Walking to the N Judah last night, I pass a man standing in the street trying to flag down cabs without their fare lights on. I see him walk up to a cab with a passenger in the backseat and conduct a short conversation with the driver through the rolled down passenger-side window. He looks up and down the street again. It is cold for San Francisco. He's not wearing a jacket. There's a slight drizzle.
"Excuse me," I say. "There's a taxi stand right across the street."
He looks at me like I've mortally offended him. "You're trying to get a cab, right?" I ask. "Just thought you might want to know that there's a taxi stand right around the corner." I point to show him.
"I'm getting this cab," he barks at me. "This guy is getting out. And I KNOW about the taxi stand."
His voice is biting and angry. Almost accusatory. And I walk towards my train, head down, iPod volume turned up, and I wonder what it is that keeps us trying to do good despite the reactions of the world.
I'm riding the 4 train home from the South Ferry stop in the late fall of 1999. I'm 22 and have a decent job at a social networking start-up that will go under in a little less than two months. The subway is crowded and I stand near the doors, my arm wrapped around the pole, finger firmly on the volume button on my walkman.
Across from me, a young black man, maybe 24, maybe 28, maybe 30 -- it's hard to tell when you're barely 22 --tucks his sweater under his arm, and pulls a wide striped neck tie out of his backpack. I watch him struggle to force the tie into a knot. He twists the tie several ways, but despite his best efforts, he can't figure out how to get it tied.
The subway stops, doors open, people hurry off, and more people crowd on. The man continues his futile attempts, to no avail.
I remember the number of times I stole, "Stand Up, Shake Hands, Say 'How Do You Do: What Boys Need to Know about Today's Manners'" off my brother's bookshelf and read it. I can see the inscription, "To Ross, Happy Birthday, Love, Teddy Yoo" in a second grader's handwriting on the title page. In reading that book I learned how to properly introduce a child to an adult; I learned on which side of the street boys were supposed to walk; I learned which fork to use. I learned things I didn't even need to know... Like how to tie a tie. I remember taking a tie out of my brother's closet, and slipping it around my neck, closely following the diagrams in the book until I'd perfected a simple knot that I would tighten around my neck and admire in the mirror.
I've been staring at the ground, trying to give the man his space, but when I look back towards him, I see that he has given up, and left the tie hanging around his neck. I slip my headphones off my ears and rest them around my neck. "Do you need help?" I ask.
Suddenly I am aware of how quiet the subway is. This is New York City; I've been here six years already, long enough to know the unwritten code of the subway: Make eye contact with no one. Stare at your book, your feet or straight ahead. No matter what: Do NOT initiate conversation.
But his eyes light up. "Do you know how to tie a tie?" he asks.
"Well... I haven't tied one in a while. But I can try."
He nods, yes, and so I let go of my pole and walk towards him. The subway takes a sharp turn and almost knocks me over, so I plant my feet firmly. He hands me the tie which I slip around his neck and beneath his collar. I can feel the eyes of everyone in the car on my neck, but I force myself to pretend they're not there.
"I have a job interview," he explains. "And I want to wear a tie."
I smile at him. "Well I don't know if I can do it, but let me at least try," I say.
"Thanks." He smiles.
I wrap the wide side around the narrow side twice and then pull it through the loop and down through the knot.
It's beyond uneven. The knot bulges. Somehow, it's crooked.
I realize I've never done this on another person. Only on myself. In the mirror. With instructions.
"Let me try again," I say.
I slip the tie back through the knot and start from the beginning, but again, I end up with a completely crooked tie, an enormous knot. And worst of all: the front is six inches shorter than the back.
My palms start to sweat. I can't do this. Why did I even offer? Why can't one of the FIFTY men standing around me, ALL WEARING TIES, come forward and help this guy?
"This next stop is mine," he says.
"Put your sweater on," I suggest. "And then just the top will be showing. And no one will even know."
"Yeah..." he says and smiles. He slips his sweater over his shirt. The tie peeks out from beneath. It's clear that there's something not *quite* right about it, and I'm embarrassed and disappointed that I couldn't tie it for him, but I've done all I can do. And I think it looks good enough.
The subway rolls to a stop. "Thank you," he says and steps off the train and onto the platform.
"Good luck!" I call out.
The subway doors shut behind him and he turns and heads up the stairs. Suddenly, I feel very alone and very self-conscious. I'm convinced everyone is laughing at me, the silly girl who tried to help the jobless black guy who didn't even know how to tie a tie. I'm embarrassed that I offered to help when I didn't have the necessary skills. I'm angry that no one else came forward -- that not one man who puts on a tie five days a week offered his assistance -- that they let me fail. That they let him fail. And I wish they'd stop looking at me.
I slip my headphones back over my ears and click "play" on my walkman, tuning the world out, wondering what kind of job he's applying for at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. If he'll leave the tie on, or take it off. If he appreciated the help, or if I embarrassed him. But mostly I wonder if he'll get the job.
It's one of those moments that hits me from time to time. I'll never know what happened to that guy, what he did with the tie, or if he got the job, but occasionally I see someone on the street or on the bus, someone who looks just a little bit out of place in his button-down shirt, or his wrinkled jacket, and I think of that man on the 4 train in New York. It occurred to me shortly thereafter that what I should have done was take the tie and tie it around my own neck, giving it back to him so that all he had to do was tighten the knot. But we don't get those moments in life back. We don't get any moments in life back. So all we can do is what our gut tells us to do. Smile at the bus driver who is frowning. Say please and thank you more than seems necessary. Point out the nearest taxi stand. And offer to help the stranger on the subway with his tie.
And live without regret. As hard as that is to do.