There was a warm breeze in the air when Goran Veljic made his way toward the Wonder Wheel. A couple had dreamed of marrying on Coney Island, at midnight, against a backdrop of carnival lights and cotton candy. They had called Goran a few nights earlier to make it happen.
He waited in silence beside a shuttered hot dog stand. He was nervous. No one was around, and the park’s neon lights grew a little more sinister with every passing minute. Thankfully, a woman in a white dress and a man in a tuxedo soon appeared. A handful of their closest friends followed behind.
Goran officiated the ceremony in about fifteen minutes, pausing every once in a while to lift a Nikon D700 from around his neck and snap a picture. Peering at a wristwatch, one of the guests ensured the “I do’s” were spoken precisely at the stroke of twelve.
Goran, a tall, firmly built man with salt-and-pepper hair, has witnessed almost 8,000 elopements in and around New York City – a gig that involves signing as an official witness for couples without family or friends available. Recently, Goran also obtained the license to officiate ceremonies, making him a one-stop wedding shop for New Yorkers without the time, financial resources, or family support for a conventional wedding. He’s a professional witness, officiant, and/or photographer, depending on the couple’s needs.
Goran’s business, NY1 Minute Weddings, was born in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when tight finances prompted lovebirds across the nation to reconsider immaculate garden ceremonies and lavish receptions and opt for something simpler. Nuptial expenses have only ballooned since then: the average wedding cost an all-time high of $35,329 last year, according to a recent survey of nearly 13,000 brides and grooms.
Frugality is a factor, but it’s not the only one. Luxury elopements can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars. Professional photographers, customized flowers and exotic locales are often part of the package. But elopements help unburden couples from conventional wedding pitfalls like seating charts, dietary restrictions, and disapproving family members.
Goran’s business lies somewhere in-between luxury elopements and conventional City Hall weddings. Depending on the couple, he fetches marriage licenses, secures park and other public space permits, arranges for bridal bouquets and calls on a friend to play the violin throughout the ceremony. He takes photos and makes an elopement day video. Or he just shows up and signs on the dotted line. Couples choose from these services on Goran’s website – packages range from “Classic” (priced at $999) to “Extravaganza” (priced at $1,499).
The work takes Goran all over the city, and sometimes all over the state. He has witnessed unions on Long Island beaches, Catskills hilltops and Brooklyn warehouses, sometimes within the span of a few days. He officiated the ceremony of a couple that had met 14 hours earlier (and almost seven years later, they’re still together). He married an Eastern European diplomat to his top financial advisor, a man, under the cover of night in a midtown hotel. Both men went on to take wives and begin families, the union a sworn secret to this day.
“Sometimes it feels like Seamless for marriage,” Goran says, chuckling at a subway advertisement for the on-demand delivery app. He was a wedding photographer and organizer in the former Yugoslavia before he came to the United States in 2008, and he speaks with a Balkan accent that tends to emphasize hard consonants.
Photography was the impetus for Goran’s business. Strolling around the city during his first few weeks in New York, he began snapping portraits of nervous young couples, hurried professionals and wide-eyed lovers poised to be wed at City Hall. According to New York City law, couples require a witness in order to be married, and Goran was soon asked by a desperate couple to fill in.
His move to the U.S. coincided with another major event: divorcing his first wife and fellow photographer, to whom he had been married for over a decade; a decision that devastated both his savings and emotional well-being. He arrived in the U.S. with his teenaged son, Nikola. Hungry for hope, and for love stories, Goran was drawn to the energy at City Hall. It was uplifting to see couples that had overcome meddling families, differences in race or religion, disease or physical limitations, and a host of other unfortunate circumstances, only to become even more desperate to be together. He was inspired by love in a city that felt, at least to him, chronically single and stubbornly alone, and mostly unhappy as a result. Whether it was young and naive, or tried and weathered, Goran enjoyed being around love.
“It was rock bottom for me. I had to convince myself every day to get up and find some good to hang on to,” Goran says. “So I wanted to be in the room, or on the beach, or on the rooftop, and see that a person is truly happy to be in the company of another during the biggest moment of his life.”
On a crisp afternoon last November, Goran was squinting into his camera, making pictures of Tao Jiang and Biyun Wu. They posed beside the Pool, a pond in the north-western corner of Central Park, their faces softened by the glow of golden trees. A stray leaf swayed in a breeze before drifting into the water. A popular site for on-the-fly nuptials, Goran often says that he knows Central Park “better than my own apartment.”
Dressed in matching black suits, the two men whispered in each other’s ears. Tao wrapped his arms around Biyun, and Biyun pressed his cheek gently against Tao’s forehead. “Look at that light,” Goran said as he tipped the camera’s screen to one of the couple’s guests. He was breathless with excitement. He had just asked a breastfeeding woman to vacate a nearby bench because she was blocking his shot, and now the Jiang and Wu were perfectly framed by naked branches and bright blue skies. “It’s like a romance film.”
The couple was pronounced married only minutes before, standing beside the Pool. A guest produced the rings from a crumpled Muji bag. Afterwards, Jiang and Tao sauntered around the pond and over a footbridge to pose under the regal Glen Span Arch. Goran and his son, Nikola, followed with their cameras. Now 23-years-old, Nikola joins his father on almost every elopement and takes at least of half the images. He dreams of becoming a photographer himself and wants to take over his father’s business.
Making their way from the Arch and into an open green space speckled with fallen leaves, the couple’s guests shuffled behind, coats and purses in hand, huddling to chat just out of view every time the couple found a new location. Tao and Biyun met while teaching Chinese literature at Rutgers University, so the guests were mostly academic colleagues. Both partners’ families lived in China and the elopement came together too quickly to accommodate international travel. “This is our New York family,” said Tao. “It makes sense for them to be here with us. This is how we wanted it.”
Like Seamless, Goran is now on call 24/7. But in the early days of NY1 Minute Weddings, most of his business was based in the Marriage Bureau: a 24,000-square-foot facility custom-designed for speedy, convenient nuptials, the result of a $12 million renovation of a former Department of Motor Vehicles office near City Hall on Worth Street.
The Marriage Bureau was Goran’s first New York home. On a recent morning, weaving through a mess of clerks, security guards, flower sellers, gift shop workers and fellow shutterbugs, he exchanged a quick word or a handshake with everyone. Long lines crowded the entrance. There’s a gift shop stocked with single stem roses, disposable cameras, sterling silver wedding bands, hairspray and t-shirts that read “Wife,” “Husband” and “Witness” in bold type. Couples paced the marble floors with their number in hand, waiting to be called up to a desk by peering up at a screen hanging overhead—a peculiar, pre-renovation DMV office leftover. A groom in light wash denim bolted across the long corridor, evidently late for the big moment.
Outside the Bureau, Goran greeted a man named Dimitrije with a firm handshake. Dimitrije’s other hand gripped the waist of a 19-year-old woman in a skin-tight peach dress named Frica. Two weeks earlier at an East Village club, Dimitrije had taught Frica to dance “the way girls do in Croatia,” and it took them less than a week to decide to get married. Then they called Goran after googling “elope in NYC.”
Frica and Dimitrije spent about 90 minutes in the bureau waiting for “C214” to be called. They didn’t unclasp hands for a moment. When their number blared over the speakers, Goran and the couple shuffled into a small room outfitted with a red couch, a single bookshelf and a large pastel painting. They were married in less than a minute; she in white leather boots and gold clip-on earrings, he in a button-down and sneakers. The officiant flatly informed the groom he could kiss his bride, then she crossed off the couple’s number in a binder and slammed it shut before exiting the room.
Goran snapped pictures and happily hummed Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage.” He asked the couple to pose with outstretched fists to show off their rings, and suggested the young woman plant a kiss on her new husband’s cheek.
Last November, on the Monarch Rooftop in midtown, the expanse of New York City was laid bare in the crystal-clear light of an early autumn morning. Goran and Nikola were waiting for a couple from Ossining named Yolanda and Daniel. They were cousins who had been dating for a few months and would be accompanied by a handful of relatives.
Goran’s glance dropped down to the camera screen in his son’s hands. “You’re a little over-exposed in that one, son,” he said, pointing out white spots in Nikola’s test shots. While Goran is proud to pass on the tradition of photography to his only son, it’s clear he isn’t quite ready to throw in the towel on his business just yet.
The couple soon emerged from the elevator. The bride wore a strapless gown, its bodice sprinkled with silver crystals, and a satin bolero jacket. The groom wore a maroon suit and a pink shirt. Goran walked with them hurriedly, suggesting spots for pictures and waving in his son to start snapping.
The rooftop ceremony lasted about twenty minutes. Yolanda and Daniel read their vows from their iPhones and a violinist played John Legend’s “All of Me” as they spoke, mounting her own iPhone to a glass window to read the music. When the ceremony was over, the couple joined the Veljics in the elevator. On the ground floor, both father and son exchanged quick handshakes with their clients and hopped into the street. They were hurrying off to their next gig, one of three clients they planned to meet that afternoon. They disappeared into the subway and would soon emerge at City Hall.
Witnessing weddings has shaped Goran’s life in New York. His close friends include George, the veteran who struggled to make ends meet until a hot dog seller suggested he begin hawking flowers to panicked, last-minute lovebirds; Kennedy Moore, a blogger, real estate agent and fellow professional witness who began as a rival but evolved into a pal; and Rose, a Marriage Bureau clerk whom Goran considers family, who encouraged him to get licensed himself. Goran even met his current wife outside of the Bureau, where she was serving as a witness for a close friend.
“This job quite literally saved my life,” Goran says. “You might think it sounds like a joke, but it made me excited about love again.”