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ACHIN' FOR CLAY

Spooky. The Clay Aiken pre-concert at Burke's Cafe was straight from the backstage scene at any old Led Zeppelin concert. You remember - or not: Idolatrous teens hungry for a line of Krispy Kreme doughnuts; one "Clay Mate" reprimanded by another for drinking a Coors Light ("Clay would not approve," said the voice); and messages computer generated onto tucked-in T-shirts:

"Bartender, I'd Like a Clay on the Rocks."

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"I have Mom's Permission to Kiss you!"

"Lonely? Call 1-800 Me! Me! Me! Me!"

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My, my, my, what do we have here? A pre-concert party for Clay Aiken - the lip-biting, runner-upping, national idol with his double platinum debut album Measure of a Man, the Carolina Comet who may have lost American Idol but won the love of the nation's moms.

Moms like the one who wore a shirt that read, "I may be your Mom but I can still shake it like a Polaroid Picture" at a pre-concert party for Clay Aiken Friday evening, who in two hours would consume 1st Mariner Arena in his first Baltimore appearance. These fine people at Burke's restaurant - another of whom was wearing the biblical words, "He is the Potter. I am the Clay" - will go forth to look upon Aiken and a few were even chosen to meet and greet but not touch Mr. Aiken. And the rest will be shaking like Polaroid pictures, high on Krispy Kremes, higher still from listening to their geeky Elvis, their bright angel, their stud. Yes, hubbies everywhere, we said stud. Deal with it or stay home and peek at Britney's videos.

Welcome to Clay Nation, which stopped in our state Friday. Clay Aiken could have left with our wives and daughters, you realize. To his credit, however, he simply put on his show and left one non-believer to dig deep into his rusty soul to ask the age-old question:

OK, who is Ruben?

For starters, there's Clay lingo to itemize. "Clay Mates" are, duh, his fans. "Clay Dogs" is some sort of a fan subset. "Thud" is the falling sound a Clay Mate makes when Clay sings, twitches or breathes. "Lip Bite" is a trademark Clay quirk, one which 6-year-old Taylor Dukeman of Baltimore ably demonstrated at the party. Her mom, party planner Missy Dukeman, stood by with what would become a familiar expression that seemed to say, Don't look at us that way. We are not crazy, honest. We just really love Clay. Hey, you don't have to explain - well, maybe just a little.

"He's that real geeky person who became famous," said Emily Blount, a 33-year-old fan up from D.C. He's not Brad Pitt, she said, and that is powerfully accurate.

Blount felt like she had to explain how strangers on Aiken internet message boards sprung for her ticket on account of her having brain surgery in the fall. But there's nothing crazy about that or the fact that before the night was over, these Clay Mates would chip in more than a $1,000 for Aiken's charity, the Bubel/Aiken Foundation.

More than 130 people showed up for the party, a guest list that included Pat Hlousek, a 57-year-old bartender from Rockville. The Lord has blessed Clay with the "golden voice of the century," she said. Plus, he's a good Christian and refuses to do, you know, explicit stuff like Britney does. One couldn't help notice Pat's dress for the evening - a black number with, as she said, air-conditioning all around. Would Clay approve?

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"No," she said. "But I'll get his attention."

Certain things you should never say about a man. For example, when in a group of Clay Aiken fans, never say, "He's kind of short, isn't he?" You will learn Aiken is a mountain of a voice at 6-foot-1.

Now meet Gloria Dietz and her sister, Kate Bradley, both of Baltimore, both Clay Mates, both shaking like Polaroid pictures because Dietz won a local radio contest for best Clay Aiken poem. We can't get enough of this handsome STUD/who has given new meaning to the word THUD went part of her framed poem. Gloria has even tailed Clay to New York in hopes of meeting him. So, when was the last time she wrote a poem for her hubby? "Many moons ago."

Binnie Meltzer, a 56-year-old English lit professor from New York and Rhonda Emory, 36, of Elkton did some explaining.

"Male chest-beating is out. The Thinking Man is in style," Meltzer said.

"We have been begging for a man like Clay for a long time," Emory said.

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The most delicate of subjects was also raised, with Emory proposing that Mr. Aiken is still a virgin.

"It's our common belief," Emory said.

"It's their common fantasy," Meltzer said.

Enough said.

Gloria Dietz was told to be at the arena by 6:30 p.m. to "meet and greet" Clay Aiken. She wrapped up her poem, bolted Burke's, and hauled jeans toward 1st Mariner. An over-the-counter horse tranquilizer could not have slowed her. "It's hitting me just now," Gloria said, nearly running. She would meet Clay! But she wouldn't try to kiss him. "He doesn't like that stuff."

She's had passions before - Boy George, Rosie O'Donnell, Melissa Etheridge - but Clay is true thud material. Inside the arena, Gloria and other chosen fans were whisked away to meet Aiken. Others stood outside staring at the fleet of glossy, window-darkened, RV's. "I Love Nerds" and "I Wanna Play with Clay" and "Dork" read their T-shirts. But Gloria Dietz, Aiken poet laureate, was on the inside.

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By 7 p.m., Gloria had emerged from some top-secret location to brief her sister and any others on her meeting with Aiken.

"Are you Gloria?" Aiken had asked.

No words came to Gloria at that time. "I froze." She had been thrown off by the rules: no cameras, no handshakes and no one-on-one pictures, just a group shot of the 13 chosen fans. But during that group shot, oh baby, Clay had his hand on her back! And she touched his arm. Then, she found the words - "You just made my life" and "Clay, rock the house!" - to finally say to her idol.

The only thing left to do was to find her floor seat, sit through an opening act (a singer named Cherie, whose only fault was insisting the crowd perform "The Wave") and at 8:30, holler like a teen-ager watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

With orgiastic fanfare, Clay Aiken opened his Baltimore show with U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." OK, this guy has pipes, major PVC pipes. In necktie and specs, Aiken had his shirt untucked and he wore those comfy bowling shoes, if that's what they are. He has very good posture, as moms would note.

Among other tics, Aiken does this hand thing with his, well, hands. The crowd seems to mime his hand thing. Lot of group hand action - and signs, of course. Aiken enjoys turning up the house lights and reading the signs. "Did you get my cookies?" Of course he did, hon. And fear not: we will not run the risk of the headliner closing his show by hailing Fahrenheit 9/11.

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In the spirit of the birthplace of his career, Aiken believes in giving unknowns a heaping if fleeting share of his spotlight. He brought a 16-year-old girl from Jersey up to dance with him. She wore a T-shirt that covered limited geography. "You're too young to dance like that," Aiken quipped. To sing "Without You" with him, he invited a Tracy Turnblad-ish girl on stage and she was from Jersey, too. It was mildly embarrassing not to have a Baltimore girl up there.

Aiken sang all the songs people craved to hear. It was not unlike secretly liking the Carpenters or Barry Manilow or in even older days, David Cassidy. For the record, there were men at the concert with their arms draped around their gal's shoulders. Points scored.

In a packed concert venue, Gloria Dietz's "Gloria Loves U" sign could be seen from across the arena. Earlier, she was worried and so nervous and even crying. She was just happy now.

See, it's not crazy at all.


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