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From her courthouse perch, she watches the world go by

To get a passport, add a room, get married, you need to visit a deputy clerk in the circuit court — the gatekeeper of milestones.
Carlena Ward shares a moment with a coworker from a desk at the Pat Collier Frank Courthouse in Tampa on Monday, October 24, 2022.
Carlena Ward shares a moment with a coworker from a desk at the Pat Collier Frank Courthouse in Tampa on Monday, October 24, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 2, 2022

TAMPA — Now serving at counter number 10.

First up: Someone’s little girl needs a passport. Carlena Ward, 39, opens her window, pulls out the form.

Hers is the only cubicle at the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court’s office that doesn’t overlook the waiting area, brimming with all those buzzing needs. Her corner of the world is quiet, orderly, the way she likes it.

If you live in Hillsborough and want to put in a pool, add a room or pick up your divorce records, you’ll have to go through a deputy clerk in the circuit court, like Ward.

She can even perform a wedding right there in Room 140.

Clerks like her are the first step to so many next steps, the gatekeepers of strangers’ milestones — but Ward has never stood on the other side of that window.

“Hello! Are you applying for a marriage license?” Ward asks a young couple on this Monday morning. “Congratulations! I just need to see your IDs.”

The man leans on his girlfriend’s shoulder, kisses her neck.

“That will be $86,” says Ward. “When are you getting married?”

“Right now,” the man says.

Ward shakes her head, smiling. “In Florida, we have a three-day waiting period,” she says. “Come back and see me on Thursday.”

Kelly Stratton, 60, left, and Eric Gustafson, 59, center, apply for a marriage license at the Hillsborough County Clerk's office. As Carlena Ward, right, looks over their form, they swear that all of the information is accurate, and that they're not blood relatives.
Kelly Stratton, 60, left, and Eric Gustafson, 59, center, apply for a marriage license at the Hillsborough County Clerk's office. As Carlena Ward, right, looks over their form, they swear that all of the information is accurate, and that they're not blood relatives. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

She seldom asks questions. But sometimes, people tell her things: This is my seventh marriage. I hope it’s my last.

Or: It’s much easier to get married than divorced.

Recently, a groom she’d married came back alone. His bride had disappeared. Ward explained how to get an annulment.

She’s matter-of-fact, efficient, reserved. Doesn’t like small talk or gossip. While a clerk behind her jokes with customers and another prances to the printer in heels, Ward cocoons herself in a plaid blanket inside her cubicle — where the walls are blank.

For the first two years, she said, her co-workers didn’t know she had kids.

On breaks, she shuts out the world with R&B and gospel. A liver transplant last year only amplified her commitment to peace, away from life’s dramas — except when she’s the official witness.

She drives an hour to get here from Plant City, where she grew up — and where she would never work: “I know too many people and don’t want to be all in their business.”

She loves “Law & Order” and “The First 48,” had wanted to be a cop or a lawyer. But raising two sons as a single mom, policing seemed too dangerous; law school would take too long. She wound up working at Publix, Home Depot, Bealls Outlet.

While her boys were in high school, she worked nights as a cashier at the Hard Rock Casino, dealing with drunks and angry gamblers, carrying home the stench of smoke. But that meant she could be there to take them to school and football practice, help with their homework.

Finally she got her associate’s degree and, once her boys graduated, found the courthouse job, predictable and steady.

Ward mans cubicle number 10 at the Pat Collier Frank Courthouse in Tampa. Customers come to her with myriad requests, and leave call tickets in a bin on her counter.
Ward mans cubicle number 10 at the Pat Collier Frank Courthouse in Tampa. Customers come to her with myriad requests, and leave call tickets in a bin on her counter. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
During most shifts, Ward wraps herself in a plaid blanket which she keeps on her desk chair. She doesn't socialize much with her coworkers, takes breaks and eats lunch alone.
During most shifts, Ward wraps herself in a plaid blanket which she keeps on her desk chair. She doesn't socialize much with her coworkers, takes breaks and eats lunch alone. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

She started answering phones in 2018. In February, she was promoted to customer service. She spends two weeks in a cubicle, processing documents. Then two weeks in the window.

Sometimes she piles on extra hours so that on Fridays, she can go to Tallahassee. Her youngest, Treshaun Ward, is a star running back at Florida State. She and her dad never miss a home game. Life is simple, she says: “Family and football.”

After lunch, a woman needs a passport for herself, her mom and teenage son.

Ward shows them how to fill out the forms, black ink only, hands them another when they make a mistake. The State Department, she says, is very picky.

“We’re going to Mexico,” the woman tells her. “Isn’t that exciting?”

A builder needs a permit to install solar panels. A homeowner wants a new roof. Customers need forms for decks, porches, fences. Ward stamps their applications, wishes them luck, amends the official record.

“One day,” she thinks, “this might be me.”

Ward doesn't speak Spanish. Many of her customers don't speak English. So when Jose Leyva, 45, and Yeila Suarez, 35, come to get married, she has to get a coworker to perform the ceremony. Here, Yadimar Torres, left with back to the camera, weds the couple as Ward, right with back to the camera, watches through the cubicle window.
Ward doesn't speak Spanish. Many of her customers don't speak English. So when Jose Leyva, 45, and Yeila Suarez, 35, come to get married, she has to get a coworker to perform the ceremony. Here, Yadimar Torres, left with back to the camera, weds the couple as Ward, right with back to the camera, watches through the cubicle window. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Next, two women walk to Ward’s window arm-in-arm, taking selfies. “Are you ready to get your marriage license?” she asks.

“I was ready yesterday,” says the older woman.

A middle-aged couple comes next. “Can you believe after 31 years we’re doing this?” the woman asks Ward. “We’re watching TV the other night and this one here goes, ‘So you want to get married?’ I said, ‘Are you OK? Let me get the thermometer.’”

Some days Ward wades into quitclaim deeds, notices of commencement, title searches. Sometimes she helps people thread microfiche to find ancient property transfers. Sometimes she thumbs through tax rolls dating to the Civil War.

“It’s like we’re part of history,” says Ward’s supervisor, Lucy Mitchell. “We’re recording all of this right here at the beginning.”

At 1:30 p.m. a woman who has been pacing around the waiting room knocks on Ward’s window. She and her boyfriend got their marriage license last week. Why hasn’t their number been called?

Ward pulls out her laminated script and shows them to the ceremony room, where an arch with silk roses rises over an ivory curtain. She has officiated more than 60 weddings since June — her favorite three minutes of the job, witnessing couples’ happiness when their families can’t.

“OK, hold hands and look into each other’s eyes,” she says.

She reads the words that she’s mostly memorized, pronounces them husband and wife, watches them kiss.

“Make sure you spend some money on her now,” Ward tells the groom, who can’t stop grinning. “Congratulations.”

In a private room in a corner of the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court's office, Ward performs a wedding ceremony for Darrell Jenkins, 35, left, and Chakia Davenport, 32. Since June, Ward has married more than 60 couples. She says that's her favorite part of the job.
In a private room in a corner of the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court's office, Ward performs a wedding ceremony for Darrell Jenkins, 35, left, and Chakia Davenport, 32. Since June, Ward has married more than 60 couples. She says that's her favorite part of the job. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

By 4:30, Ward’s voice is tired and most of her coworkers have headed home. But after the office closes, she stays to keep verifying documents.

And if she typed her own name into those databases she spends all day inside, what would she see?

“Just the petitions for child support from years ago,” she says. “But they never went anywhere.”

She has never married.

Never owned a home. She lives with her parents in the house where she grew up.

Never had a passport, never traveled much beyond those football games.

One day, she says, she’d like to buy her own place — a home she designed, on a large lot where she can’t see any neighbors.

And she’d like to visit Mexico — her son played football there. Or maybe Monaco, the luxurious country she has glimpsed only in a video.

And she would love to get married — far, far from her courthouse window — at sunset, on the beach.

“It’s in the making right now,” she said. “I’ve been seeing him almost two years…”

Ward is training other deputy clerks and eventually hopes to be promoted to supervisor. She also wants to become a notary, get better at taking passport photos, and, one day, stand on the other side of that courthouse counter, applying for her own next step.
Ward is training other deputy clerks and eventually hopes to be promoted to supervisor. She also wants to become a notary, get better at taking passport photos, and, one day, stand on the other side of that courthouse counter, applying for her own next step. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]