A few hours from now (I am writing this column live) I have to attend a black tie affair. Never mind that it is still brutally hot in Washington and that this is no time of the year to be dressed like a penguin. My real problem is that my wife will be out of town. She is the one who ties my bow ties.

I cannot tie a bow tie. I have tried, Lord, I have tried. I have taken lessons from salesmen in stores, from my friends and even from an instruction sheet with diagrams which I used to keep hidden in my bureau so no one could see it. I cannot do it.

I have used all the methods. I have tried tying the tie while looking at myself in the mirror. No way. I have tried doing it without the mirror (the recommended method). Disaster. I have been told that tying a bow tie is the same as tying a shoe so I have tried to lower my neck to my feet and pretend it is my shoe. I nearly broke in two.

Sometimes I stand still while doing it and sometimes I walk around. Sometimes I pretend that this is something I have done all my life, thinking I can psych myself into it. I cannot. Once or twice I have tied the bow tie around my shoe and then tried to expand it so it will fit over my head. I looked like a man with a bow in his hair. I have friends who can tie bow ties in their sleep. They were raised in a world of formal wear. Invariably, they went to private schools where, I am sure, courses are offered in how to tie a bow tie. They are very proud of the fact that they can tie a bow tie and they circle formal affairs, looking for the occasional man who is wearing a clip-on model. They put him down as no- class-- a "prol," as the British would say.

These people had their own tuxedos at a very early age and they did not rent them. They owned them. They actually went to formal events as a kid. I did not get my first (and, probably, last) tuxedo until last year and then I got it as gift. I think I was the first person in the history of my family to own formal wear. When I put it on, I concluded it was undoubtedly the reason my grandfather came to America. He would have been proud of me.

I thought then that I had passed a class barrier and when I went to formal affairs I tried to spot tuxedos that had been rented. I looked for jackets that did not fit and cummerbunds that sagged at the waist and cufflinks that looked rented-- don't ask me what that is. I paraded around these places, and would have worn the price tag only I concluded that was not classy at all.

But now I am convinced that bow ties are the last remaining class barrier. Those of us who cannot tie them are forever relegated to the lower classes. It does not matter what else we do in life, what riches we accumulate, what fame we earn, if we cannot tie a bow tie, we shall forever be stigmatized as clods. Speak French, know your wines, be familiar with the rules of baccarat and even have your own racing colors, if you cannot tie a bow tie you are marked as an arriviste-- a French word meaning someone who cannot tie a bow tie. In my case, the inability to tie a bow tie has nothing to do with lack of station or a first-class education-- although both are true. It has to do, instead, with what is now called hand-eye coordination. I don't have it and I have not had it all my life. I had a hard time learning how to tie my shoes and even to this day I cannot read my own handwriting. Once my notes about a certain story were subpoenaed and I sent them off gladly, hoping that maybe the FBI lab could decipher them, because God knows I could not.

All during the weekend, I brooded over this bow tie business. I thought of having my wife tie it and I would wear it under my shirt during the day. I thought of just chancing it, of going home and forcing myself to tie the thing-- the old sink or swim method. I concluded, though, I would sink. So just a little while ago, I bought a clip-on tie and later tonight, if it is hot and the other men pull on their ties Dean Martin style and loosen them, I will keep mine neat and proper.

In ties, as in all things, breeding will out.