Column: Here Come the Brides and the Grooms Amid a Contagion of Love

I entered the city clerk’s office in a lousy mood, expecting the worst. My application to register as a “marriage officiant” in New York City had been returned for petty bureaucratic reasons only days before I was scheduled to perform a wedding. I was summoned to the office, located in a congested tangle of municipal buildings in Lower Manhattan.

My low expectations were based on many experiences with clerical offices in New York and elsewhere. Such places are usually dim and dreary, with long lines, long waits and long faces. While I generally empathize with employees who serve the public, some government workers do seem to derive grim satisfaction from the control they exert in these exchanges. The more urgently you present your need, the slower the response. I suppose this is to be expected, as I can well imagine the other side of the counter, where even the patience of Job would be severely tested by the incessant and unreasonable demands of “customers.” It’s just unpleasant business all around.

But there was no line at the reception desk, and I was greeted pleasantly enough, albeit without a hint of a smile. I was handed a number, torn from one of three plastic dispensers: the A’s, the B’s and the C’s. I was now A081. The clerk pointed down a long, high-ceilinged hall and said, “Watch for your number on the monitor.” I was familiar with this as the entry point to tedium. I did the math: A, B, and C times 081 equals 243 in the queue.

Only then did I raise my eyes and take in the full view of the city clerk’s marriage bureau. Down the length of the surprisingly appealing marble hall were a dozen or more small groups, either awaiting or celebrating a marriage ceremony. My mood lifted. What I anticipated as a frustrating and depressing few hours turned into a most delightful surprise.

The first group I passed on my way to a chair near the monitor was posed in front of a blown-up photograph of City Hall, placed in a room-sized alcove so that newlyweds might take their own commemorative photos. The African American brides were splendid in flowing white silk, holding identical bouquets of fresh flowers, evidently purchased on site from an attractive display nearby. Their marriage officiant stood beaming between them. Imagine George Foreman in a white tuxedo with American flag bow tie and cummerbund. A group of family and friends cheered, “You go, girls!”

The place was a cacophony of love. Same-sex couples, male and female. Couples within and across various ethnic boundaries. Multiple languages echoed down the chamber, some intelligible, some not. It was a giant tossed salad of colorful diversity. Cleavage and head covers appeared side by side in matrimonial solidarity. Several of the younger brides looked as though they were pregnant, but there were no shotguns present. Their glamorous wedding gowns and vibrant wedding parties made it seem as though mid-pregnancy was exactly the right time for marriage. Or as good a time as any.

In any other setting, the exuberant public affection might have drawn jeers of “get a room!” But in this delightful chaos, every lingering kiss and joyful tear felt just right. The collective, eclectic setting might sound like the antithesis of intimacy, but the effect was just the opposite. Although the couples didn’t interact directly, there was a contagious sense of shared excitement, conveyed with small glances, knowing smiles and nods of appreciation.

Beforehand, I might have imagined an assembly line of civic marriages in a city office as a sterile, perfunctory exercise, driven by necessity. It’s lovely to be so wrong. A single traditional wedding has its charms, to be sure. I’m helping with one in just a few days. But to be present as many diverse human pairs declared their love and commitment was an unexpected gift.

My number was called more quickly than anticipated. I was grateful — and disappointed. I had to get back to work, but I’d stumbled into a magical world I wasn’t eager to leave.

The clerk smiled broadly. “How can I help?”

I remarked that it was quite a joyful scene and must be a fun place to work. She chuckled and said, “It never gets old.”

Steve Nelson is a resident of Sharon and New York City, where he is head of the private Calhoun School. His column appears here every other Sunday.