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The Ringer 

When it's time for their dreams to come true, couples around the country turn to the Rev. Tony Talavera, proprietor and officiate of the French Quarter Wedding Chapel.

"Most people in our culture, then, enter engagement and marriage with their full share of irrational ideas and neurotic behavior. They are relatively blind to both their own and their mate's disturbances. When they finally see these neurotic manifestations, they stubbornly refuse to accept them. Instead, they blame the other for being trouble and pity themselves for having to live with such a troubled person." -- from Creative Marriage, by Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper

When you get right down to it, what are the odds?

The odds that two tiny threads making their way through the universe would ever find one another? And then -- and then -- would adhere, would come together to make a seam bound for glory?

Not all the master computers and their slavish attendants could do the Vegas math needed to come up with these odds.

Yet the Wedding Lotto goes on day by day and today Jeff and Natasha are buying their tickets. At the French Quarter Wedding Chapel, the Rev. Anthony Talavera officiating.

It is open to the world, its tall doors pinned open by long Carnival beads and light popping out onto a dark section of a dark street, Burgundy at Conti. It looks determinedly cheerful. There might as well be a sign above the entrance, a flip side to Dante: resume hope, all ye who enter here.

A score of people has entered, in varying states of formality. Most of them had been in the Minneapolis restaurant the night Jeff had proposed to Natasha and now they have come all the way to New Orleans to see that proposal through.

"They picked New Orleans because they both like crawfish and seafood," confides best man Jason.

Someone switches on the Magnavox and the big room fills up with the sound of the Righteous Brothers singing "Soul and Inspiration." Talavera moves close to the couple and begins to say things like, "We celebrate with them this union of hearts. A union created by friendship, respect and love."

And the whole time Natasha smiles a smile that any advertiser would pay any amount to have in his next commercial.

"There's some magic involved all right," says Colleen, a pretty blond bystander in a black dress.

Afterwards, they gather on the sidewalk and light cigarettes and get a couple of passing tourists to take pictures of them with their digital cameras. Then the groom says, "Let's celebrate!" and the pack heads to Deanie's Seafood, led by Jeff and Natasha, groom and bride turning into husband and wife.

"Twice a year, all [Babylonian] girls were assembled in a space before the temple and offered for sale to the highest bidders. ... The most attractive girls brought large prices, and this money was turned over to the less attractive girls. ... The large sums of money became an attraction to would-be suitors and in time every girl had a husband." -- from Wedding Toasts and Traditions, by Mark Ishee

"I've only had one couple that I really felt bad about marrying," the Reverend Tony says. That's how he likes to be called, Reverend Tony.

"She didn't look at him the entire ceremony; she looked at me. It was like, 'I'm pregnant, he's wealthy and I'm gonna do this.' But like that's the only time. One out of 400."

Reverend Tony is a St. Bernard-puppy kind of guy, a Rob Reiner with hair. He's a combination social worker/entrepreneur. His health isn't so hot, but he's got ideas. Boy, does he have ideas. ...

"I want to network with all the other businesses in the area. I treasure that we are the only wedding chapel in the Quarter, and I'm hoping to open another on Bourbon Street real soon."

He's been a chef in San Francisco and Vegas and a social worker and antiques dealer all over the place. He likes New Orleans, though he hasn't been here long enough to lose his impatience with our distinct lack of proper acquistiveness. He wants to tie a bow around the city, even though it's a city that hates to be wrapped up.

He says he was a battered and abused child in Santa Monica and, "I'm proud that I didn't end up on a tower shooting people." In 1989, two doctors told him he'd never live to see his next birthday. Soon after, he received a liver transplant.

After that, Tony Talavera lived life with the zeal of a regained paradise. "Getting a second chance in life is everything."

Since then, he says he's passed out 200,000 organ donor cards and once drove 10,000 miles in 46 days in a donor-awareness program called "Swim Across America."

He married his wife Lou Ann, daughter of Pentecostals, poolside at a Las Vegas hotel with a pine cone as a boutonniere. Soon Lou Ann will donate a kidney to her husband, who is also a diabetic. "But if you got hope," he says, "you got life."

He came here last June, bought the chapel in February and since then has done 30 to 40 weddings per month, almost all out-of-towners who found him on the Internet. There's a $199 fee, $139 for cops and servicemen.

Reverend Tony isn't actually a denominational clergyman, but an "officiate." He says, "I handle documents."

But he has a long history of counseling people and at the end of the document handling, he likes to get the couple aside for a few minutes and urge them to find things to do together, don't let things build up, don't go to bed mad.

"My best advice is: we breathe every day, we eat every day ... love every day."

His chat is still chat, but it's good chat, meant to please. Acting, yes, but sometimes we act as we truly feel.

"During the ceremony, I try to focus on the couple and keep them focused on each other, making it the most romantic moment possible. Sometimes the hardest thing is to keep from crying myself."

Lou Ann is a nurse at Tulane Hospital and she strongly welcomes the switch from operating room to chapel. "I see plenty of suffering at work," she says. "This is a wonderful change to all that."

"What better job?" wonders Reverend Tony. "Everybody comes happy!"

Of course, Reverend Tony is the first to admit that there is an edginess to his brand of nuptials.

"I mean, the people who come here don't have the advice of clergy. If I had to counsel people for two hours before the event, I probably wouldn't be in business."

Then there's the matter of a little history and a little geography.

The French Quarter Wedding Chapel is located at 333 Burgundy St., heart of old New Orleans.

This city must rank high as romantic amulets go, a sort of mangy Romeo. It has all the right possibilities.

And so it is with the chapel. It has the right possibilities, even if there are devils in many of the details. Not that Reverend Tony and Lou Ann don't have a fine eye for interesting touches. A rattan lamp. A music box, a gas fireplace. Vases and other nice things scattered about the huge room with its exposed-beam ceiling.

But there are a few too many light sockets protruding. A gazebo draped in plastic vines and pink blooms. On the wall, a double-barreled shotgun obtained from the wall of a Marigny shotgun cottage. ("It's a prop. Lots of people want their pictures taken with it.") Pictures are by Angelle Blanchard, a former Pinkerton investigator who's still in the private-eye business, taking pictures of marriages that are ending. "But this could be a career change for me," she says.

Yet during the ceremonies, there seems to be small heed paid to the flaws of the place, a cutting-out of the senses. No eyes hop around the room seeking mistakes. Everyone looks focused on things that are, more surely at this hour than any other, absolutely theirs.

Oh, yes: the history and geography. Well, Reverend Tony says he was told that the chapel was once the site of a coffin-making business. And it's right across the street from Pete Herman's club on Burgundy, where upstairs Norma Wallace and Dora Russo and other good-time girls plied their trade. Love and Death and Love for Sale, all within the single spit of a watermelon seed. This town's got its ghosts all right, and so many of them seem to have honed themselves an eternal sense of irony.

"Marriage is one long conversation, chequered by disputes. ... But in the intervals ... the whole material of life is turned over and over, ideas are struck out and shared, the two persons more and more adapt their notions one to suit the other, and in the process of time, they conduct each other into new worlds of thought." -- Robert Louis Stevenson

"Here I go again

I hear those trumpets blow again

All aglow again

Taking a chance on love."

-- from "Taking a Chance on Love," by John Latouche, Ted Felter and Vernon Duke

There had been earlier disturbances in their lives of love, but now they could see there was still time to put things right.

"I'd been married before and I'd been hurt," says Scott, about to be married again. "If you asked me if I'd do this again ...."

"There's very little in life to rely on," says Sulinda, about to be married to Scott.

Both are strikingly handsome, he in full tux, she in layered gown. They had traveled from the Fairmont to the chapel in a mule-drawn carriage, whose two other passengers were Michael and Kathy -- one of Sulinda's sons and daughters-in-law.

Scott and Sulinda are from Lansing, Mich., and they met at a restaurant lounge while waiting for clients with whom they had dinner dates. They hit it off and last year about this time, they'd come to New Orleans together. But then, as Scott puts it, "what to tell grandkids."

So they are back in their city of romance and Scott is fishing around in his purple-velvet Crown Royal bag for the wedding rings. Then Michael, in an 11th-hour burst of sweet protectionism, grabs his mother's hand and hurries her to the back room.

Minutes pass. Finally, mother and son come out the back.

"I told him that I'm in love," Sulinda says.

"That's what I wanted to hear," Michael says.

And so Scott and Sulinda are married in what Reverend Tony likes to call "the stress-free wedding chapel." He intones "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part," and Scott and Sulinda, each as bold as a fly and far away from the tug and turmoil of other marriages, say they will.

When it is over, Michael steps back and says, "You married my mama!" and Kathy passes around a napkin so that those who have tears can wipe them.

They sip a little champagne and then they each sign a dollar bill which Reverend Tony will affix to a beam on the ceiling. "It's the first dollar you will spend together," he explains.

From the Magnavox comes the sound of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World." Ohhh, yeah! Older, but still taking a chance on love.

"When it's right, it's right," Scott says.

"Sometimes your life gets blessed," Sulinda says.

When they go outside, the carriage driver grins and says, "You done got roped in." The mule, name of Joe, stands there. Horses are sexy; mules are ... mulish. Whoa!

Joe bolts away from the curb like Seabiscuit in that walk-up start against War Admiral in 1937, and another marriage from the French Quarter Wedding Chapel is off to a flying start.

"In Japan the bridegroom and the bride go out of town by different ways, with respective retinues, and meet by appointment at the foot of a certain hill ... to the summit of which they ascend by a flight of stairs made on purpose." -- from The Knot Tied, by William Tagg

In this case, the nuptial stairs rest in the courtyard in back of LeBeauti shop at 410 Bourbon St. The small wedding party threads their way through the shop, which features daiquiris and T-shirts hawking the advantages of raw oysters and ecstasy.

Up and up they climb, this small group from Anniston, Ala., come to see Ledon and Tammy exchange wedding vows on a genuine Bourbon Street balcony. This is one of several popular alternatives the Reverend Tony offers to the wedding chapel. Another is getting hitched in front of Jackson Square.

The rigors of the climb add to the general clamminess of the day and this group is taciturn and sweaty. "We were all coming here for a trip, so Ledon and Tammy just decided to get married while we were here," says bridesmaid Sylvia.

Reverend Tony is wearing a plantation hat and a black suit, which nicely sets off his white Bible and pink lapel rose. He cheerily leads the party out on the slender balcony, where they are greeted by the engine-snort of Harley Hogs roaring down the street below.

"I'm afraid it's going to fall," says the bride of the balcony.

"Oh, no," Reverend Tony assures her. "It's tested for a hundred people. You should see how many people they get up here for Mardi Gras." One attendant rubs stuff from her hands that she got off the railing.

John Tymon begins to sing. He says he was once a member of The New Christy Minstrels and was born in Charity Hospital "like the mayor." He begins "There's a Place for Us," but the thumping of the hip-hop from the PA system of the bar across the street makes it hard to hear the words.

Reverend Tony tries to talk more loudly. "The ring is an appropriate symbol because it has no beginning and it has no ending. May your love be like these rings, admitting to no beginning and seeing no end."

When he gets to the part about "With this ring, I thee wed," he has to get even more loud to overcome the sounds of two young boys tap-dancing on the sidewalk below.

After the ceremony, Reverend Tony hands out a couple of bags of Mardi Gras beads to the wedding party. They start throwing them from the balcony to some uncomprehending tourists on the street.

The marryin' man comes off the balcony and sits on a stool, looking out of sorts. "It's the diabetes. My blood sugar's way down," he says and somebody runs off for help. Soon he's back with a frozen Snickers bar. Reverend Tony takes a couple of bites, and then winches. "Oh Lord," he groans. "I've cracked my tooth." He opens his mouth and sure enough, there's a big gap showing.

The newlyweds come inside off the balcony, tired of tossing the beads and quietly hot.

"Ah," Reverend Tony says cheerily, "we didn't say it was cool here."

On this same day, the editorial page of the daily paper comes out against an administration proposal to spend some $300 million in federal welfare money to promote the institution of marriage.

"On the shield of Achilles, the lame god Vulcan depicted a city in which there were weddings and wedding feasts and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them." -- from The Iliad, by Homer

The sprinklers slosh on the thirsty banana leaves and magnolias, who drink and drip.

Scattered about the park is a string of scarecrow men who'd found life's action too fast and furious to this point, and are sleeping it off on the hard benches and soft grass, looking like fallen limbs. On one of the benches, a woman works a crossword puzzle, trying her best to put a name on things.

In a water fountain, a bewhiskered man who had scavenged fruit discarded from the nearby French Market. He bathes each piece of fruit one by one and lays them in a cardboard box.

Suddenly, they are about to be witness to a wedding.

Well, for openers, it is too hot to get married outside. It is also too hot to sweep the sidewalk, wash windows or play Parcheesi outside, too. But here they are, José and Renee, making ready to say the words and do the deed out here under a blowtorch sun soldering Jackson Square.

"We can't actually go inside the park," Reverend Tony says apologetically. "It would cost another 200 bucks to the city."

The bride and groom shrug. They'd driven down from Alexandria for this, with their families for witnesses. Renee has a nice twist of white roses in her upswept hair. José's sister kisses him and his mother gives him a love-tap on the arm and it is time to get on with it.

Reverend Tony recites "Love is patient, love is kind." He uses the word "love" many, many times. John Tymon sings "Evergreen," though he gets plenty of competition from an odd-shaped quintet featuring three trombones huffing and puffing their way through "Lord, Lord, you sure been good to me" in front of the Cabildo.

Of course, there are the curious who stop to watch, tourist cameras dangling from their necks, tourist knees dangling from their shorts. There is something about weddings that makes many stop and see. Their eyes all seem to be looking for something magic, some tangible assurance that romance still burns boldly in some lives even if -- especially if -- it has embered in their own.

Like a child finding himself in a familiar and friendly place, José keeps his hands over and around Renee's as the vows are exchanged. All the while, he keeps his thumb working, petting the back of her hand.

Soon it is over and Angelle is getting everyone's picture and right in the middle of everything, demonstrating that we all crave love the way the infirm crave health, is Reverend Tony Talavera, smiling that Snickered smile that covers most of his teeth.

The quintet with the three trombones plays "Someone Like You."

click to enlarge Michael and Jennifer Parratt of Chicago seal the deal with Reverend Tony. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Michael and Jennifer Parratt of Chicago seal the deal with Reverend Tony.
click to enlarge The Rev. Tony Talavera has been a chef in San Francisco and Vegas and a social worker and antiques dealer all over the place. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • The Rev. Tony Talavera has been a chef in San Francisco and Vegas and a social worker and antiques dealer all over the place.
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