by JIM KNIPFEL
November 24, 2013
The DMV of Love
A few weeks ago, Morgan and I got off the train at the Brooklyn Bridge stop, asked a coffee cart man for directions to Worth Street, and found our way over to the City Clerk’s Office. There we stood in line for a few minutes, directly in front of two women bickering over why they were there and what one of them would say when they got to the front of the line. They hadn’t reached a decision yet when we made it to the counter and told a burly, gruff man with a heavy Brooklyn accent what we wanted. He handed us a slip of paper with a number on it.
“Congratulations,” he growled. “Next!”
Then we wandered down a long, wide corridor through crowds of people and vendors to the opposite end of the building. As all the available chairs had been occupied, we took a seat on the floor against the wall and waited for our number to be called. Much to our surprise and delight, we seemed to have found ourselves on the set of a Fellini film, had Fellini chosen to make a dystopian fantasy about a drab bureaucratic state.
The wall opposite us was lined with Plexiglas windows, and behind each window sat a defeated clerk. Around us were gay couples, hoodlums, swarms of screaming children, Japanese girls in short skirts and platform shoes, families speaking languages we could not identify, and massive wedding parties, complete with brides in elaborate white gowns with trains and veils. Hundreds of them, all either swirling about the dingy waiting area or sitting on the floor like us, each of them waiting for the soothing woman’s voice on the PA to call the number printed on the slip of paper they were carrying. The dirty yellow light fixtures in the ceiling cast heavy shadows and an archaic sepia glow over the scene.
Two hours later our number finally came up, but as we approached our assigned window an Eastern European bride in a long white dress knocked us aside as she and her party of twelve commandeered the waiting clerk’s attention. They didn’t look like the kind of people who should be messed with. After a few moments of confusion we were directed into a back hallway. Still unsure where the hell we were supposed to go from there, we were finally directed through a fire door and around a corner to an unmarked office where a harried woman sat at a desk, answering a phone that never stopped ringing.
Half an hour later, after the woman took care of our paperwork in fits and starts between phone calls, we left with a license allowing us to get married any time within the next sixty days.
It was some time ago, years, really, that Morgan and I decided we might as well get officially hitched at some point down the line. We’d been together for nineteen years, and figuring by then that whole “trial period” was probably about up, well, what the hell, right? Morgan was one of the smartest and funniest people I’ve ever known, I still loved her as much as I did that first day we met (well, okay, it took a few days, but still), and she’d put up with my foolishness this long. I certainly couldn’t imagine anyone else with the patience for such a thing. This was a relief, as I sure as hell couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my years with anyone else.
We told no one of our decision, and figured we wouldn’t tell much of anyone until it was over and done with. The plan was to keep things as simple and low-key and relaxed as possible. I’d been through the (reasonably) big church wedding rigamarole once before, and didn’t much relish having to deal with all the endless decisions, the planning, the invites and stress and expense (the average NY wedding costs $70K these days) again. We’re getting older and a little slower and figured we didn’t need to wrestle with the crap. No, this time we simply wanted to have fun with the idea.
We settled on November thirteenth for a few reasons, one of which being all the prime numbers in 11/13/13 seemed strangely appropriate, another being the hope that the thirteenth would keep the more Old Worldly superstitious at bay, thinning out the mad ranks a bit on the day we finally chose to go on ahead and do it.
Our friends Ken and Laura were the first people I knew when I arrived in New York, an annoying little punk rock misanthrope, back in 1990. They’ve remained two of our favoritest people on earth ever since, and perhaps the two best qualified to fully appreciate the unadulterated, unwashed absurdity of the City Clerk’s Office. So we let them in on the secret, asked them if they’d be willing to take a morning off to be our witnesses, and much to our relief they agreed.
So on the morning of the thirteenth we bundled up against the cold wind outside, hopped on another train, once again took it to the Brooklyn Bridge stop, once again asked a street vendor for directions to Worth Street, and met Ken and Laura in the lobby. Instead of a gruff Brooklynite full of abrupt well wishes handing us a slip with a number on it, this time a morose young man enjoying a carton of chocolate milk handed us a slip with a number on it (656). Hard to imagine someone with a carton of chocolate milk being so morose, but I guess it was early.
Walking down that same wide and dreary hallway, we were pleased to note that as we’d hoped the crowds were much sparser than they had been that first time. Thanks to the grip that silly, primitive superstitions still seem to have on people, there was even a chance we might find a place other than the floor to sit and wait.
Along the way, both Ken and Laura noted something we’d missed that first time through. Even better than the cardboard cutouts of Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama available for novelty snapshots (we’d missed those too) was the backdrop hanging in a garishly-lit inset in the wall. It was a cheap and oddly disproportional painting of City Hall, but a City Hall with no perspective and no other buildings around it, a City Hall that had been lifted from Lower Manhattan and plopped into the middle of the Gobi Desert on a partly cloudy day. It was clearly there and lit the way it was as a designated setting for newlywed photos, even though newlyweds could, if they chose, just step outside and shoot the real thing. It was sad and tacky and so much grimmer than anything you’d encounter at a Sears photo center, which of course meant we all knew immediately we’d need to have a picture taken there when it was all over.
After being stopped in our tracks by that bit of bedazzlement, we continued on down the hall and by the time we reached the end found there were indeed some seats still available.
Although the lack of a crazy mob scene was still a relief, it was starting to feel strangely quiet in the City Clerk’s Office that morning. There were still a few hoodlums and lesbian couples milling about, waiting for the eerily calm woman on the intercom to call their number.
The moment we sat down, however, our own sub-Satanic number was announced, and we were directed to window six. Maybe that was the missing six, because this is where our trouble began.
The bureaucrat behind the thick bulletproof glass rattled off the instructions, asked to see all our identification, asked for a credit card, then slid us a form we all needed to sign. Unfortunately, being blind and admittedly a little nervous, I signed on the line designated “Witness” instead of “Groom.”
Being a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, in this woman’s world, it seems, by signing on the wrong line I might just as well have bludgeoned her infant son to death with a tire iron and set her home ablaze.
“Look at that,” she said in shocked astonishment. “Just LOOK at that? See? See? That’s EXACTLY what I was talkin’ about! I told you what to do and where to sign, you said you understood the instructions, and then what’d you go ahead and do? Sign in the wrong place! Now what am I supposed to do with this? What is this? I don’t even know what this is! Oh, now I’m pissed off.”
This went on for some time, despite Laura’s best efforts to calm her down. It was such a glorious, over the top explosion of outrage over nothing that instead of feeling chastised or contrite or even angry ourselves in response, we all just stood and watched in amazement, finding it all pretty damn funny.
“But . . . this is my special day,” Morgan mock-pleaded to Ken, while I fought the urge to turn to the woman and ask, “Umm . . . are we married yet?”
Eventually a supervisor quietly explained to our outraged clerk friend that it would be fine if she simply, y’know, crossed out the name and I signed again on the proper line. Which is what I did, with deep and heartfelt apologies.
Once that catastrophe was narrowly averted, we returned to the holding pen for another half hour or so until our number, and five or six other numbers, were called and we were all instructed to report to the ominous-sounding Room Five.
Room Five is another dreary holding pen in the form of a small rotunda, this time with a worn and filthy carpet below, and a dome above. There were no windows, there was no furniture, so we all stood about, chatting and waiting, though we weren’t sure for what. Maybe the Reverend Moon would show up and marry us all in one fell swoop.
Eventually a small Hispanic woman charged in and barked: “Katrina and Estoban! West chapel! Morgan and James! East Chapel!”
We had finally broken through. Instead of being a mere number to these people, we were now on a first name basis.
Having been so cued, the four of us shuffled into the grubbiest room yet, though with only the four of us there it certainly seemed spacious. The carpet was gritty and well worn, the torn shades pulled over the windows were held together with electrical tape. There were a few chairs, and a mural of some kind was painted on the wall. A small lectern stood at the front of the room.
A moment later the same small Hispanic woman marched in, rounded Morgan and I up to the lectern, flopped open a book, and asked, “Will this be a ring ceremony?”
“Okay then, put the rings up here in front of me.”
(Later it was Morgan’s guess she just wanted to make sure we weren’t gonna try and sneak through with cigar bands or rolled tinfoil.)
Without a moment to lose and without looking up, this presumed judge who was presumably serving some sort of penance launched into the “Dearly Beloved” routine we’ve all heard a million times on sit-coms. Word for word, in fact, which left me wondering why she still had to read it. We answered the questions in the right way and at the right time. Then she said, “By the power vested in me by the GREAT State of New York . . . ” (she was really excited about New York), “ . . . I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It all took approximately forty-five seconds. Then she signed our wedding certificate and fled the room.
Before we even had much of a chance to register what had just transpired in that grungy little room, the door flew open and another wedding party came spilling in. So we gathered our coats and hats and headed back out, pausing for a few moments to snap some keepsake pictures in front of the City Hall backdrop.
An hour after we’d entered the building, we stepped back out onto the sidewalk into the bright sunlight and the chill wind, and a misbegotten fellow waiting there smiled at us as we passed and said “good night.”
You know, as silly and strange and perhaps even unsanitary as parts of it might have been, as grim and dispiriting as it may sound to those who dream of fairy tale weddings with dinners and toasts and first dances and opulent cathedrals, it was all about as perfect as we could have hoped for. We’d had a grand, odd little time, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be able to finally call Morgan my wife.
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