The "people's inaugural," which was promised to be short on expensive and exclusive pomp and long on celebrations the average person could share, is slowly beginning to take shape - rather like and elephant making its slow and cumbersome way up a stepladder.

Efforts to meld all the public events and needs - the choir boys, fireworks, organ recitals, ice-skating, vans for the handicapped, buses for the masses, poets and portable toilets - into a cohesive program have been under way for over a month at the official inaugural committee.

"It's going to work, I know it's going to work," said Wayne Rackoff, a harried, 22-year-old veteran of Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign who is in charge of "logistics" for the inauguaration. His office in the bleak inaugural committee headquarters is decorated with strange looking charts and diagrams of command posts and lists of things like "63 ring downs, 40 handy talkies, three mobile units, 24 commerical lines, two base stations, 1 repeater."

As many as half a million persons are expected for the inaugural parade, officials say, but estimates on the number of people who may accept Carter's countrywide invitation to visit the city during inaugural week are vague. At least 50,000 have been invited to buy tickets to the largest private event, the six inaugural parties.

The crown jewel of the free public is the Inter-Faith Service of Prayer scheduled for 8 a.m. on inauguration day.

As many as 100,000 persons are expected to gather at the Lincoln Memorial that morning to sing and pray together. Carter's sister, Ruth Stapleton, will read from the Bible, Martin Luther King Sr. will deliver the sermon, and the Rev. Bruce Edwards of the Plains Baptist Church will assist in the ceremony. Opera stars Leontyne Price and Sherill Mines will sing, along with a 400-voice choir.

The most expensive aspect of the public events program is the free bus service the inaugural committee is offering to get the public to and from the swearing-in ceremonies and the inaugural parade.

It is budgeted at over $200,000 and includes free tourmobiles for sightseeing during the week and two hours of free subway rides on Inauguration Day. It is an unprecedented effort in ferrying of people in this city at no cost to the riders.

While Rackoff and hi crew are working out the transportation logistics, another group of inaugural committee workers is sorting through thousands of requests from performers to entertain in and around museums during the week.

Several ethnic festivals and dances have already been scheduled, and the local National Children's Choir is among those selected. To rest of the list will be announced next week, officials say.

A noticeable increase in the energy level has been apparent at the inaugural headquarters recently as the preparation time narrows to three weeks. It is an atmosphere reminiscent of backstage before opening night, with a thousand and one details to be juggled, egos to be soothed and disasters averted.

"The Secret Service says the Governors all have to pick up their credentials in Washington, they can't get them at their local offices," sighed one weary staffer to another. (That problem was solved.)

"What shall I tell the Mondale children?" asks a stern-looking man.

Peggy Smith, who is helping to coordinate arrangements for both governors and the handicapped, finds out that rental charges for special vans for the handicapped have increased from the $7 an hour she expected to $36.50 an hour. This means the number of vans the committee can rent will have to be recalculated. "We have to pay the drivers time and a half because it's a federal holiday," her assistant explains.

"What are you going to do after the inaugural is over?" a paid staff member is asked. "Sleep," she said.

Here is a partial list of things to do and of the facilities that will be available for your comfort and safety during inaugural week Jan. 18-22. Be sure to dress warmly: