"Looks like everybody's in there," the man was telling his buddy as they peered through the glass doors into the Truman College lobby in the troubled heart of the 46th Ward.
Inside, more than 300 people sat in formally arranged rows of folding chairs or milled about in small groups. The man, a paunchy, middle-aged American Indian with a pocked face, couldn't figure it out.
"Well, meal's in there, that's why," his white friend said, his face breaking into a big smile as he teetered on his heels. He had a couple of missing teeth and an unidentifiable substance spilled over the front of his shirt and pants. "See that food?" He pointed to a table with an assembly line of lazy susans.
"Yeah . . ." the Indian said, wideeyed and reeking of alcohol. One sock looked out the front of a flapping Adidas.
They were cautiously pulling open the door when a company of young men in expensive sport coats approached them. The Indian instantly stepped away from the door, pushing back against his precariously balanced friend while trying to stay out of the way.
But to the Indian's amazement, after the young men had all filed into Truman, the last one, bespectacled and grinning, was still holding the door open. "Coming?" he asked, casually.
"What is it? Some kind of graduation or something?" asked the Indian's friend.
"Yeah, something like that," said the young man with a barely concealed chuckle. He seemed genuinely tickled. "It's Helen Shiller's inauguration; come on in."
Inside they were greeted by a sea of diversity that could have easily passed as the definitive portrait of the 46th Ward, Shiller's official turf now that she's become its new alderman.
Munching on crackers, raw vegetables, and dip were well-dressed black families and tough-looking white boys in heavy metal T-shirts. Seniors and extended Latino families of between six and ten members apiece sat waiting for Shiller's arrival. A few steps away, groups of smiling Asian businessmen chatted in tight little circles. White and Hispanic women in business suits and running shoes laughed and puffed on cigarettes behind the food table. A few cropped-hair lesbians wore "Pro-Ordinance/Washington" buttons in reference to the mayor's (and Shiller's) support for a gay rights bill.
All in all, it was a partisan crowd, with many also sporting buttons in Harold Washington's blue and white that read "Helen Shiller Is My Alderman!"
Although Shiller was one of the mayor's earliest endorsements, and a candidate for whom he arduously campaigned, the Truman lobby was surprisingly free of administration bigwigs. CTA board member Natalia Delgado was about the only name in sight, but like the rest of the colorful crowd, as a resident of the ward she was verifiably local.
When Shiller finally showed, she was greeted by a wave of applause that rippled through the lobby as she was recognized. Were it any other occasion, she might easily have melted into the crowd without notice.
Small, dark, and dressed in a new beige linen suit, Shiller, usually described as a somber radical of sorts, was giggling like a schoolgirl.
"Congratulations alderman!" said a black man in a crisp gray suit. He grinned from ear to ear as Shiller, being swallowed by hugs and greetings, extended her hand to him. He kissed it. It took her almost ten minutes to make the 20-yard trek from the door to the makeshift stage at the front of the lobby.
Once there, Shiller and her campaign manager, Jim Chapman, had to stand for almost five minutes while the audience clapped. Finally, Chapman read Shiller her oath of office, which she repeated for confirmation. She stumbled on a pronoun, caught herself, and grinned at the audience.
"I could kiss her!" whispered an elderly white woman in the front row. She had her hands clasped to her bosom as she beamed at the new alderman.
"This really is a group representative of the 46th Ward!" Shiller declared after her oath. The room thundered. "Now let me tell you what my priorities are: housing, education, health care, and employment."
She was to repeat the same laundry list of issues several times in her surprisingly brief address. She also underscored the irony of her inauguration at Truman, where years before she and other activists had lost the battle to City Colleges when about 12,000 of the neighborhood's rental units were transformed into the campus mall.
"If we deal with the problems of the most oppressed," she said at her most radical moment, "then we affect the quality of life of everyone.
Once finished, Shiller was surrounded again. A black girl with a swollen eye leaned up to her and whispered, "God bless you." A white woman in a black wig and wearing plaid polyester pants took Shiller's hand and pressed it to her face. A middleaged Latino, poking his index finger against Shiller's shoulder, asked, "When are they going to change it to 'alderperson,' huh?"
And then there were the babies -- it seemed like there were dozens of them. Mothers kept coming up to Shiller and introducing their little bundles. Shiller smiled a little awkwardly, played with the babies' little fingers, and cooed nervously. Standing on a chair above the fray, an elderly black man in a raincoat and cap took Polaroid pictures for a few dollars a customer.
"You gonna get me a job now, Helen?" a black woman with a thick neck asked her. "Come by the office, talk to Jeri," Shiller said, time and again, referring to Jeri Miglietta, her assistant, an attractive white woman with quick gestures who stood away from Shiller and took phone numbers and business cards.
Also keeping a distance was Walter (Slim) Coleman, Shiller's controversial partner in activism. A Harvard-educated hell-raiser with a penchant for personal downward mobility whose organizing tactics have been questioned by politicians and activists alike, Coleman was the single most negative element used against Shiller during the campaign. She never denied him, but he never had a public role in the campaign either.
Now that she'd won, he attended the victory parties, taking hugs and congratulations, but generally staying away from Shiller. At Truman it wasn't until his departure, when he came up and tapped her on the shoulder to say good-bye, that they spoke. "I've got to go," the lanky Coleman told her, eyes twinkling. "But congratulations . . . again."
It was more than an hour after her speech when the lobby began to clear out and the requests for hugs, jobs, and pictures dwindled. Following Shiller around was her teenage son, Brendon, with an arm load of presents and flowers.
Outside the school, the Indian and his friend were sitting on a bench. The friend was munching on the last of some raw cauliflower from the buffet table.
"You know, I think I voted for her," the Indian said, his forehead wrinkling as he strained to think.
"Well, I didn't," the white guy said with a toothless grin and a spray of spit, "but I will next time."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Bartholomew.