At Second City Theater, art always imitates life, and on the eve of today's mayoral election, that was not the most sincere form of flattery.

Take this Second City interpretation of Democrat Harold Washington and Republican Bernard Epton in man-to-man debate:

Moderator: Mr. Epton, what about this race?

Epton: Race has nothing to do with it.

Washington: Everything he says exacerbates the situation. If I am not elected, the city will burn!

Moderator: Mr. Epton, is it true your son is a socialist?

Epton: Don't ask me, I've got ulcers.

Washington: His ulcers exacerbate the whole situation.

Moderator: You've accused Congressman Washington of child molesting. Do you have any evidence?

Epton: No, but I do have an artist's conception of what it would look like.

Moderator: Mr. Washington, what is your relationship with Mary Smith. If elected, will you marry her?

Washington: Mary Smith has exacerbated our relationship.

Moderator: When you say 'the city will burn,' is this an attempt to woo the firefighters?

Washington: The firefighters only exacerbate the fire situation. If we had no firefighters, there would be no fires. The city would be as cool as a cucumber.

Satirical comedy improvisation has been the specialty of Second City since 1959, and its graduates include Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Alda, Ed Asner, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner.

Rick Thomas and Mike Hagerty's impressions brought the house down. Their models, Washington and Epton, nearly did the same thing for the city.

It has been cold in Chicago the past few days. There are no cherry blossoms, and the city has been exposed by events and left to shiver in its own chill wind. Tomorrow after the election, it will be an exhausted city, bruised and sore like a heavyweight prizefighter who has gone 15 rounds and who knows, even as he leaves the ring, that the decision will be disputed for years.

The healing process is scheduled to begin at a breakfast tomorrow with Washington, Epton, former mayor Jane Byrne and States Attorney Richard M. Daley, along with members of the clergy, to seek what Washington calls "a future of peace and tranquility."

But Chicago remains an embarrassed city.

A Chicago Tribune columnist lamented, "It is hard to believe that Chicagoans would be able to generate even worse publicity for the city than they did during the 1968 Democratic National Convention , but in 1983 just such a thing has come true . . . My God, what have we done to ourselves?"

What Chicago had done to itself was fall victim to racism-- pure, simple and exacerbated at every turn. No one tried to deny it except the candidates, and they, feebly.

In the last days of the campaign, Chicago was put under a microscope for close-hand scrutiny of the bacteria of hate. Bathed in that clinical light, the city squirmed.

Nevertheless, it still felt itself a great American city. A city of pride, the city of Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Bellow lives in a high-rise overlooking the lake that puts him geographically among the lake-front liberals so courted in the end by both candidates. One of Bellow's novels is called "Henderson the Rain King," and it is about a tall, strong, smart man who is nevertheless a bumbler, but who bowls his way through life according to an inner voice that cries, "I want, I want, I want!" That seemed to be the cry of checkerboard Chicago, a city of unassimilated wards and exclusionary subcultures, a vast federation of individual ambitions. If it is out of vogue to take sides, if the world is no longer black and white, word of that had not reached Chicago.

Monday morning was John Alvarez's morning to be tattooed, and since he had to sit relatively still in the chair, he was glad to deliver his views on politics. From time to time, he winced as the needle pricked the image of a panther on his upper arm, but never at what he was saying.

"It's simple," he said, "I just don't want a nigger in there as mayor. Once he gets in, he brings in the others, Jesse Jackson and the rest."

Pete Delmonico, an artist at the Chicago Tattooing Co. on the northwest side, said, "It's racism, I'm against it." Racism, he explained, is "when blacks get together and try to take over. You just can't let them. We had a party at the bar the other night and put up a sign--No Blacks Allowed. That way they knew not to come in. If Washington gets in, don't blame me. I got to go with Epton, Democrat or not."

The panther tattoo, Alvarez said, was necessary "to cover up a mistake of my youth." The mistake was a tattoo that said Latin Kings, a youth gang he has now disassociated himself from.

As a car salesman, he wore an Epton button. "If a black customer comes in, though, I take it off."

The Second City comedians also covered the "race race" with their own variety of television ads.

Most Chicagoans got frequent looks at the candidates on television, where their slick and suggestive campaign ads drew charges of subliminal racism for both sides.

So Second City put on a "television ad" starring Adolf Hitler. "I'm for Harold Washington," Hitler says. "Why? Because Jesse Owens was a helluva runner and the best black is as good as the worst German and anyhow, the other guy is a Jew. In closing I would like to announce that this commercial is not a 'dirty trick' paid for by Bernard Epton."

Comics are always a part of the process, seldom of the problem. But what Johnny Carson does to a president or Mark Russell to Congress is a tweak of the nose. In Chicago, the audience expects body blows and eye gougings. It's not exaggeration, it's just exacerbation.

I want, I want, I want.

The voices of three Harold Washington supporters after voting tonight in rainy Chicago:

Sharon Wells: "What I want . . . I want to participate in the decision-making process. We didn't get that under the late mayor Richard M. Daley, but I want it. Under Daley blacks had jobs sure, but they were puppets, they were loyal to the party, not to the people. I want that changed for everybody."

Gere Simmons: "I want it to be more equitable around here. I want to get what I pay for when I pay my property taxes. I want it and I think Washington wants it, too."

Shirley Newsome: "I want the patronage system dismantled. Washington will do that. I want recognition for black people. I want education. I'd like to think that people in Chicago could get a city job on the basis of their qualifications, not just because they've got a letter from an alderman. I'll tell you something else I want.

"I want more than Jane Byrne wanted. She said whoever was elected mayor, the city would survive. I want to do more than just survive."

Mayer, Brown and Platt, Chicago's second largest law firm, is about as far from a tattoo parlor as you can get. But even from the 35th floor of their offices, the view of today's election was far from clear.

Douglass Allen Poe, former law clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice William Brennan, now a specialist in appellate litigation in his home town, ran through the situation from his aerie.

To lawyers, Washington's income tax problems and suspension from the bar are very real problems. For some people that's just been a smoke screen for race, but the brethren here at the firm don't think that way. The firm has a Democratic tilt, yet it still has difficulty with Washington. "A majority will stay with him," Poe said, "but then the majority lives in the suburbs. Many so-called North Shore liberals will express the sentiments without performing the act.

"Epton is not so spectacular himself. He was ignored by his party until primary day, and then he rejected them, which I suppose he had to.

"Yes, this has been the most bitter campaign in memory. Folks on the 35th floor tend to be bankers and businessmen and they tend to be concerned with the future. They do not like uncertainty. That's why Mayor Daley, for all his faults, was popular."

The real exacerbation in Chicago has been an exacerbation of human nature, and however handy it seems to draw a line around Cook County, the ink doesn't stick. The mean-spirited jokes, the watermelon buttons and the rest make it evident here that for the time being nobody gives a damn about what the other guy thinks, and the world is black and white again. It is ominous what a message a simple, all-white lapel pin can carry.

The puzzling fact is that when Epton and Washington were state legislators together in Springfield, they voted pretty much alike and were pals. In the end, though, the two of them seemed almost beside the point. The point is that what is changing in Chicago is tradition--the power of patronage has been eroded, the isolation of the neighborhoods once more revealed as a problem and this morning's scheduled unity prayer breakfast between winner and loser raises the first post-electoral question: Will the cry of "I want!" be replaced by an equally divisive cry, "I have!"?

Second City paints the picture this way.

Two newcomers to Chicago are admiring their new house when a knock comes at the door. It's a policeman carrying a basket of fruit. How nice. "Later on," the policeman says, "I'll bring you a bottle of white wine from the precinct cellars."

In comes the county tax assessor with a refund check for $500. "We overvalued your house and the tax assessor apologizes." An employe of the Department of Streets then appears, hat in hand, to say, "We'd like to apologize for that pothole out front. We're working on it right now."

The newcomers and the city employes decide to have dinner together but are accosted by a gun-wielding "disillusioned Hispanic youth." Upon being invited to sit down and join them, however, he puts away his gun, pulls up a chair and all is well in Chicago.

To the audience that is a very funny joke.