The Institution of Marriage

On a hot, smoggy day earlier this month, Jim and I drove to the County Clerk’s Office in East Los Angeles for a wedding license. We found a cluster of squat concrete structures, hard-used and studiously devoid of charm. In the small courtyard, women with baby strollers and small children hung out on the few benches. A full baby bottle lay in the dirt under a palmetto. Shade cloth, slung overhead, had caught inches of debris from the trees, forming a thick canopy. We spotted the licensing office, approached and tried the door. It was locked. We looked at each other — had we come on the wrong day?

Then the door opened, and a security guard presented himself.

“We’re here for a marriage license,” I said, and showed him the application we’d already filled out. He studied it, advised us to add several details and get identification out. We did as we were told, and waited while the guard told a young woman how to obtain a birth certificate. He scanned our papers again and admitted us into a small queuing area. “Go to that window,” he said, pointing. “And congratulations!”

Nobody was behind the indicated window. We waited, smiling at each other with a new crease of anxiety. The institutional bleakness reminded me of traffic tickets and getting hall passes in high school. Getting married, it seemed, was officially no more than another bureaucratic detail, a human inevitablility stripped of all nicety.

After a couple of minutes, a woman showed up behind the window. She still held a drink cup from her break. Seeing us, she did a small double take and snort, as if to say, “Not even off my break, and already they’re comin’ at me.” She took her time settling in — disposing of drink cup, pulling out chair, keying up the computer, greeting the other women in the office — so that by the time she turned her attention to us, we knew whose timetable we’d hew to. She was in surprisingly good humor.

She pointed out that Jim had given his mother’s married, not maiden name on the form, and provided the whiteout. Also, I’d made a mistake in stating the kind of work I did. There are the two spaces concerning employment on the license, one for your job, the other for “kind of work.” Jim, without hesitation, had written down “lawyer” and, because he works for the state, listed his “kind of work” as “government.” I wrote down “writing” for my job and, after a few moments of thought, wrote “self-employed” under “kind of work.”

“There is no ‘self-employed,’ ” said the woman.

“Then let’s put ‘freelance,’ ” I said.

“There’s no ‘freelance’ either,” she said. The woman then handed me her list of possible “kinds of work.” “Coffee shop” was a kind of work, as was “foundry.” “Magazine” made the cut, as did “newspaper.” But there was no category for “novel,” “fiction” or “literature.” Nothing for “creative” or even “artist.”

“You’ll have to put ‘private,’ ” said the woman. “ ‘Private’ ’ll have to do.”

And so I did. Government was marrying Private. It made us sound like Republicans.

The clerk then had us write out a check for $70, gave us a receipt and told us to return in an hour — at 12:04 p.m.

We drove for some minutes up and down Cesar Chavez trying to find a coffee shop. I saw several of my favorite eating places — Diana’s for chicharonnes, the raspado place next to the old Melmac factory, the bakery next door to it — but we were on wedding diets, plus we were going to meet with Jim’s rabbi later for a premarital-counseling session. I wasn’t keen to meet the rabbi with pork fat on my breath, so I didn’t suggest stopping at any of the places I knew. We ended up in a doughnut shop drinking Diet Cokes and, in preparation for our counseling session, talked about our ideas for handling money while the man in the booth behind us made repeated trips to the register to buy lottery tickets. These he proceeded to scratch with great concentration.

“We won’t handle our money like that,” said Jim as a man came in and gave us two enormous lemons.

The lottery player, in fact, made us feel as if mortgages and small credit-card balances weren’t so dire. If anything, Jim and I have too similar an approach to money. Soon the clock read noon.

This time, we knew to knock on the office door. The security guard said, “May I help you?” as if he’d never seen us before.

“We’re here to pick up our marriage license.”

“I need to see your receipt,” he said. “It will tell me if you’ve come back at the right time.”

Who knew where the receipt was? I sat down on a bench between two mothers and their many children, and did some serious purse rummaging. The heat was rising, and the children were restless with waiting. A baby wailed. Jim went to look in the car. After a minute, he re-appeared, waving the paper. We waited while the guard told another woman in detail how to obtain a birth certificate. Then he looked at our paperwork, said, “Yes, it’s time for you to get your license,” and opened the door.

At a different window, a different clerk produced a manila envelope whose contents she spread over her blotter. “Okay,” she said, “please raise your right hands.”

“Oh, uh, excuse me,” Jim sputtered. “We’re not getting married today.”

The woman and I both stared at him. He was white with fright.

“This is just to make sure that all the information you wrote down is correct.”

“Ohhhh,” Jim said with such obvious relief that we all three laughed. Then Jim and I raised our right hands.

She asked us to swear that everything we’d written was true. I kept quiet about the whole kind-of-work business, which did not feel true at all — being a private writer is, in fact, the last kind of work I’d want to do.

We signed the license and took our duplicate, which was emblazoned “customer copy.”

Thereupon, as mostly satisfied customers, we went to face the rabbi.


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