It’s a Saturday morning in January, 10:45 a.m., and 74-year-old postman-turned-minister Simon Cruz is eager to marry some people. He glances at the clock, then at the thick journal which serves as his chapel’s computing system. There was a wedding scheduled for 11, but he is beginning to doubt the betrothed will show up, and that means one of the week’s two scheduled ceremonies may be a bust.
For 50 years, the blue-and-white, ’60’s-kitsch Harmony Wedding Chapel has been beckoning last-minute lovers off the Gulf Freeway just north of Hobby Airport. Except for some plywood ramps appended, one imagines, in an age of ADA compliant retrofitting, the one-story ranch style house does not appear to have been renovated, ever. It was a place to which Simon Cruz delivered mail during his 27 years as a postman, until one day in 1983 when he decided to buy the odd little building with a steeple and neon sign, thinking he would flip it when the market was good.
Cruz reads the ceremony from some laminated pages he keeps in a portfolio; mostly he mumbles through it, until he comes to a part he clearly likes. “Let love prevail!”
At first, Cruz kept on the chapel’s minister, a former boxer named Haskell London; but as London approached 80, he became less reliable. Cruz would call the minister at the Luby’s where he breakfasted every morning, reminding him that a couple was patiently waiting to be locked into a state of holy matrimony, and the aging minister would get lost on his way back. Eventually, the postman realized that he was going to have to marry people himself. He knew the basics, having watched London perform hundreds of weddings. He did not know that he would take such joy in performing them.
“The plan wasn’t, ‘hey I am going to be a minister and do weddings for the next 30 years,’” says Cruz. “But then I found out that I like it! I marry people and make them happy, and it’s like a rush to me—I feel great about it.”
Before Cruz bought the chapel, London’s 11-year-old son killed himself in the building’s back room while cleaning his father’s gun. Cruz prefers to focus, however, on all the lives that have begun here. In the front office are tacked hundreds of photographs of couples from the chapel’s earliest days to the present. There are men in modern military uniforms; there are men in leisure suits and aviator glasses. A bride in jeans leans against a motorcycle, and a couple in traditional Korean dress stand stiffly under the chapel’s wedding arch. The average wedding is booked a week in advance, and the prenuptial period would be even shorter if not for red tape. “People call the same day and say, ‘I want to get married,’” explains Cruz, “but I have to tell them to get a marriage license, and that takes three days.”
Couples come to the chapel because one of them is about to deploy, or because they want to renew vows made decades earlier, or simply because they like the price—$50 if it’s just the two of you, $150 if you bring around a dozen guests. There are green card marriages, too, and those are less fun all around. “You can tell whether people are happy or not,” says Cruz. “Sometimes it just seems like a business opportunity. But like Pope Francis says, ‘Who am I to judge?’”
The bride’s father, Mark Randell, is the first to arrive, at 10:50, ten minutes before the wedding is supposed to start. He plans to sing a song to his daughter and her soon-to-be husband, and as he nervously fiddles with his cufflinks, he instructs Cruz on when to play the appropriate music. Twenty years ago, Randell and his wife renewed their vows at this very chapel, probably with Cruz, though no one can remember the details.
Twenty years ago, Cruz says, the neighborhood was different. Now he worries about the drug users and sex workers who hang out under the highway and along Sims Bayou, which passes right behind the chapel. Though he lives only blocks away, he drives to work so as not to “deal with the people under the bridge.” Earlier this morning we counted four stray cats behind the house; a man who appeared to have nothing to do with the place was sitting in its backyard, surrounded by plastic bags and staring at the bayou.
The groom appears at 11 sharp, gangly-slim and nervous, a 33-year old native of Gabon named Fred Louembet-Oyenguelet. His bride, Houston native April Randell, shows up soon after, accompanied by three women busy complimenting her hair, and a little girl in a tiara, all of whom disappear with her into a room adjacent to the chapel. The bride and groom met eight months ago on OKCupid. “I guess when you in love, you in love,” says the bride’s aunt.
Twenty minutes after 11, a dozen guests are seated in pews in the small chapel, facing the wedding arch, which is covered with artificial flowers. Cruz pops a cassette tape labeled “wedding march” into a small stereo. “Y’all get cozy over here,” he says, stage-directing, as the wedding party walks slowly down the aisle.
Cruz reads the ceremony from some laminated pages he keeps in a portfolio; mostly he mumbles through it, until he comes to a part he clearly likes. “Let love prevail!” he shouts at the end of a rushed prayer. He leads the bride and groom through their vows. At the words “as long as we both shall live,” the bride starts crying.
“Now,” says Cruz, “we have to do the rings and all that. But first let me turn the heat off. It’s getting warm in here.”
Cruz disappears, reappears, does the rings and all that. “Now you want to sing that song?” he asks the father of the bride, who sings to the bride and groom a song he wrote himself, “I Cherish the Love.”
“Y’all may stand now,” says Cruz at the song’s end. “I now present Mr. and Mrs. Louem…bet? Louembet!”
Everyone cheers. Cruz leaves the chapel to answer the office phone, but no one notices. No one notices that the recessional cassette tape is worn, the music muffled, as if it’s coming from a mid-century cartoon. No one notices that the artificial flowers are yellowing, or raises an eyebrow at the fact that Cruz’s lively phone conversation—“Well, when you’re declared divorced, then you can get a marriage license. You gotta sign some papers”—can be heard inside the chapel. The bride, the groom, the entire wedding, are posing and snapping pictures and wiping tears from their eyes, and then they’re out the door, sweeping the edges of dresses into cars, off to the reception. When Cruz gets off the phone, he is beaming.
On the first day when I went to visit Simon Cruz, we walked behind the chapel, where the stray cats hang out. To our left, under the bridge, a man was drinking a beer, and a woman next to him was taking off her shirt. “Don’t look in that direction,” Cruz said. So we looked west, where blue sky met the tree line, and the sun sparkled over the bayou. It was a beautiful day.