Love melts winter's ice for courthouse couples

February 14, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

They saw a window of opportunity between Wednesday's slick of ice and Friday's crust of snow. They made their way downtown, found a parking space and started the meter running.

A few giggly, flash-bulb-memorialized minutes later, the world was a bit warmer and an infinitely more manageable place: They were married.

Tutu ("like the Bishop"), 30, and Shalah Zwaade, 20, dressed in colorfully sunny African attire along with more ice-appropriate footgear for their Thursday morning wedding. They became one of the more than 2,000 couples every year who bring an infectious joy to the grimmer goings-on at the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse.

Why the courthouse instead of the church?

"It's quick -- we couldn't wait!" says the beaming Mrs. Zwaade -- Mrs. Zwaade! "We're in love!"

Some who can wait a bit will wait until today. Next to New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day is the busiest day of the year in this happy corner on the sixth floor of the courthouse. While those who choose the last day of the year to get married may have tax benefits on their mind, those who choose today tend to be the giddy, mushy ones.

"They have some kind of romance in their souls," says John Wankmiller, who for about 25 years has been marrying people -- sometimes the same people in another attempt at the till-death-do-us-part part -- at the courthouse.

"I remember one Valentine's Day when it was snowing, I started marrying at 8:30 in the morning, and I didn't finish until until 4:15. I thought the weather would be a deterrent, but it wasn't."

Mr. Wankmiller, 52, goes about his marriage business with the crisp efficiency of the bureaucrat that he is, but with an undeniable affection for his clientele. "I must be in more wedding albums than anyone," he says. And indeed, the Zwaades, who run an African store, U.A.I.A. Cultural Network on West Belvedere Avenue, took pictures of him after their ceremony.

He makes sure his couples wait in the license room ("There are prisoners out there," he warns those who stray outside room 628) before he escorts them down the hall to a surprisingly beautiful courtroom, with a soaringly domed, stained-glass-topped ceiling, where he performs the ceremony. He teasingly gives change from the license or ceremony fees to the woman half of the couple and jokes about who is already taking charge of things.

This is, after all, a cash-only operation. It's $35 for the license, $25 for the ceremony -- separated by at least a 48-hour waiting period but no blood test. Those are the fees downtown; the other 23 county locales set their own rates.

Just married himself (in a church), Mr. Wankmiller initially took the job as a way of supporting himself as he finished up his business degree at the University of Baltimore. He ended up staying even after graduation.

"Every day, it's something different," he says simply enough.

The courthouse weddings may be no-frills, but it doesn't mean no-romance. There's intimacy here in the midst of bureaucratic anonymity, love under naked fluorescent tubes, over cracked linoleum tiles and passed through the metal detectors at every entrance.

The convergence of affairs of the heart and the more prosaic world of official recordom leads to an oddly jolly atmosphere here. Strangers of all races and ages just start unloading personal details at will.

One man waiting to apply for a marriage license starts telling everyone he's been with his girlfriend for 10 years, but now that she's between jobs, he proposed marriage to get her onto his really good health insurance plan. She agreed, after making him promise nothing would change just because they're getting married -- probably this Thursday, his next day off. He's been married twice before, but his mother thinks this will be the one that works.

Another woman, already manicured for the big day, shows off her engagement ring. It was her fiance's mother's ring.

Some couples dude things up with limos and gowns and tuxes. && Occasionally, a celebrity will even pass through.

Actress Barbara Rush turned up one day to get married -- she was appearing at the Morris Mechanic Theatre when the spirit moved her, Mr. Wankmiller recalls. He also married Phil Chenier, a former guard with the then-Baltimore Bullets and now a sportscaster. "We talked basketball," Mr. Wankmiller says.

He's brusque but fairly good-natured as he answers the same questions and confronts the same glitches day after day. The individual who comes in for a marriage license and doesn't know how old his or her beloved is. Or where they live or were born. No one's even asking birthdays here, or, god forbid, Social Security numbers, just name, address, state of birth and age!

On this particular day, he's taking phone calls, swearing people to tell the truth before he punches out -- on a manual typewriter -- their marriage license applications, and actually marrying people, four couples before lunch. On Valentine's Day, he's expecting to marry about 40 couples, although he's done as many as 75 on Valentine's Days past.

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