Travelogue: Becoming a Priest/Politician at a Poconos Wedding
Excerpt taken from a real conversation I had on August 21, 2015 in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania:
Him: “Great job.”
Him: “I work at a lot of weddings, and I have to say that this was actually one of the best I’ve seen. You were so heartfelt.”
Me (clutching my heart): “Thank you so much, that means the world to me.”
Him: “Are you a priest?”
Me: “A priest?” (silence for a beat) “No, but—but I’m flattered.”
Him: “Oh. You’re really not a priest?”
I shake my head and glance down at my tattooed knuckles.
Him: “Then you must be a politician. Right?”
Me (horrified): “Oh God, no! Not at all.”
Him: “Hmm. I thought for sure you were one or the other.”
This older gentleman named Mike, the DJ at a wedding I officiated in the Poconos, thought I had to be either a priest or a politician.
How could that be? Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was on to something. Yes, I have a certain fascination with priests and Catholicism (and I do love to pull out juicy confessions from friends) and, okay, working as a wedding officiant does come with a large amount of hand shaking and public speaking. However, I’m truly not one or the other.
So what am I, a hybrid of the two? A priestician?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain how I ended up in Pennsylvania having this strange conversation in the first place. Let the Travelogue commence!
On Thursday, August 20th, my husbian Michael meets me at the Port Authority bus station in Manhattan at 3:00pm on 41st St. and Eighth Avenue with a suit bag and suitcase, ready to hightail out to the Poconos (or, more specifically, to Bethlehem, PA). The afternoon is sunny and very warm, the humidity strong enough to wilt my long-sleeved button-up work shirt. The weather report is forecasting thunderstorms, and I believe it. The air hangs heavy and thick, and a little bit ominous. We duck inside the air-conditioned station and practically jog to the ticket window in order to purchase bus tickets that depart at 3:30pm to William Penn Parkway. The reason for our excursion is so that I can officiate the wedding of my former workmate Christina Lowe on Friday afternoon, August 21st. Tonight we need to arrive on this exact bus in order for us to be driven by Christina and her family up to the location for the wedding rehearsal and rehearsal dinner.
After our mad dash to purchase tickets and step down a flight of stairs to the gate, we soon board the bus, departing right on time. I text Christina that we’ve made it and then promptly doze in my seat as if I’ve taken a sleeping pill, waking up at short intervals to realize that it’s pouring rain and the bus is moving very slowly. Doze. Wake. See what the husbian is doing (dozing). Doze again. Wake up to pounding rain and rolling green hills and pastures and forests. Suddenly I find us outside the state of New Jersey and riding through Pennsylvania. I’m astounded at the beauty of this state’s lush foliage.
At the first stop, the bus turns off of the highway and ambles along several side streets before finally alighting at a car park-and-stop location. Incorrectly, I had assumed we would be arriving at a bus station, not a parking lot. No announcement is made by the bus driver for what stop we are at, which sets off a warning signal in my brain. How am I to know when we reach our stop? Luckily for me, I have one of those futuristic phones where you can look up shit on the internet. See? You can teach an old dog new tricks.
According to the timetable on my iPhone, the Easton stop comes next, followed by William Penn Parkway. Only two more stops! Michael and I shake ourselves fully awake and strain our eyes and ears to settle upon the next arrival point. When I spot a sign on the highway for Easton and the bus begins pulling off the road, I know we’re on the right track. Once again, no announcement is made although I can easily discern that we’ve landed in a quaint little Pennsylvanian town. Really, it’s quite darling. After only a moment, we’re taking off again, sloshing along in the rain to our final destination.
When the bus eventually drives off the exit for William Penn, we once again arrive at a parking lot. Just to make sure we are at the correct stop, I ask the man collecting his belongings behind me, and he assures me that we are. Yay! We’ve arrived.
Stepping out into the spitting rainwater, we’re instantly greeted by Christina and her mother Joy, a tiny, dark-haired little slip of an Italian woman made up of spit, grit and gumption. She hugs us like long-lost sons then motions us over to her parked car in order to place our luggage inside. “I can’t see to drive in this rain,” she says, gesturing overhead. “So we need to drive in Karen’s van.” She points to a minivan parked with its hazard lights on and the back hatchback door open to the elements. “That’s Christina’s aunt Karen, Gary’s sister,” she explains. Gary is there as well, Christina’s father, who she resembles much more than her mother. Diametrically opposed in every way to Joy, Gary is short and stout, every inch the doddering older man in relation to his spitfire of a wife. He seems more like Joy’s father than her husband (and like Christina’s grandfather instead of her dad). Tis true.
Since the van is practically full already, here’s what happens with the seating arrangements for the trek out to the rehearsal: Aunt Karen and the husbian occupy the two front seats, the back seat contains the groom Ayman, the bride Christina, and the Reverend (moi). As for the mother and father of the bride? They actually crawl into the back of the minivan and crouch among the suitcases and assorted junk that tends to pile up in the back of a car. They look hilarious back there.
As you can see, I’m having a good laugh at their expense.
On the 45-minute journey to the Stroudsmoor Country Inn (check it out here), I ply Christina with questions. For example, where did she find her dress? Answer: David’s Bridal. Although not surprising, here’s the kicker: while struggling to find the perfect dress, Christina was about to give up when she was handed over another dress—yes, the dress. The only problem was that it was out of her price range. Although her eyes lit up, her lips said no. One of her bridesmaids then asked the salesgirl if the dress was on sale and, come to find out, it was. However, the price was still over and above Christina’s limit. Without a moment’s hesitation, her three best girlfriends—all bridesmaids—nodded to each other and stated that they would buy her the dress and split the cost three ways. Well, apparently, the bridal shop and all of its denizens erupted into tears. Once Christina knew she had the right dress, she was able to ring this special bell and alert everyone in the store to her choice. Yes, that’s what happens at David’s Bridal; when a bride finds her fairytale wedding dress, she rings a bell so that all within can celebrate with her. Who knew? Super cheesy, yes, but also ridiculously cute. I was thrilled that Christina got to ring the bell. Thanks, David’s Bridal.
Another burning question I ask is why she chose this super glamorous wedding spot in Stroudsburg, PA, almost an hour away from her hometown of Bethlehem. Turns out that she went to school with a boy who’s family owns the inn, so she spent many an afternoon play-date there, as well as dinners, school dances, talent shows, etc. Essentially, she grew up going to this astoundingly beautiful estate located in the photogenic Poconos. No wonder she wants to be married there. The location boasts several different indoor and outdoor areas for weddings and can even accommodate up to 500 people if required. That is a shit-ton of guests, if you ask me. While the inn is named one of the best places in the East to be married according to Bridal magazine and The Knot, there is no way Christina or her family can afford it, as they come from extremely modest means. This is when Ayman stood up and offered to pay for the wedding fee himself. I have no clue if he or his family has money. Regardless, he took care of it for his wife-to-be, and that’s all that matters.
By the time we disembark at our destination, the rain has subsided enough for us to duck and run for cover into the main office, as the wedding partners need to clear up some last minute details with Kathleen, the wedding coordinator. I meet her as well so that she knows the officiant. I have to refrain from introducing myself as the Reverend Dario Speedwagon.
After final decisions are hammered out, we head on over to the site of their wedding reception at Woodsgate. The website describes it better than I can: “One of Stroudsmoor’s oldest and most charming buildings is Woodsgate. This 200-year-old restored barn affords the couple enchanting views of the surrounding forest, charming evergreen gardens and an atmosphere of country elegance. The wedding celebration begins with the ceremony in The Woodland Chapel, where a cobblestone path leads guests up into the woods and the couple to the altar. The stone walls of Woodsgate’s entrance level evoke a pub-like atmosphere enhanced by comfortable wing chairs, century-old beams, a stone bar, a fireplace, twig and branch chandeliers, and a baby grand piano. A spiral staircase leads guests to the dining room where a hardwood dance floor, bronze chandeliers, Chivari chairs, lavish tables settings, fireplace terrace and beautiful vistas invite guests to relax and enjoy . . . or dance the night away.”
Seriously, ^ All of that. ^
Once all of the bridesmaids and groomsmen assemble at Woodsgate, we venture out into the stormy darkness to begin the wedding rehearsal. Kathleen attempts to perform her job and coordinate the ceremony, showing us who stands where and what needs to happen when, but the natives are restless. And wet. I mean, we’re drenched, even those of us with umbrellas. I believe this has to be the quickest wedding rehearsal up in the Woodland Chapel in the history of this old-school country inn.
Once back down from the chapel, we shake off our wet clothes and step over to the restaurant for the rehearsal dinner. The husbian and I are seated at the far left in the following photo with the shiny heads:
It takes a bit of urging until Michael and I find the wine drinkers at the table and, when we do, we order a carafe of white wine. No one else drinks. Cheers, guys! Later I learn from Christina that she despises drunk people at weddings…especially her father. I didn’t know this at the time though. Obvs.
After dinner, Aunt Karen drives us all back to pick up Joy’s car and our luggage. This time, however, the husbian and I insist on sitting in the back of the minivan. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable but, whatever, it’s also cozy and cute.
Back at Joy’s apartment complex, we wait out in the rain as Gary runs upstairs to give himself an insulin shot, and then he leaves with his sister to spend the night at her house. Meanwhile, the husbian and I are given the master bedroom (!), while Joy takes to Christina’s room with the bride, and Ayman puts sheets down on the ground in the living room. As for the living room couch? That is held for the photographer, Ted, who will be on the 11:30pm bus. While waiting for him to arrive, Joy opens up a bottle of wine and proceeds to drink while smoking small drags of her long-stemmed Misty Rose cigarettes.
As if I could love her even more. Be still my beating heart, I adore this woman!
As the night creeps closer to midnight, the husbian and Ayman both hit the hay, while Joy, Christina, and I run out to the car, screaming, as the rain falls down upon us like a showerhead, complete with the forecasted thunder and lightning. When we drive up to the parking lot to rescue Ted the photographer, he is huddled under the one covered area in the entire space, and just by climbing into the back seat of the car with me, he is soon drenched as well. This rain, I swear! The wedding coordinator Kathleen promised us that it will be 85 degrees and sunny tomorrow, but at this rate, none of us believe her. Once we have Ted back at the apartment, a bottle of Lambrusco is opened which, to my surprise, even Christina partakes in. At around 1:15am, we finally all amble off to our respective beds, saying our good nights to the bride on the night before her wedding.
Even though our bed is hard as a board, Michael is asleep when I tiptoe in. That’s okay, I don’t have any trouble entering dreamland as soon as my bald head hits the pillow. Unfortunately, my stupid alarm goes off at 6:00am on the morning of the wedding. Grr! Soon I hear Joy stirring outside, so I shuffle out to meet her in the kitchen and pour myself a much-needed cup o’ joe, while smoking my first cigarette of the day with my Lady Lowe. She smokes a lot. I try to keep up with her. Instead of smoking inside the apartment though, as she tends to do, I take my coffee and cigarette outside on the balcony to enjoy the gorgeous weather. Kathleen is right—it is sunny and beautiful with not a cloud in sight. Best part of all? The humidity is gone. Gone with the wind, and the thunderstorm, and good riddance, motherfucker. We do not need that storm on Christina’s wedding day!
The rest of the day unfolds at a leisurely pace. Michael and Ted awake and drink several cups of coffee, like me. We hang out on the balcony and smoke cigarettes. Right before the ladies leave for hair and makeup at the inn, Gary’s other sister Jan comes by at lunchtime with Gary in tow along with pizza and fresh submarine sandwiches. Thank you, Aunt Jan! To be honest, we’re starving. I guess Joy subsists on Misty cigarettes and coffee alone. No wonder she’s as tiny and frail as a little bird. She reminds me of Edith Piaf. Once the ladies leave, we’re essentially stuck in the apartment until Aunt Jan comes back to get us around 2:00pm. The day goes by even slower. There is nothing to do. At least Gary plays the country radio station on the boom box out on the balcony, so that’s a saving grace.
Finally, it’s time for all of us men to get ready. After lying shrouded in a white sheet on the floor for most of the day, Ayman is now awake and asking for help with his tie (don’t worry, dude, it’s not too short) and his vows (you got it Ayman, short and sweet). I prod Gary over and over again until he finally puts a white dress shirt on. Then I end up cutting off the tags on his brand new black suit, as well as open up the sewn pockets. He’s finally ready. The groom, the father of the bride, the photographer, the Reverend, and the Reverend’s husbian look dapper and sharp when we pile into Aunt Jan’s minivan for the 45-minute ride, yet again. At least this time no one needs to sit in the trunk area.
When we arrive at Woodsgate, the butterflies in my stomach start flitting about. To combat my nerves, I trek up the stone staircase to the altar at the Woodland Chapel, which is also best described on the website: “As its name suggests, it is located in the woods beyond the building. A canopy of thirty-foot oak and maple trees creates this outdoor chapel. Its altar is a natural wood trellis and a cobblestone path leads to a kissing bench for photos. Even the deer have been known to attend a ceremony in the Woodland Chapel.”
I don’t see any deer; the only woodland creatures that can be seen are two massive spiders chilling on the stony side of the altar. Blech. Little do I know at the time, but there is going to be an insect situated at the very heart of the wedding ceremony itself, in only a few short minutes.
Next, I boldly strut up to the DJ to introduce myself. His name is Mike, and we fiddle with the microphone stand to get it just the way I like it. I bark out the obligatory “Check, check, 1-2, 1-2” spiel into the mic. My voice sounds too loud as it echoes throughout the peaceful woodland space. The husbian grimaces so I ask Mike to turn it down. I mean, my voice sounds pretty horrible on its own, it doesn’t need to be amplified to an extreme. Once the mic is set, I meet Christina’s cousin Rosemary La Fratte, who is giving a reading from the Bible (the Corinthians passage that states, “Love is patient, love is kind,” etc. as well as a quote from the Quran), so we go over where she needs to stand and such. She notices the extremely large spiders and makes a bit of a stink. Next thing I know, Kathleen is over there with Arash, one of the groomsmen, trying the flick the spiders off the side of the altar.
I shudder. I hate bugs and insects and creepy crawly things.
Once I feel confident enough to leave the stage area, I walk back down the stone steps to Woodsgate for a cigarette. I can’t find Joy to smoke with and seem to have lost my lighter, so I’m shit out of luck. I never get my pre-ceremony smoke on because before I know it, Kathleen is lining us all up, me in the front like the Pied Piper, followed by the groomsman, the groom, the bridesmaids, and then the lovely bride. It’s time! I hear DJ Mike playing Vivaldi and smile as I walk up, glancing this way and that to locate the husbian. I need to know where he is before I start. When I land at my place at the center of the altar behind the microphone, I discover him sitting at my far right side. Phew, all is well in my little world. Even the butterflies chill out.
And then right before it all begins, Arash (the groomsman closest to me who had the previous run-in with the spiders) peers over at me with bugged-out eyes before rapidly hitting my shoulder. Hard. “Why’d you do that?” I whisper, watching Christina walk closer and closer to me. “Sorry,” he whispers back, “there was a huge bug on your shoulder.” Sure enough, he’s right, but in flinging the large insect off my shoulder, it has somehow landed on Ayman’s pant leg. I don’t even know what this bug is, maybe a prehistoric-looking cicada or a weirdly green katydid or some stinging thing or a flying eight-legged spider. I can’t focus on it. All I know is that it’s big and gross and crawly and starts making its slow way up the side of the groom’s leg. Now it’s my turn to make bug eyes at Arash. He just shrugs and grins, and a helpless reaction bubbles up inside of me to the point where I almost bark out a laugh. There is simply nothing we can do at this point, the players are all in place, the music is diminishing, and I have no choice but to began speaking. Gulp.
I welcome everyone by ad-libbing something to the effect of, “Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome! Before we get this party started, I want to say those words we’ve all been waiting to hear…’Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…’” I have no idea if there is anyone out there who has been waiting to hear those words, but that’s what comes out. Then I proceed to introduce myself and explain how I know Christina and her family, as well as extol the personal virtues of both the bride and the groom.
It goes pretty well, if I do say so myself.
Once I proclaim them both “lucky” and “fortunate” (complete with dictionary references), they read their personally written vows to each other. I then have them repeat the regular, standard vows after me, and finally they exchange their rings. At this point, I’ve lost sight of the bug. I glance at Arash who still has a grin on his face as I proclaim in a very grandiose manner that, by the power vested in me, I now pronounce them husband and wife, then instruct Ayman to kiss the bride, and giddily announce the couple as Mr. and Mrs. El-Eskandarany to the jubilant guests. A round of applause echoes throughout the woods as the happy couple walks away from the altar and down the stone path hand in hand. Christina stops for a split second, kicks her leg out like she’s doing the Can-Can, then flicks something off of her wedding dress before continuing on her merry way.
I know what she’s doing; others have no clue. One bridesmaid later told me she thought Christina tripped in her high heels. Nope—she was swatting away an enormous bug. Yes, that very same one. Apparently, when the bride and groom kissed, it was miraculously transferred over to Christina’s wedding gown. That’s what she noticed when she was making her exit. That damn bug! I believe it was the husbian who later told me that it must be good luck, for the insect went from the Reverend to the groom to the bride, so all of us were touched by it somehow. That is good luck, wouldn’t you say? (Just say yes and carry on.) Still, yuck. It grosses me out just thinking about it. Not knowing what it was just adds to the gross-out factor. At least Christina kicked her leg up and flicked it off once and for all. Bye, clingy bug!
So back to the reason I even brought up meeting Mike the DJ—that would be because of our conversation post-wedding. As I mentioned, I went up to him and thanked him for everything, and that was when the whole “priest/politician” conversation came up.
Yes, I have a fascination with priests, no doubt stemming from my Catholic upbringing. Although I didn’t care for them as a child, a romanticized version of them exists in my adult mind.
(Thank you, Montgomery Clift! Still from I Confess (1952) directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Maybe I just want to wear a priest’s collar and show off my tattoos. I’ll call this fetish priest porn. You know, like beard porn. But in all honesty, just like a priest would, I had been hearing some heartfelt “confessions” from the bridal party, especially Joy. I asked her several painful, honest questions about herself and her life when the two of us were alone on her balcony the night prior to the wedding. She answered truthfully and very honestly, even though I know how difficult that was for her. I was proud to have been her “confessor” and kinda sorta felt like a priest. Even Ayman came to me openly and honestly. I fully realized how privileged I was to be in such a position, and I can only hope that I said and did the right things in God’s eyes.
Or am I a politician?
At first, I was riled that the DJ would even call me one. How dare he! I despise politics and the vermin who run for office. In my eyes, most politicians are despicable. And yet, once again, Mike was on to something. There I was, speaking in front of 75 people, getting them all to believe in everything I said, making them a captive audience, telling them what I wanted them to hear. I was most definitely in charge. In addition, I had specifically made it a point to meet the wedding coordinator, the DJ, the important family members, the bridal party, and the family friends. At the reception, I was shaking hands and introducing myself to almost every guest there.
If I had been running for office, I think I would have won.
Not to pat myself on the back, but I received a wave of compliments after the ceremony, a veritable outpouring of support that lasted throughout the entire reception. I was touched. I’m still touched, as well as honored and humbled. Okay, I don’t think many politicians are actually humble but they may pretend to be. In looking up “politician” in the dictionary, the definitions aren’t too flattering: “a seeker or holder of public office, who is more concerned about winning favor or retaining power than about maintaining principles,” and “a person who seeks to gain power or advancement within an organization in ways that are generally disapproved.” I don’t care to be that kind of politician. If I’m going to be compared to one, I would prefer to be a grass-roots type, the one to kiss babies, marry couples, and act like a priest.
What it boils down to is this: I wanna be a hybrid of the two. A polipriest. Nah, that sounds too much like a polyamorous priest. A politipriest? A priestician? Regardless of what to call it, I’ll take it.
I’ll be my own mix of the two.
I’ll just be me.
And I was just that at the reception, even sitting at Table #1 with the parents of the bride and dancing my ass off with the mother of the bride. Like, a lot. I mean, I’m even dancing the polka with her, for Christ’s sake. (Oops, I shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, especially since I’m a politipriest now or whatever the fuck I’m going to start calling it.)
Please take a look at the lovely couple as they cut the cheese—uh, I mean cake. (A priest probably shouldn’t joke about farting either.)
Alas, once 9:00pm hits, it’s time for us to leave the party. There is a big mix-up regarding our return bus tickets back home, but it turns out that there is a Martz bus station about 5-10 minutes away from the inn, so we end up jumping into a cab and saying some very quick goodbyes. The bus departs right on time at 9:30pm, smelling curiously like “two piece and a biscuit,” according to my Southern husbian. There is a distinct aroma of chicken, that’s for sure.
On the bus ride home, we play several rounds of UNO, listen to Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album and then, before I know it, we’re pulling in to Port Authority. So easy! And such a great experience. The wedding was beyond fantastic, and there were so many wonderful people to hang out with for a day and a half. I want to do it all over again. All the time.
You know what? I think I like being a priest and a politician. A politipriest. Yes, that’s it. No wait, a priestician, I mean.
Oh hell, I’ll just be a little bit of both.