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The line stretched for hundreds of feet down broken escalators, through three floors of dimly lighted hallways, snaking past convention booths, ticket offices, and soda machines that were all "down for repairs." The thousand or so individuals in this human labyrinth were walking zombies, tired of too much standing and too little moving.

"Is this what we paid a hundred bucks for?" asked the Hispanic woman in front of me. She was wearing a conservative black suit, and a very bright, gaudy yellow-and-blue blouse. Turning to survey her audience--as a professor in a large auditorium might--she asked the same question to two or three people around her. "Is it, I ask you?" After several seconds of silence, she searched in her purse for car keys and marched away, muttering in Spanish.

Looking at her--the blouse, the popping gum, the layers of makeup--you got the impression that she wasn't the kind of person who was used to dropping a cool C-note for political fund-raising. But there's a first time for everyone, and everything.

Many others in the crowd at Acting Mayor Sawyer's "Unite Chicago" gala at McCormick Place two weeks ago seemed like first-timers, too. It wasn't the usual collection of do-gooders who quickly and easily write checks for their favorite sons. Practically everyone was black; they all seemed south-side and middle-class--bureaucrats, teachers, social workers. The rest were mostly Hispanics, and a few Asians. Most of the whites in attendance--and there weren't many--were the type that you'd expect at a fund-raiser for a Chicago politician. The men had beer bellies and wore ill-fitting sport coats, usually plaid or light brown (the used-car-salesman-on-South-Western-Avenue look). Most of the white women, on the other hand, were well groomed and wore lots of makeup.

A burly Ed Meese type in a navy blue suit and yellow tie sauntered by the line. He was followed by a cadre of almost identical flunkies, all blond men in their early 30s, each wearing the uniform of navy blue Brooks Brothers suit, white shirt, and yellow tie. Their leader was firing off commands like a battleship commander.

"He can give more than that; call up his wife over in Dunne's office--she'll make him she'll out more."

Abruptly, the man stopped. "What the hell are you waiting for?" he bellowed. One of the flunkies ran off.

"Goddamn idiot. When I say call, you people had . . ." That was clout for you.

"Who was he?" asked a middle-aged black man. On the lapel of his brown suit was a "Chicago Works" button, the unmistakable badge of municipal bureaucrats who served as assistant deputy directors or higher.

The heavyset black woman standing next to him shrugged her shoulders. She too wore a "Chicago Works" button. "I think he's in Sanitation," she replied, and to get a better look at him she put on a pair of glasses that were hanging around her neck. "Yeah, I think he is in Sanitation."

"What department are you in?" inquired the middle-aged man.

"A and D," she said (city slang for the Department on Aging and Disabilities).

"I have a friend who works there," said another woman from behind. "I'm in Purchasing."

For the next few minutes, everyone for 50 feet in each direction traded ticket stories. Most of the people in the section ahead worked in Revenue or at the CTA. Most of those immediately behind me worked in Streets and San or for the Police Department. Practically everyone had some connection to the mayor's office, or to the mayor himself ("The secretary in his ward office goes to my church," an elderly black woman admitted, somewhat embarrassed because she didn't work for the great man himself. "But I've seen him").

As the line moved slowly ahead, two middle-aged black women in fake furs hobbled in the opposite direction, sipping cocktails. 'The nerve of that man, not showing up," one said. She had a southern accent. "My daughter told me I had to buy this ticket--I said, 'Girl, please!'--but I bought it and the mayor's not even here!" Before moving on, she cast a warning finger at those of us in the line. 'Y'all is wasting time. He ain't even there! Sawyer ain't there." She pronounced the mayor's name like a New Yorker--"saw-ya."

The line moved again, this time a little faster. Would I be interested in having a "Mayor Sawyer for All of Chicago" button? asked a short Hispanic man. "It's free," he said, anticipating my response. The button man moved down the line, trying to unload his goods as if he were on commission. "It's free," he kept saying.

Those of us lucky enough to survive the first half-hour wait to the escalator were treated to a second wait, this time for another escalator (strangely, both were out of commission, presumably "down for repairs"). This line was definitely more perilous than the last: an overweight white man--shot to the curb with too many highballs--was patrolling the line, warning everyone that the mayor was incompetent.

"I ain't never been to a fundraiser without seeing the guy I was fund-raising for," he cried. "Can you believe that?" The man became more hostile the closer he came toward me. "Why, if I see that little . . ." Suddenly, two policemen appeared out of nowhere and escorted him down the stairs.

On the upper level, Juan Soliz was holding court in the hall outside the Chicago Room, the scene of the evening's festivities. "How many tickets did you sell?" asked a TV reporter. He couldn't hear her. She asked him again, louder.

"I didn't sell any tickets," he snapped. He cast the reporter a reproachful glance. "Don't ask me no silly questions like that. I'm a public servant." He walked away, decrying the quality of Chicago's press.

The Chicago Room was a disaster. There were dozens of chairs scattered about, and roving waiters who were refusing to serve drinks. "We're about to shut down," one explained to a dozen people. "It's 7 now. This thing is over at 7:30."

Behind the two bars were at least a dozen cases of soda. One woman, sporting an Easter hat piled high with plastic flowers, noticed this. "Can't I have just one Coke?"

The two bartenders gave her a haughty look.

"All I want is a Coke," she pleaded.

Feeling benevolent, one of the men gave in. She walked away, sipping loudly. One of the bartenders noted the press pass dangling on a chain around my neck, and quickly gave me a soda. "We're under orders," they said, after I asked why the guests weren't being served.

There were two platforms in the room. There was a podium on one of the stages, obviously for the mayor. On the other stage was the evening's entertainment--two men with an accordion.

"Are we ever going to hear that thing?" someone asked from the floor.

"Sure, sure," barked one of the accordion players. "Later, though. We got problems."

On the way out--it was almost eight o'clock and I was tired of waiting for Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer, too--I ran into a black state senator that I knew. "It's a damn shame," he said. "No food. No drink. No mayor. How does he hope to get elected?" The senator dropped his voice. "I support him," he said. "But he's going to have to clean it up," he continued, walking on.

Two elderly black men walking in front of us overheard the conversation. "Oh yeah," one agreed. "Gotta support him. He's the only mayor we got. He is black."

The other, older and a little fatter, nodded his head. He was wearing a black suit and dirty white shirt, and reminded me of a deacon in my Baptist church. A black-and-gold Mayor Sawyer button was displayed prominently on his breast. "You right about that," he said. He had a booming voice, like a preacher. "Took us this long to get one."

"What you thinking about?" the preacherlike man asked his friend, who had become silent.

"I was just wondering," the other replied. "Out of all of those people who just paid a hundred dollars to stand in line for an hour and to learn that there was no drink," he paused, looking at an even larger line that had assembled to go upstairs. "I was just wondering how many people plan on voting for this man?"

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