Are you a goth Charlotte, punk Miranda, or queer Samantha? Definitely a bizarro Carrie here. Actual Carrie wasn’t weird enough to develop a small obsession with getting fake-married to a rockabilly dude in the Elvis chapel in Vegas twenty years ago this week, but I was.
Some months after my move to the City in ‘96, my long-term North Carolina boyfriend and I gently broke up, and I began dating. My job at the time was in the big leagues, writing art previews, reviews, and then this “Dilettante” column for a big-city paper, the SF Bay Guardian.
Around the same time, my best girlfriends and I became aware of a brand new TV show called Sex and the City, wherein a columnist like me chose to spend all her free time shoe shopping and sitting in fancy restaurants. On a journalist’s salary, this would be implausible at best.
Every week our one television event was to gather in the living room of our house and watch how the SATC episode stacked up to our lives with “Dilettante” that previous week. The girlfriends identified with their fave SATC characters, as did most watchers of the program — but we unlike many in America knew that 1) life as a columnist or friend of columnist could be so much more interesting if you’d just go downtown more often, and 2) you can’t talk about people you date in your columns.
My favorite plot hole to love to harp on about that show was the faultiness of the premise that you could write about your single life for an entire major city’s population to read, with your actual face plastered all over bus ads in New York City, and not have things get weird fast.
Soon, you’d be approached by readers and sycophants when you went out, rendered unable to do your job as a sometimes-incognito reviewer properly. That’s why, despite my editors’ strong wishes, I chose to pen my “Dilettante” column anonymously, with no author photo.
Sex and the City appeared to us as a harbinger — a paler, New York-ish television variant of our actual world in our funkedelic house in the Mission in San Francisco.
Carrie Bradshaw recounted her own love problems week after week when she could’ve been out magnifying worthy artists and musicians or delving into strange subcultures and THEIR sex lives maybe. To each their own modern anthropological kink, but dang, Carrie, there’s a plot hole with the bus ads and the whole attracting-rich-dudes-and-hunks-not-narcissists-and-weirdoes thing.
Also, I dare you to try disclosing deeply personal details about your friends’ love lives in your column. You’d shortly get hollered at and maybe even voted off friendship island.
Anyway in this 1998 four-part article series about Vegas, this one covers that time my rockabilly-type date and I got fake-married in Vegas surrounded by hot greasers at the Elvis chapel. It would be the only event where I came anywhere close to writing about my current sweetie (who was a great guy btw). Just this once, to tell the whole story, I had to write about my date.
Scroll down or click through to read “Vegas, Baby, Vegas — part four of four,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on May 12, 1998.
Vegas, Baby, Vegas – part four of four
by Summer Burkes, 05.12.1998
LIKE I SAID before, four legal things of note happen in Vegas: gambling, shows, conventions, and weddings. The clichéd idea of a marriage in Vegas is as familiar as it is hilarious: a late-night, hasty, desperate ritual that temporarily reassures chemically altered men and women that they won’t die alone with their cats. In the morning, they regret their legally binding whimsy and mutually agree to pretend it never happened.
Instant gratification, Vegas style: a fast-forwarded version of ill-fated marriage itself, with none of the heartache, alimony payments, or suddenly incomplete china sets that drag out the detachment process. A traditionally lifelong decision made in the blink of a bleary eye, with nothing but negative (if fleeting) consequences. Still, better than waking up with a tattoo of Foghorn Leghorn on your ass.
I was raised in Memphis, Tenn., a place where virtually everyone has come into six degrees-type contact with Elvis Presley and thinks of him as a wayward, famous distant cousin. My adoration of him falls somewhere between the blatant idolatry that consumed my childhood and the kitschiness and excess he’s associated with now.
Since I’ve known for a long time that I’m not the marrying kind, it’s been a steadfast and admittedly abnormal fantasy of mine to get married in the Graceland Chapel in Las Vegas and have it annulled the next day, “just to,” as we would say down South.
Upon inquiry, I discovered that a marriage license cost $35 and annulment cost somewhere around $150. A better way to do the whole Vegas package, I thought to my broke self, would be to pretend to take the plunge. Since one must present a marriage certificate before a ceremony can take place in the Graceland Chapel, the only way that I could fake it, I discovered, would be to “renew” vows to a husband that I never had in the first place. I collared a good-natured and willing partner in crime and hailed a cab to North Vegas.
The Graceland Chapel is a tiny place; the darkly lit reception-desk area is coated with Elvis memorabilia, bouquets for sale, and candid pictures of happy newlyweds. We meet our priest, and he looks a bit like a high-class pimp, wearing a light blue suit, collarless shirt, and gold chains.
He asks us about our first wedding, the details of which we fabricate on the spot (an artsy affair with 400 people by the pool on my parents’ estate, bagpipes and steel drums playing “Here Comes the Bride,” seven wedding cakes, a potluck dinner, a live salsa band…). He gets our names and fills out a scarily official-looking vow-renewal certificate.
My companion is squirming noticeably, and my cheeks are hot: I have the distinct feeling of being somewhere I’m really, really not supposed to be. I’m spending hard-earned money to act out a stupid fantasy from my teenage years in front of God, Elvis, and everybody. I’m lying to both Kings.
I’m sure that the ceremony would have been different if we had gotten an Elvis impersonator instead of a priest, but since they were $80 extra, no dice. When the organ music kicks in and the doors to the chapel swing open, our small ragtag wedding party are nudging one another and heckling us, the priest looks a bit confused, and, to my irritation, the chapel looks completely normal.
No stained glass Elvis window, no fuzzy dice hanging from the pulpit, not even a stitch of fake fur. In fact, it’s quite ugly. The forgettable nine-minute ceremony is short, to the point, entirely Christian, and Elvis-free. In fact, there’s nothing even vaguely Elvis-esque about the whole deal, barring the pictures in the hallway and the chapel’s name out front.
I guess it makes sense, though. What would conservative middle Americans do, knowing that the man who sweatily and histrionically sang “How Great Thou Art” lent his name to a chapel that poked fun at the social bastions of religion and marriage simultaneously?
Although I’m a bit disappointed at the uneventfulness of it all, I’m happy that my sick little itch has been scratched. We file out front for a round of photographs, and the hecklers melodramatically tell me that my chariot awaits.
A giant pickup truck swings around front, and all 12 of us climb in the back for an appropriately white-trash postnuptial joyride. On the way back to the hotel, my eyes light up as I spot a big sign that says “Joan Collins,” and then, underneath it, “World-Famous Drive-Up Wedding Window.”
Hmm. Maybe next time…
This is the eighth entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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