After the Valentine’s Day rally, Jim and I hopped on a bus with about fifteen other couples and a reporter or two, and went off to take the message of marriage equality to a bunch of little towns in the California interior. Between the rally and the bus trip, we were away all weekend, when I really wanted to be at City Hall helping couples get married.
Thus on President’s Day, February 16, I went up to San Francisco. My beloved husband, against his better judgment, took the day off from work and classes to join me.
The day was cold and rainy. No, that doesn’t really capture how awful the weather was. It was that kind of wet cold that grinds into your bones and numbs your feet. It was the kind of chill that creeps in slowly, and once it’s in, makes you wonder if you will ever be warm again. It was the kind of sloppy wet weather that you really don’t want to be out in at all, let alone for an hour or two.
When Jim and I rounded a corner and saw City Hall, I almost burst into tears. It looked like a hedge made of plastic, with blooms of umbrellas. There were hundreds and hundreds of people lined up around the block who clearly had been out all night in the cruel weather. To see how many people were willing to endure that misery delivered a message to me like the kick of a horse that this was something very important.
When we got closer, I nearly burst into tears again: people were jumping out of cars with cardbord carboys of coffee. “Coffee? Coffee? Anybody need coffee?” Other people were passing out doughnuts and muffins. Strangers were taking care of strangers. People were being incredibly generous, on a scale that I’ve only ever seen in the company of natural disasters.
It was about 9:05, and what we’d heard about volunteering was that we should be there at 9:00. When we got there, there were about ten people standing patiently in line. They told us that a bunch of volunteers had gone in at 8:30, and the People In Charge had told the remnants that they didn’t know if they’d need any more volunteers. So they waited. So we waited.
More people came and got in line, barely sheltered from the rain (and not from the cold) by a slight overhang. And we waited. That’s me fourth from the right in the photo below.
At about 10 AM Joe Caruso from the mayor’s office emerged and looked bewilderedly at the twenty people standing in line. He seemed stunned that twenty people would stand around in the cold and wet (remember I said it was really nasty weather?) for the chance to volunteer. He told us that they didn’t need any more volunteers now, but that maybe they would at 1 PM. He gave us a phone number to call at 1 PM. A few people wandered off, but most of the would-be volunteers hesitated. Joe finally ordered us to leave on the grounds that we were a security risk for the mayor, who would be driving in shortly. (I think he made that up, wanting us to not catch cold in the rain.) Finally, reluctantly, the line dispersed.
Jim and I went back to plan B: handing out literature to people in line, giving them Freedom To Marry stickers, and telling them about Marriage Equality California. We saw some couples that we knew here and there, and one couple that we’d met on the bus trip. We would have liked to go inside, but they were only letting in couples and witnesses.
We clearly were going to run out of materials shortly, so I found the bus-trip couple and asked them if they had brought a witness, then offered to be their witness. They were gratifyingly enthusiastic about that. So I got in line with them. The line eventually worked them through the door, through the metal detector, down the stairs, down one hallway, down another hallway, down another, up some stairs, through a light court, and then into the Recorder/Assessor’s Office. While they were standing in line, they filled out their license application and were given a booklet (as required by law) on how to prevent pregnancy.
From there, we went into the Rotunda. If you have never been inside the San Francisco City Hall, you really should. It is world-class impressive. I was told that the SF dome is bigger than the one in the U.S. Capitol, and it is ornately carved with florid designs. In the center is a staircase to beat all staircases, about two floors high and fifty feet wide.
We waited in another (shorter) line for an officiant, and eventually Supervisor Bevan Dufty came all the way down all those stairs to collect “my” couple. As we were walking up all those stairs, I wondered why Bevan didn’t just marry them in the Rotunda. What better spot could there be?
Um, the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s Chambers. Aside from being isolated and quiet, the supe’s chambers are panelled completely in wood and lavishly, sumptuously carved. (I guess during the gold rush, San Francisco had some money to throw around — and they did!)
Dufty spent quite a lot of time with “my” couple. While he didn’t dawdle and ask about the weather, he was very respectful, deliberate, careful, and thorough. This was a pattern I saw and heard of over and over about the officiants. Clearly, the idea had gotten around that this was a very special, important day to each of the couples, and they deserved for it to be treated as such. I was glad that I had dressed up.
After “my” couple left, I was inside and a free woman, so I went and found someone with a volunteer tag on. I was determined to help! The person I found was Rob, who was taking people from the Recorder’s Office to the officiant line in the Rotunda. It’s not far — probably only fifty feet — but it’s a big and confusing place and we wanted to make everything as smooth as possible. I helped Rob with the shuttle service for a while. At some point, the Minister of Volunteers came to Rob and said, “I need four or five volunteers! Can you come?” Rob said, “Uh, I’m busy — take her!” and pointed to me. I, thinking quickly, said, “I can get you five volunteers in about thirty seconds.”
I phoned Jim (who was still outside the doors) and told him to come to the front door with volunteers; after some confusion, we got Jim and a few others in the door. It turned out that they had run out of those velvet ropes that they use to show where people should go, so we were to stand about ten feet apart and point to people which way they should go.
There was a city employee who was handing out directions to couples as they passed through the metal detectors who was complaining about being hungry. By this time it was probably around 2PM, and she had had neither breakfast nor lunch. Somebody handed me a bag of purple foil-wrapped kisses and asked me to pass them out. I gave some to the city employee, which she appreciated greatly, but even so, she suddenly disappeared, presumably to eat something. Thus I ended up handing out instructions on how to get married to happy couples coming through the metal detector. As not everybody coming through was a couple — some were city employees, some were press — I’d ask them, “Getting married?” before handing them a paper.
At one point, a slight Asian woman came through. Uncertain, I asked her, “Getting married?” She laughed and said, “Yes! No!” and laughed again before explaining, “I’m Mabel Teng!” (County Assessor Mabel Teng is one of the people who made this possible!)
For part of the day, the deputies were allowing couples to come to the door, point out their witnesses, and the deputies would let the witnesses in. At one point, however, about fifteen people — some of whom were not their witnesses, just desperate couples — muscled their way in. Shortly after that (and yes, I think there was a causal relationship) they stopped letting any witnesses in. That was most heartbreaking when a woman pleaded to get her eight-year old grandson in, her grandson who had the rings.
In part because of the friends who couldn’t get in, there was a big crowd outside. I was close enough to the doors that I could hear the crowd cheer every time a new couple emerged.
At one point, a couple in absolutely beautiful Mexican formal dress left, and a mariachi band started playing. Apparently the couple had hired the band, but the band couldn’t get in.
(While it was sad, I can understand why they didn’t feel they could let more people in. It was pretty packed, and presumably the city employees who were volunteering their time would like to go home at some point. Yes, I say that knowing full well that I got in via subterfuge. While I am absolutely thrilled that I got to be a part of it, they would have been completely within their rights to kick me out.)
As I stood there passing out instruction sheets, many couples thanked me personally for being there. The first time, I was speechless. Me? I wasn’t one of the ones who was standing out in the ick all night! I don’t deserve the thanks, it is I who should be thanking you!
At some point (3PMish?), they closed the doors. Everything at the metal detectors slowed down. Jim decided that he’d like to actually see one of the ceremonies, so he got in the “want to be a witness” line. He was at the head of the line when Michael and Ismael got to the front of the line; they had no witness, so cheerfully accepted Jim’s presence.
It turned out that they hadn’t brought any rings, so Jim shucked his wedding ring and his “practice ring” and lent them to Michael and Ismael. (I’d gotten us a pair of cheap $5 rings to wear for two weeks leading up to the wedding just so we’d be used to having rings on our fingers and hence be less likely to lose the good rings on our honeymoon. Jim liked his “practice” ring, so continues to wear it.) Jim noticed that they were very careful to give the rings right back when they were done with the ceremony. Jim is very proud to wear what he calls “his twice-blessed rings”.
That left me with a pair of deputies and two women who were both waiting for the Recorder’s Office to spit out their friends. I was chatting with them when a man came toward one of them, proudly showing a marriage certificate, beaming a smile that could have melted the Arctic icecap. I will always remember that look of pure, unadulterated, unguarded, unrestrained joy on his face.
(His partner finished up in the Recorder’s office a few minutes later — and it was someone I know!)
You’ll be happy to know that at about this time, an official came down specifically to let the eight-year-old grandson out of the crowd and into his grandmothers’ ceremony.
About this time, Jim realized that there was media all over the place who would probably enjoy getting a statement from the Policy Director of Marriage Equality California, so he started hunting reporters.
Eventually things wound down and we decided we should go. As we walked out, I whispered to my husband that he had an audience outside, so should say something. He kind of made a face like he wasn’t sure that was appropriate, but I talked him into it… and he gave one of the most eloquent impromptu speeches that I’ve ever heard him give.
I should note that my beloved husband was working full-time, taking two classes, singing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and serving on the board of two non-profits. He really couldn’t afford to take that whole day off after spending Saturday and Sunday on the rally and bus tour. He has no regrets.