METAIRIE, La. — Al Copeland is God.
At least it seems that way on this February night in the suburbs of New Orleans, where tens of thousands of people are swarming the streets, screaming his name, jostling for his attention, pleading with outstretched palms for the manna he dispenses so bountifully.
"Al, oh, Al, Al, Al," implores an elderly, gray-haired woman from her wheelchair. A cherubic boy, hoping to stand out from the crowd, waves frantically atop a ladder. A gaunt man thrusts a cardboard box in the air, a shameless appeal for alms. Not to be outdone, a teenage girl hoists her shirt, confident that bare breasts will boost her odds.
What is Copeland's secret, his power, his mysterious gift that turns everyone--young and old, black and white, rich and poor--into so much putty in his hands?
The answer is beads. Lots of beads, insane mountains of beads, bought by the gross, the case, the pallet. There's not a gem in the bunch, either, not a strand with resale value. These are cheap, plastic, made-in-China beads--deceptively simple, inexplicably coveted beads--that are the lifeblood of every Mardi Gras.
"This is what it's all about," says Copeland, founder of the Popeye's chicken chain, as he showered his adoring flock recently in Metairie's Krewe of Atlas parade. "I can't tell you why it's so important to me, other than it's fun, it's the culture, it's New Orleans."
Louisiana's pre-Lenten carnival season, which culminates tomorrow on Fat Tuesday, is a tribute to many forms of revelry: masked balls and feathered costumes, brass bands and Zulu dances, reckless imbibing and semi-nude galavanting. But nothing symbolizes the bizarre marvel of it all better than the cult of beads, an annual rite that resembles Halloween for adults, substituting plastic baubles for sweets.
For a brief moment in time, these trifles are the royal currency of the Mardi Gras kingdom, badges of wealth and power. When flung from a float along St. Charles Avenue or slung from a Bourbon Street balcony, their value swells out of proportion, goading even the staid and sober to lunge for a necklace they easily could have bought at the five-and-dime.
"They're like medals of war," says Joe Cahn, who runs the New Orleans School of Cooking and tours the nation as a self-styled Mardi Gras ambassador. "Whoever has the most beads wins."
It is a stark departure from Pasadena's stately Tournament of Roses, where police are poised to arrest anyone who hurls so much as a marshmallow or a tortilla. In New Orleans, such interactive parading isn't merely tolerated: It's celebrated as an art form. "It's like a strange mating ritual from 'Wild Kingdom,' " Cahn says. "You begin coveting thy neighbor's beads."
The classic line, "Throw me something, mister," still gets trotted out, but Cahn suggests a more inventive pitch. "My sister's in the hospital and needs beads" will often do the trick. So will a pair of crutches, which can be quickly ditched if both hands are needed to reel in an errant strand.
"Dressing up as a nun also works incredibly well," Cahn says. "Even if you have a full beard."
The better the beads, the more desperate the stunt, including X-rated flashes of skin. Although quality may be a misnomer in the world of disposable Mardi Gras trinkets, a distinct hierarchy ranks every strand according to size, length and glitz.
Accent Annex, the Wal-Mart of Mardi Gras suppliers, boasts more than 100 categories of beads, which are imported in huge multimillion-dollar shipments every year from China. Prices range from 2 cents for a strand of transparent, 18-inch, multicolored chokers to $2.58 for the 96-inch Cadillac of simulated pearls, each a hefty 18 millimeters in diameter.
The year-round operation, which has 11 outlets along the Gulf Coast, also stocks a boggling array of "throws," which get lobbed from floats along with the beads. There are traditional favorites, such as cups and doubloons, as well as an odd assortment of plastic crawfish, rubber cigars, giant pacifiers and fake fried eggs.
"We have some of the tackiest stuff in the universe," says Jamie Foster, a spokesman for the family-operated enterprise. "This is not one of those deals where less is more. If it's big and shiny and gaudy, people want it."
Few people spread the wealth more generously than Copeland, who lost most of his chicken franchise in a nasty bankruptcy battle and now operates a chain of Creole restaurants. A stylish man with bulging muscles who declines to give his age, he drops upward of $75,000 a year on a private Mardi Gras arsenal.
Come February, he usually rides in five to eight parades, always atop a float fashioned from one of his award-winning speed boats. At each appearance, he and his family throw about 200,000 strands of beads--a number made even more remarkable by the fact that Copeland personally refuses to toss anything but the dazzling, top-drawer variety.