Sometime in 2012, Tony Barker's friend cornered him in the wood-paneled business office of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. He wanted to know if Barker thought he had a shot at taking the crown in 2014, and, if so, would Barker help him make it happen.
Barker didn't hesitate to answer yes on both counts, but inside he had his doubts. "Was I worried? Yeah, I was a little scared for him," Barker said.
On the verge of finishing up his reign as King Zulu, Barker knew what it took to get there, and the friend in question was Garren Thomas Mims Sr., a guy so shy that his under-the-radar persona has come to define him around the Zulu club almost as much as his 6-foot-6-inch stature.
Russell Kelly, a life-long friend and fellow Zulu, calls Mims "the sleeping giant."
Asked about Mims' standing in the organization at the time, said one fellow Zulu: "I knew of him. Everybody knew of him, but before he ran for King, if you would have asked someone, everybody just knew him as the tall quiet dude."
Quiet wouldn't matter in some other Mardi Gras societies, where kings are chosen by opaque machinations and secret formulas. But this is Zulu, where the monarch is selected by a vote of his peers, where the single most important qualification is the ability to be the public face of the organization, said the organization's president, Naaman Stewart. "It's strictly democratic," he said.
At the club's headquarters on North Broad, the campaigning starts on Ash Wednesday. That's when candidates for all eight of the organization's elected Carnival positions, or "characters," from the King to the Witch Doctor, begin the scramble to get their name out, throwing lavish parties and passing out gifts. The price of a King's campaign, though none of the Zulu's interviewed would give a firm number, is rumored to reach into the five figures.
Mims, a manager at the State of Louisiana Department of Health Hospitals, said he began saving for the campaign years in advance.
In the run up to the May election, babies are kissed. Backs are slapped. Speeches are given.
All of it, the handshaking and the huge financial investment, is an effort to join the ranks of the most elite subgroup of an already selective social club. Junior Zulus never have to ask who the former kings are. They can tell by looking. Every man who grasps the crown is given a ring and medallion to wear on formal occasions. They are the only ones allowed to wear white tuxedos to the coronation ball. Even at casual gatherings, you can spot them by their custom leather jackets and hats, emblazoned with a gold crown and the year of their reign.
Perhaps even more than the accomplishment, former kings cite posterity as their prime motivator. They all wanted to see their picture added to the club wall, placed among the likes of Louis Armstrong and the other kings. "It's every Zulu's dream to see their picture up there," Barker said. "That picture means you are part of history. Long after you are gone, that picture will still be there. It means 'I'm here, I'm here and I can't be taken down.'"
Then there is the coronation ceremony and ball, which has grown into a spectacle to rival any in a city synonymous with spectacle. Barker said that up to 27,000 people are expected to attend this year's gala, and Mims will be at the center of it all. "Everybody wants to see him walk in in his costume," said Barker. "That's what they come to see. You and your costume."
Kelly, who has known Mims since they were toddlers growing up on the streets of Pigeon Town in West Carrollton, said he was taken completely by surprise when his friend told him about his plan to seek the crown. "I didn't know he wanted that kind of attention on himself," said Kelley.
Plus, Mims didn't have the pedigree of a shoo-in candidate, according to Barker. He had never run for king before, which at least would have gotten his name out there. He had never even run for any of the lesser characters, a traditional path to the kingship.
It's not that he was a complete unknown, he had held an officer's position or volunteered consistently since joining the club in the mid 1990s. But in a club where leadership roles fall into two categories, party people and business people, Mims had always been in the latter group.
"I, and I think others, thought of him as a guy who would come in the club, go upstairs and get to work. He might come down and fraternize for a little while, but then he'd go home," Kelly said.
Yet, the more he thought about it, the more Kelly liked Mims' chances. For one thing, thanks to his quiet nature and easy smile, Mims had no enemies in the organization, Kelly said. For another, after years of working in the Zulu finance office, he'd had at least some interaction with every member of the club.
As another member put it, everybody, at some point has to pay dues, and some might need a little help staying off the drop list.
Since Mims was generally well liked, if not well-known, it was really about showing the brotherhood that Mims was ready for prime time, Barker said, and at the Zulu club, prime time means party time.
So, Mims, who recruited Barker and a handful of other former kings to advise him, set about throwing party after party to curry favor with the membership. The first parties went well, according to Barker, but he said Mims wasn't assertive enough when he worked the crowd.
Then came the day of the white linen party. A members only event, Mims had the club decked out like a fine restaurant. A private chef catered seafood chicken and pasta. No detail was overlooked, and no expense spared, Barker said. Best of all, he said, Mims broke out of his shell, working the room as well as any Washington politician. "That's when I knew that he could really win this thing," Barker said.
As a final gesture to show his commitment to the club, Mims bought each one of its 500 members a gold and black bow-tie, a nod to his signature accessory.
It paid off on election day. Mims won by 11 votes, rising above a thicket of other candidates.
And so, at Friday night's coronation, in front of a crowd that would make the Pelicans green with envy, the tall, quiet guy from the finance office will make his way through the throngs toward his throne. He will don the crown. He will slip on the ring. He will step into history. But not too fast, he'll do it slowly, so everyone can see.