I went to the Baltimore County courthouse this afternoon to pick up our marriage license. The whole experience reminded me of a trip my father and I took when I was about 14 to go see the battleship Massachussetts in Fall River. The government had towed this huge monster into the harbor and opened it up for tours to the public, which meant legions of Cub Scouts got to overnight on the ship and scratch their initials into the walls. It had this smell that I’ve found unique to Navy ships: a curious mixture of fire-retardant paint and disinfectant, with a flowery bouquet of asbestos.
The county courthouse is a big cement building filled with tired gray marble and Carter-era brown furniture. It wasn’t until I stepped into the elevator that I made the olifactory connection: It had the same dull gray government paint smell as the battleship. Upstairs in the hallway outside the Clerk’s office, big signs in Times Roman announced the hours civil ceremonies would be performed, and several expectant couples milled around the waiting area. I stood on line behind a young Jewish man with a shock of red hair under his yarmulke as he and his bride got their license. A short woman shuffled slowly out of the ladies’ room past me in a silky dress with a garment bag over her arm. She padded over to the benches in stocking feet and waited with a plump man in a trucker’s vest and bluejeans, talking quietly together.
The Jewish couple turned to leave, and I wished them good luck; they both blushed and smiled nervously, holding hands. The clerk was professional and courteous, and within five minues I had a copy of our license in my hand. Leaving the building, I passed several knots of people in the waiting area: the short couple, a gaggle of Asian folks, dressed impeccably and holding flowers, and a man in a Member’s Only jacket talking excitedly in a Slavic language to a group of serious-looking family.