unveiled

The Paper Chase

Getting a marriage license in this town isn’t a piece of cake.
By Brennen Jensen | Illustration by Gilbert Ford - 2013
   

I don’t mean to brag, but our wedding was pitch-perfect. The months of planning, the hand-wringing, hair-pulling (and, of course, check-writing) that Jill and I went through culminated in five joyous hours with family and friends.

Dark clouds threatened to play spoiler—literally. Monsoon conditions the evening before nearly left our car flash-flooded into a ditch while driving home from the rehearsal dinner. But then the morning broke sunny and clement—ideal for a ceremony held on the verdant lawn outside Orianda House, a stately, 1850s stone mansion tucked into Baltimore’s Leakin Park, whose ballroom and capacious porches subsequently hosted the reception.

The caterer kicked ass, the swing lessons we took paid off on a packed dance floor, and the first-of-its-kind dessert extravaganza brought in by the much-touted Woodberry Kitchen was as dramatic as it was delicious. The whole affair unwound with laid-back elegance and heaps of fun.

We’ve since lost track of how many guests have gushed about how it was the best wedding they’d ever been to. Heck, biased I may be, it was the best wedding I’d ever been to. (And at age 49, I’ve thrown a lot of rice and clinked a lot of champagne flutes.)

But then none of it really mattered.

At its core, our marriage was not about the variety of passed hors d’oeuvres, the oboist hired to play Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, or even the tipsy best man’s rambling speech that traded a little too heavily on my checkered dating history. No, the business end of our wedding—and every broom–jump in Baltimore City—lies in room 628 of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and the marriage-license office for the Baltimore City Circuit Court. These grim environs, where the linoleum floor probably holds nicotine stains from the Eisenhower era, is where one must go to get a marriage license. And the process is so user-unfriendly and comparatively costly it can make a trip to the Motor Vehicle Administration seem like an afternoon at a day spa.

For starters, at $85 a pop, a Baltimore marriage license is among the costliest in the nation—over three times more expensive than just across the city line in Baltimore County. Where does all this extra money go? Not to a bare-bones circuit court website spelling out the requirements for acquiring a marriage license. As of this writing, no such website exists.

The contrast between the all–consuming energy and effort we threw into planning our nuptials and the bureaucratic nonchalance of the city marriage-license office couldn’t have been starker. Weddings are a $40-billion dollar industry in the United States, and marriage equality is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. The Baltimore City Circuit Court Office of Marriage Licenses slumbers like it’s 1952.

Of course, none of this was on my mind when I popped the question the previous autumn while atop a heather-covered mountain in a remote corner of Wales. Wild horses wandered the purple expanse, and the arched ruins of an 11th-century priory were visible in the valley below. Jill jokes now that the setting was almost too much—like the cover of some cheesy paperback romance. But, hey, it worked. My only nod to the unconventional was, for fear of losing it on our hiking holiday, that I left her grandmother’s heirloom engagement ring at home and only showed her a picture of it on my iPhone. (There’s an app for everything, right?)

Once back in the states, the headlong plunge began: Where to have it? Whom to invite? What to serve? When? Jill did the lion’s share of the work, I must admit. I was in charge of music, and, oh yeah, that pesky paperwork needed to make the whole thing legal. After some quick Googling, Jill told me all I needed was a photo ID and the $85 in cash. Thusly armed, I jumped on the light rail and headed downtown.

The Mitchell Courthouse really is a handsome building, with all its marble, stained glass, and statuary. I’m sure I’m not alone among Baltimoreans, however, in finding the edifice inexorably linked with the bad movies and terminal boredom endured during periodic bouts of jury duty. And should I have been pondering the metaphoric connotations of legally binding myself to another while armed police officers walked cuffed prisoners to and from sundry courtrooms?

The top-floor office looks a bit like a dressed set from one of Barry Levinson’s vintage Baltimore films: aged and empty. Soon enough, I was sitting across from a clerk who reeled off a series of questions—date of birth, place of birth, easy stuff.

“Have either of you been married before?”

“No.”

“Are you and the bride related by blood?”

“Yes, we are brother and sister—I mean, no.” (Ok, I didn’t really say that.)

“What is the bride’s social-security number?”

“Huh, wah? That wasn’t on the website!”

The clerk didn’t even look up from what he was doing—calculating, perhaps, to the very hour when he will be eligible to collect his pension. “We don’t have a website, and what’s out there is wrong,” he uttered nonchalantly.

Gobsmacked, I’m thinking: “So, your office can’t be bothered to put up its own website while, at the same time, you are readily aware that various third-party sites claiming to list the city’s license requirements are actively misinforming people. And this seems okay to you?

After a pause, a ready solution presented itself: call Jill on my cell to get the digits. Then I saw the sign prohibiting the use of cell phones in the room.

Game, set, match. Nothing left to do but call it off. “I wonder if we can get our deposits back? Hmm, should I phone Jill’s mom with the news or should she?”

Instead, I pleaded my case and the clerk—in his first display of humanity—allowed me to use my cell. Minutes later, I handed over my four Jacksons and one Lincoln and left with the license for our officiant to sign (actually, an old roommate armed with an Internet reverend hood). Of course, if Jill had been in a meeting and unreachable, I would have had to leave and then go back. Such joy.

And the photo ID? He never asked for it. Heck, I could have obtained a license using the name of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Could there be some legal reason a circuit court can’t establish an official marriage- license website? Doubtful, seeing how every court jurisdiction in the area—from Cecil County to Howard County—has done so. Some counties—gasp!—even let you complete the whole process over the Internet! I did find out the city’s marriage-license fees spiked a few years back as the result of state legislation that routes the bulk of the money to the House of Ruth, a domestic-abuse charity. This seems like a good cause.

It’s all water under the bridge now. The gold band has been on my finger long enough now that I’ve finally stopped fidgeting with it. The important thing was that we had the legal work done when Jill stepped out of my brother’s 1938 Buick and made her beautiful stroll down the sunny lawn to where we exchanged our “I do’s.”

Yes, life in Baltimore City is often about paying more and getting less. Anybody want to talk about property taxes? But then we love our 19th-century house and the convenience of being able to walk to most of our eating, shopping, and recreational needs. We’re a pair of happily married Baltimoreans. Homers who aren’t going anywhere.

And, of course, there’s this to consider: If getting a marriage license in the city is such a costly pain, can you imagine what the divorce process is like?

Looks like I better go empty the dishwasher and fold the laundry before the wife gets home.


Brennen Jensen and Jill Orlov were married June 2, 2012 and the newlyweds reside in Woodberry. He does all the cooking and gardening while she wields all the power tools for home maintenance. They both fawn over their pair of rescue mutts more than the Queen does her royal corgies.