Beads! Beads! Beads! It's all anyone ever thinks about when it comes to Mardi Gras.
Beads draped from trees like Spanish moss after the floats pass on St. Charles Avenue. Beads by the pound slung around every neck in sight, from preschoolers to frat brothers to grandmas planted in camp chairs along the parade route. Beads tossed for more lascivious gain off balconies on Bourbon Street.
As floats pass, throngs of revelers standing as many as a dozen deep flail their arms and shriek in hopes of scoring some plunder.
But it's not just beads that get flung during parades for Carnival, which culminates today, Fat Tuesday, in New Orleans and its sister cities along the Gulf Coast. The sparkly strands stand among a plethora of so-called "throws" that fly through the skies as dozens of parade organizations, known as krewes, take to the streets in an annual demonstration of generosity that unfolds between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday.
There are sunglasses with toilet-seat flip lenses, plush spears and pillows adored with images of iconic floats. Plus swords glistening in LED splendor, horns that emit ear-piercing wails and enough plastic cups to hold every cocktail in the book. And of course, the glitter-speckled coconuts and hand-adorned high heels that are so prized they become mantle pieces long after the last costumes get packed away for Lent.
Tiny plastic toilets frothing with sugar
This succession of swag, with each item more imaginative and coveted than the next, sets Carnival parades apart from the average Fourth of July or Labor Day procession. Along these routes, children — and adults, for that matter — don't just want a lollipop from the Shriners.
They want beach balls and hand-jeweled purses and rubber ducks. And the krewes, always trying to outdo each other, happily oblige.
"The people don't want itty-bitty beads," said Lloyd Frischhertz, an attorney who in 1969 founded the irreverent Krewe of Tucks, which along with hand-decorated toilet plungers this year threw small plastic toilets with two lollipops that react with Pop Rock-style candy to create a sugary, frothing pot.
Float riders pay their own way and often pony up $2,000 or more each to buy the loot they throw from floats. So, it becomes a point of pride to hold the "it" throw of the season — the item that, when it's waved from atop a crawling float, elicits the clarion call: "Throw me something, Mister!"
"It really is the single element that separates Mardi Gras parades from parades everywhere else: You don't watch a parade; you're part of it. It's interactivity at its finest," said Arthur Hardy, a local media personality who bills himself as "the world's foremost authority on Mardi Gras."
The tradition of throws dates to 1922, when the Rex Organization -- whose monarch reigns over all of Carnival -- began tossing strands of tiny glass beads, he said. Four decades later, Rex again revolutionized the trinket trade by producing silver dollar-sized doubloons with signature engravings.
Those quickly became collectors' items and paved the way for what Hardy estimated to be a several million-dollar industry, with most of today's booty made in China. Most krewes now commission items -- from doubloons, beads and medallions to nail-file sets, stuffed animals and golf umbrellas -- imprinted with their name, the year and their parade's annual theme.
46 tons of beads in the sewers
The all-female Krewe of Muses, for instance, rolled Thursday night under the banner, "A Night at the MUSEum." Among its throws were socks inspired by classic works of art, an insulated lunchbox, a bottle opener and a pillow printed with the satirical "Birth of Muse," featuring an African-American hand of God placing a glittery, red stiletto into a white hand with nails painted pink.
The krewe, whose members work for months to add glitter and gems to real shoes that they toss from floats, aims to deliver many items that can be used, Muses captain and founder Staci Rosenberg, also an attorney, said. In part, that's a reflection of the many moms aboard its floats; they want to hand out gifts that will be loved, she said, rather than worn one day, then hauled up to the attic -- or worse, left on the street.
"As people are more focused on sustainability and the environment and reuse, people are also less interested in beads," Rosenberg said.
Indeed, workers recently unearthed 93,000 pounds -- that's 46 tons -- of Mardi Gras beads while clearing city drain lines, The New Orleans Advocate reported.
When its parade rolls this morning toward the French Quarter, members of Rex -- their faces completely covered with fabric or plastic masks -- will toss koozies emblazoned with images related to its 28 floats, said Steven Ellis, the group's quartermaster, a title that references a top soldier in charge of supplies.
Footballs also will be among the cache. And notwithstanding the trend away from beads, Rex riders will throw necklaces strung with glass beads and a metal medallion that honors New Orleans' tricentennial year, he said.
"It's really a high-quality product," Ellis said. "It's not junk."
100,000 glammed-up coconuts
But perhaps the granddaddy of baubles comes from the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Parading since 1909 in minstrel-show style, the krewe boasts an "everyman" association whose members decades ago often worked at the city's ports and outdoor markets, where they picked up cheap coconuts to pass down from floats.
Since then, riders have taken to shaving off the fruit's hairy coat and decorating the bald drupe with shiny gold and silver paint, glitter and feathers, often in fabulously ornate designs, said Naaman Stewart, who is now in his sixth and final year as Zulu's president.
For months before Mardi Gras day, families host coconut-decorating parties. For his part, Stewart will have 2,000 coconuts -- at $1 to $2 a pop -- to hand out to parade-goers, he said, estimating that at least 100,000 coconuts will be distributed along the 4-mile route.
Louisiana's so-called "coconut law" limits liability for alleged injuries arising from coconuts -- and other heavy tokens -- bestowed during parades. Zulu riders also will throw tambourines, underwear, oversize plastic cigars, plush dolls, umbrellas, grass skirts and posters -- all emblazoned with Zulu logos.
But, Stewart said, "you won't find me with any beads or any dolls. I only have coconuts because I believe if someone comes to the Zulu parade, they want a Zulu coconut."
For riders, the feeling of dangling a coconut -- or a puffy-painted stiletto, a ribbon-laden rubber shrimp boot or a hand-ornamented toilet brush -- above thick crowds along the streets cannot be matched.
"It's a transformation," Stewart said. "When you're the person on the float, ... just to have that power, just to have that ability to make people happy, to make their day, to listen to the stories that they tell you about why they have to have a coconut, it's really just exhilarating."
"It's spreading joy," added Hardy, the Carnival guru. "That's what Mardi Gras is about."