-- author Clifford W. Ashley in The Ashley Book of Knots
A very long time ago, while on a Greyhound bus, I came across a tattered book dropped and forgotten between two seats. The paperback cover had been worn away, along with the first dozen pages, and the remaining well-thumbed leaves were stained unpleasantly with something slightly glaucescent. Sadly, my destination was nowhere near, and my own book had concluded some 30 miles back, so I began to read the collection of short horror stories, careful to turn the pages without licking my finger. The stories were, for the most part, forgettable, but one stays with me still. It was about a knot that couldn't be untied: The knot was ancient, passing from hand to hand through the years until it became the possession and torment of a vagrant wino with a compulsion for such things. The old man just couldn't leave it alone; he picked and pondered and picked and pondered until one day he solved the twining riddle, and the demons of hell were unleashed upon the world. As someone fascinated by knots -- perversely pleased by tangles of chain or twine that must be unraveled, wrongly enticed by Celtic-inspired accouterments despite a fashion sense that tells me better -- this story had an alarming effect on my psyche. I understood the old man's inability to let the knot rest; I understood his compulsion to follow the cords despite consequence, and from then on every new knot I untied brought the story to mind. Though a similar premise was explored much later in Clive Barker's Hellraiser series using an Oriental puzzle box, for me it lacked visceral impact because it lacked the knot, and knots are everywhere.
It is said by some that there isn't a single knot that has yet to be created, but knots are a little like math: You don't know until you find it. Certainly, no one man has mastered every Stopper, Hitch, Bend, Splice, Sinnet, and Fancy Knot under the sun.
The Greek legend of the Gordian Knot has it that the peasant king of Phrygia dedicated his ox cart to Zeus by tying it with a marvelous knot; anyone who could untie it would come to rule all of Asia. Eventually, Alexander the Great trounced the prophecy by cleaving the knot in two and going on to conquer the land. In The Ashley Book of Knots, which is considered the knot bible among members of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, there are 3,854 knots, but not one of them is called the Gordian Knot. (There is conjecture that it was the earliest splice.) So I wonder.
It's happy hour, and an improbable assortment of young men and women gathers outside the Larkin Street Gangway Bar, each with a coil of rope over a shoulder. They disappear into the murkiness of the doorway under the peeling bow of an off-white boat that emerges from the wall overhead. It's a dive bar, all right -- small, dark, and crowded with marasmic regulars whose barstools have long since conformed to their particular weight and shape. The stern of the boat, supported by a wooden "deck" decorated by hand-carved posts, hangs lugubriously over the bar, making the already cramped quarters feel more so. Portholes, stained with more than 30 years of cigarette smoke (this is one of the oldest gay bars in San Francisco), are fixed in the walls, which are covered with shiny black fabric. Though they're not easy to discern, pieces of driftwood hang over the entryway leading to the pool table. A TV buzzes in one corner near the ceiling; a weird combination of disco and pop emanates from an unseen speaker.
"This is perfect," laughs Natalia Taylor, a 28-year-old information broker, as she uncurls her rope, a nice length of three-eighths-inch, three-strand nylon.
Don Hurter, instigator of the Tuesday-night "Dive-Bar Happy Hour" series (the motto of which is: "Better learning through relaxed drinking environments") sets down his pool stick and distributes knot diagrams to the two dozen people standing around the Gangway's single cocktail table. A round of drinks is purchased. Immediately, I attempt the simple Figure 8, only to fail miserably, twice. Hurter comes around and adjusts everyone's diagram by turning an under-sequence into an over-sequence, and I hear exclamations of satisfaction ripple through the novice tyers.
"This is only a little more complicated than the Overhand Knot," explains Hurter, "which is the knot everyone knows because it is the easiest to tie, but the weakest and most stupid of the knots." Everyone ties and unties the Figure 8 with a visible sense of satisfaction.
The next knot is the Two Half Hitches. Arms are offered up as representational posts, and the durability of the knot is tested to comical effect, but folks are eager to move on to the Bowline, arguably the most important knot to know.
"It's easy to learn, it's strong, and it's easy to untie," says Hurter, demonstrating the tried-and-true rabbit-hole-around-the-tree method of tying. The crowd is riveted. He ties the knot again, and people turn their attention back to their own ropes, drinks forgotten. Strangely, basic knot tying is proving even more captivating than past "Dive-Bar" events, among them sock-puppet theater, one-minute novels, haiku writing, and cereal-box ransom notes.
"I don't get it," says a "Dive-Bar Happy Hour" regular who is standing on the periphery, drinking instead of tying. "Of all the "Dive-Bar' events, why this one?"
"I've always wanted to know about knots," says 32-year-old Steve Sobieraj, "but it's not something I'm intuitive about. Even with someone teaching me, it's more difficult than I thought it would be."
One of the Gangway trade, red in the face and feeling no pain, stumbles up and grabs a length of rope. In a flurry of well-placed, though inarticulately narrated, steps, he ties a Hawser Bowline and what looks like an Angler's Loop.
"Used to work on the docks," slurs the now- venerated man of skill, "on the ships."
At one time, before the accessibility of books and television, knot tying was the principal pastime of most seamen. Beyond the hundreds of purely practical knots mastered for their profession, flat knots and fancy knots like the Three-Petal Knot and the Triangular Butterfly Knot became works of art. The crafts of macramé, square-knotting, and crochet were all the direct result of long months spent on the open ocean, but today, even sailors get away with knowing only the most rudimentary knots.
"I got a little boat," says a 32-year-old man going by the name of Captain Dave, "so I thought I should brush up." Embarrassed, he admits to once being a boatswain's mate third class in the Navy. "I should know more," he says.
"I feel knotty," puns Catherine Tullner, a 24-year-old in biotech cancer research who seems wholly satisfied with her Three-Strand Splice.
"If you're feeling knotty," says Jonathan Fogel, an art gallery owner who looks not unlike John Waters, "you should definitely talk to the Two Knotty Boys."
The Two Knotty Boys are a knotting duo who teach and create knot work that can be used in "fashion and passion." They are members of the International Guild of Knot Tyers and players in the local bondage and discipline scene. Their eye-catching Rope Corset is a modified design they learned from tyer Lou Duff.
"Knots are still best passed on from person to person," says Knotty Boy "Dan," a 37-year-old former climbing instructor, "but the Internet is a vast resource for learning new knots." (If you're not 18, the exit button on the Knotty Boys Web site will take you to the site of the 42nd Brighton Scout Group in East Sussex, which offers animated instruction on basic knot tying.)
"Dan" and his partner, "J.D.," a 29-year-old who used to work as an industrial rigger, create what they call "human macramé." Their Dragon Fly Sleeve is a simple Bow Tie Knot flung over the shoulders combined with a series of Double Slip Knots laced behind the back down the arms, but the effect -- reptilian skeletal shackles -- is elegant and stunning, especially over long, black latex gloves. Their Rope Panties are tied on the side with sliding knots so that the garment can be worn again. The Celtic Knot Brassiere is, as it sounds, perfect for a revealing evening at "Bondage A Go-Go" or "Bound," the fetish clubs where the Knotty Boys used to ply their wares.
"I always thought bondage was pretty ugly," says "Dan," "with some poor damsel hogtied in yards of clothesline with a tangle of sloppy Granny Knots. But it can be very aesthetically pleasing.
"We like the Double-Coin Knot because it's a flat knot ... and the Cross Knot because it holds its position and is secure, but one of my favorite knots is the Sliding Sheet Bend, and I don't really use it for bondage. It's just a great knot: It's easy to tie and easy to undo.
"Tying knots is a very visceral experience. Each one is like a puzzle. They're difficult at first, but once you've figured out a knot's secret, you can tie it with your eyes closed, and there's a physical feeling of accomplishment with each one well done."
"I wouldn't hang my mother from this knot," states Captain Dave's companion at the Gangway Bar, waving her failed splice in the air. The little crowd laughs. Hours have passed, and except for the drunken gent who has been, quite sloppily, tied up and left howling in the corner, everyone is still tying.
"It's fascinating, isn't it?" asks Natalia Taylor holding a lighter to the ends of her rope. "Have you ever heard of a Celtic Insanity Knot? It's supposed to trap all your bad dreams and evil thoughts. Problem is, you can't let anyone untie it."