Monday, May 08, 2006

Goin' to the Chapel, Kind Of

A Canadian friend of mine is marrying a German woman in June, with the ceremony held in Germany. I can’t make it for various reasons, and they were kind enough to invite me to City Hall last Friday morning for the practical American side of things, witnessed by the groom’s brother.

We joked that the experience was like getting married at the DMV, but it was one of those jokes created when straight-up truth just happens to be funny. Things got off to a solid New York start on the security line to get into the building. Right before he checked our IDs, the gruff-looking guard was approached by a woman cutting in past everyone, asking if her friend could get married that day “without an ID.” The guard gave her a look that said, “Are you insane?,” but officially hemmed and hawed until he said, “I’ll let you in, but I’m not qualified to answer your other questions.” When the woman walked away, the guard instantly turned to us and said, clearly amused, “She’s screwed.”

In the first room upstairs, a woman whose disposition was almost indistinguishable from the disgruntled soldiers at other government buildings asked for the name of the bride, groom, and witness. Once she had recorded them, she loudly stamped a sheet of paper and said, “Congratulations,” misleading the groom into thinking that the official marriage had occurred with even less pomp and circumstance than he had anticipated. I was standing on the other side of the room at the time, dismayed to learn that I might have missed the nuptials. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.

I suppose you could find something cold about the setting, but I actually found it uplifting in its way. For starters, unlike drivers standing in line for a license, most everyone is happy to be there. Then there’s the graffiti on the walls -- there’s a clearly encouraged (or at least undiscouraged) practice of couples drawing hearts on the wall and filling them with their initials. It has the effect of making the place, with its yellowish hues and sedimentary layers of scrawl, look like the most hopeful and romantic restroom on the planet.

There was one more line to stand in -- at the front of which was a generic window, identical to those covering other cashiers in the room but adorned with a sign that incongruously claimed: “Chapel.” And then it was into the room where the real magic happens. A very friendly public servant used the power vested in her, etc., etc., and the next thing you know, whammo, another marriage had entered the world. The groom and his brother were moved to tears in a very charming way, and then the four of us set out over the Brooklyn Bridge, taking photos of the happiness along the way and enjoying views of the city accompanied by some champagne (none of us had eaten anything yet, so even the small cups of bubbly created a nice 1:30 buzz).

Lunch at Grimaldi’s (a famous pizza restaurant in these parts), a quick trip home to get out of the suit, and then out to Queens where the couple hosted a dinner party, catered, as a wedding gift, by a friend who has cooked at top-notch restaurants. The food was unforgettably good, and then we retired to the roof, where we watched plane after plane get alarmingly close on their identical approaches to LaGuardia. All in all, the kind of day here -- outnumbered recently -- that strongly inspires you to stick around.

Oh, I forgot: Getting in the elevator to leave City Hall that morning, who did we run into but the same security guard who had greeted us upon entering. With a happily flushed face and a friendly laugh, he said, “So that’s it. It’s done!” “Yes, yes,” we said, matching his enthusiasm. “I was with somebody for twenty years,” he said. “Then she left me for another officer. Misery loves company.”

The guy was so good-natured that we all laughed at his attempt at germane conversation, but it led me to wonder how he’d be as a greeter at another establishment, like a restaurant: “Had the fish last week. Tasty going down, but I was sick for a week afterwards.”

Needless to say, I think my friends are in for a brighter married future than the guard enjoyed, and it was an honor to be there at its official start.

The happy couple:

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