The busiest place in town Friday, besides florists, candy shops and lingerie boutiques, should have been Courtroom 2370 in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.
There’s where they perform marriages, every Monday and Friday between 2 and 4 p.m. When Feb. 14 falls on a Monday or Friday, that usually means traffic at least triples, from 20 couples or so on a typical day to at least 60. The record was 83, on Friday, Feb. 14, 2003.
This week’s snow and ice have played havoc with matters of the heart and shut down most court proceedings Friday. Now, if you want a Valentine’s wedding, you’ll have to wait until the next time Feb. 14 falls on a Monday or Friday: www.timeanddate.com shows it won’t happen again until Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.
You don’t have to wait that long for a courthouse marriage, though. Every week, a couple of dozen couples troop up to the cold marble bench outside the courtroom to be married by one of the county’s four civil magistrates. (If you don’t mind bulletproof glass, you also can get married by a criminal magistrate at the county jail, between 7 and 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and on holidays.)
They never know how many couples to expect: It’s first-come, first-served, and you don’t make an appointment. You have to get your $60 marriage license from the Register of Deeds, but after that, you just show up with two witnesses and the $20 fee. Rings are optional.
If you want to skip the church, the reception, the preacher and the cake, what do you get for your $20 courthouse wedding? We spent a recent Friday watching the action in Magistrate Angela Ranson’s courtroom to find out.
Ranson has spent 30 years as a magistrate, and she estimates she has conducted 10,000 weddings. She once married a couple just before the husband’s surgery to become a woman. The couple wore matching wedding gowns. On a Friday during Speed Street, also a popular day for weddings, she married a couple wearing opposing T-shirts: Dale Earnhardt for one, Rusty Wallace for the other.
She had to ask: “ ‘Really?’ ”
She’s had a bride wearing a “Party Naked” T-shirt and Daisy Duke shorts, and a Valentine bride wearing a see-through white gown with a red thong underneath. Some come in full wedding regalia – gown, veil, tux and flowers – while others come in matching hoodies.
On the day we watched, she married 13 couples. That’s low for a Friday, but it fell just after another snow day. Still, Shana and Tyson, Alejandra and Michael, Keosha and Bryon, Sopher and JaMarcus, Crystal and Kerwin, Adam and Ezra and Steve and Stephanie, among others, found their way to the courtroom.
They all gave different reasons for choosing a courthouse wedding: Cost, convenience, insurance, secrecy. But some things were the same, no matter who was getting married:
At every ceremony – every one – the witnesses applauded at the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
At every ceremony – every one – the audience giggled like kindergartners at “You may kiss the bride.”
Every magistrate gets to pick his or her own version of the ceremony. Ranson uses one where she does most of the talking: “(Groom), do you take (Bride) to be your lawful wedded wife and do you promise to be her loving and faithful husband in riches and in poverty, in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live?”
She used to let couples repeat after her, but too many people stumbled over the words.
“Somebody always said ‘awful wedded wife,’ ” she says.
It’s also quicker if she reads it: 50 seconds with rings, 43 seconds without. When you’ve got 20 couples lined up on a cold marble bench, heels braced so their satin gowns don’t slide, every second counts.
“You have to get straight to the point,” Ranson says.
It could make anyone cynical to watch this ceremony, over and over and over. They once had a bride who was there for her 12th marriage.
But then you get a moment like this: When the Dickerson and Ray families started gathering in the hallway, a few people at a time. Brothers, aunt, uncle.
Deven Dickerson, a fifth-grade teacher at Idlewild Elementary, arrived with Corey Ray, the 6-year-old son of Dickerson’s fiance, Cassie Ray. Deven and Corey were wearing matching black suits and spiky haircuts they got for the occasion.
Dickerson’s family lives in upstate New York.
“Getting everybody here is such a hassle,” Dickerson explained. “We decided just getting our parents here would be enough. We don’t need a big ceremony.”
After a short wait – and a bit of pacing by Deven – Cassie arrived with her mother and Deven’s mother Deborah, who was wiping away tears before she even got off the escalator.
In the courtroom, a deputy directed Cassie and Deven to one table, the two witnesses to another, the rest of the family to the audience seating.
Corey was in charge of the ring, and marched it up to Ranson’s bench, where his mother was standing with Dickerson. If there was a bigger grin in Mecklenburg County, it would have taken plastic surgery to achieve it.
After the pronouncing, the applauding and the laughing, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Deborah Dickerson went from weeping to sobbing, repeating, “That’s my son, that’s my son.”
It wasn’t Feb. 14, but it was still romantic. Even Ranson teared up for that one.