substitute teacher in 1986 and when I got my first full-time job in 1988, it was for $18,200 a year.

I was still paying college loans and owned a $500 car — actually two $500 cars, in case one broke down – and I bought my neckties at yard sales and a second-hand clothing store in South Royalton.

That was until I found Woodstock’s twice-a-year “Glad Rags Sale” where rich folks donate their hand-me-downs or ugly ducklings and bargain hunters like me scoop them up. The fall Glad Rags Sale is today and Sunday.

I got two Brooks Brothers’ ties there for $5 each. One was sedate, with brown and gold horizontal stripes. The other has red and blue horizontal stripes, a bit too close to Bozo the Clown’s attire for anyone in Woodstock to wear, I suspect. Their timidity was my gain, and a bonus for my students, who loved to poke fun at my ties.

I said my ties weren’t coming out of the closet because they were gay and needed to express their hidden identity. But they are definitely gay in the old fashioned sense of the term: happy and lighthearted.

One of them was a formal white tie with tiny black dots, which belonged to the author of Our Town, Thornton Wilder (who was gay, in the sexual orientation sense of word), and was given to me by his sister Isabel Wilder, who was my neighbor in Connecticut in 1975, the year he died. I wore it for years until it became grimy and got a coffee spot on it. (Coffee won’t come out of white, by the way.) Isabel Wilder told me “Thornton hated that tie” and when she gave it to me it was in its original box and looked like it had never been worn.

But such disparagement (“Thornton hated that tie”) was her way of downplaying her own generosity. She also gave me the desk at which Thornton wrote his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and I kept it in my living room for 32 years. In 1998, after I had a cancerous kidney removed, I decided it needed a permanent home, one which could not be dissolved by death so I donated it to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough N.H., where Wilder had written parts of Our Town in the 1920s. They were glad to get it.

Back to my ties, and their gaiety. Perhaps the gayest is the hand-painted blue satin tie imitating Matisse’s male figure with yellow stars on it from his series Jazz. I got that at a tag sale for $10.

Another tie I picked up at a tag sale, for $12 on the Norwich green after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. It is a Russian red tie with a gold hammer and sickle on it, the symbol of communism. The person who sold it to me told me no one wanted it, told me no one wanted it. Maybe it was the price that discouraged buyers or maybe it was lingering stigma about being labeled a “commie,” but nobody seemed to be interested in the tie except me.

I retired in 2012 and my ties lay fallow for two years until I got a weekend job at a local college serving patrons at one of their complexes. This gave me an excuse to wear my neckties again, and although I am still the rare bird with a touch of color below his throat in this casual world of college informality, I chirp happily to be reunited with my knotted companions.

But I have devised a way to be formal and at the same time look informal. Now when I drink coffee — which is most of the day — I throw my necktie back over my shoulder like a winter scarf. I learned that from ruining Thornton Wilder’s white tie.

Now the coffee goes directly onto my shirt.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.