The portly, disheveled fellow with curly gray hair and stubble on his chin must have realized he looked like a panhandler as we approached along the sidewalk.

"Excuse me. I'm not asking for money or anything," he said. "I just wanted to ask something. Was I wrong just now to yell at my daughter for pantsing someone?"

We had to admit, he raised - or lowered - an interesting question. In slightly inebriated tones, the stranger explained how his grown daughter a short time ago had yanked down the pants of her boyfriend, on the busy city street, in broad daylight.

Apparently his criticism of this act had plunged them all, as abruptly as the boyfriend's pants, into an argument. The others deserted him.

We were almost as surprised by the question as the boyfriend must have been to suddenly find himself with his pants at his feet. But having little more information, and setting aside related issues - such as whether it is ever appropriate to yell at someone, and why "pantsing" and "de-pantsing" mean the same thing - we told the man he did not seem to be out of line. After all, unless the boyfriend had done something reprehensible and deserved it, her action did seem unfair. She was hitting below the belt, so to speak.

Our response seemed to console the man, but only a bit. He shook his head, befuddled, and appeared to ready himself to ask other passersby the same question.

Fortunately, I have never found myself suddenly sans pants, and embarrassingly down to my skivvies, in public. (Well, OK, I can think of a time of two when I was caught with my pants down on stage, in front of audiences, as part of theatrical comedies - but those occasions prompted no surprise in yours truly because they followed extensive drawer-dropping rehearsals.)

I owe a debt of gratitude to a largely unsung hero of clothing accessories, the belt. Day after day these leather straps encircle us, lift us up, and prevent us - or at least our pants - from falling. Belts may buckle, but they seldom falter in their duty.

So I admit I was startled when, not four days after encountering the man who asked those passing about pantsing, I nearly lost my own pants. At the office in the middle of the day I was rising from my desk when I felt a little snap at my waist, and a sudden loosening of my jeans.

My belt had broken. To be fair, after doing a stand-up job for more than two years, it had been on its last leg. Sleek and Italian but not too flashy, it featured one of those swiveling buckles allowing it to be reversible, black or brown. I'm no black belt, but I always wore it with the black side out.

Apparently, like my brain, the buckle had a screw loose somewhere. The remaining screw held it together as long as possible, but finally the integrity of the belt buckled. The leather, worn to little more than a teetering tether, was now in tatters.

I count myself thankful I am not a man who subscribes to the so-called fashion of wearing extra baggy pants. I have no problem with relaxed, comfortable styles and sometimes do not wear a belt, but I've never quite understood the appeal of those clown-like pants - usually in denim, for young men - with the seat low enough to provide room for a small refrigerator. Come to think of it, maybe that's why people who wear clothes like that get pantsed by their girlfriends and other people - people who are simply looking for a conveniently located cold soda.

Anyway, even without a belt, my leg wear generally fits me. People at the office the other day probably did not even notice my mishap - although occasionally I did clutch at my waistband to make sure everything was still in place - because regarding my belt crisis they were blissfully out of the loop.

I did not especially look forward to searching for a new one, because they can be expensive, and lately I am not known as "Mr. Moneybelt." But I hitched myself up, buckled down and bought one. In the end, I remembered that whenever facing adversity, especially when we're beset by lean economic times and strapped for cash, what do we do? We tighten our belts.

When singing the praises of the alternative to suspenders, about which there is no suspense, Brad Bolchunos encourages everyone to simply "belt it out." Until a new belt is obtained, he suggests holding up one's pants with Scotch tape, or at least drinking a good belt of scotch. The latter, he adds, can be quite bracing.


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