Perry Sfikas was jolted awake at 7:30 Sunday morning by a jangling telephone and a voice telling him, on behalf of the U.S. Secret Service, that his planned Greek-American community reception for Sen. Edward Kennedy would have to be moved.
For the 24-year-old native of Baltimore's Greektown enclave, this word brought on an instant tension headache. The restaurant Sfikas had secured was too small, it was a security risk, it would not do, the voice said. He had 48 hours to find another site, notify all the guests and invite more people to fill a large hall.
Somehow Sfikas managed to do it. He slept only six hours in the next two days, made scores of phone calls from the modest Greektown home where he lives with his parents, and pounded the streets in search of a restaurateur willing to be host to hundreds of people on 48 hours' notice.
He had visions of no one showing up, of too many people showing up.
And on Tuesday night, when he at last greeted the candidate with a handshake and the words he had said over and over to himself -- "Sen. Kennedy, I'm Perry Sfikas" -- he didn't even realize that one of his deepest fears was averted: His voice didn't crack.
In one sense, there is a Perry Sfikas behind every campaign stop made by every presidential candidate in every primary. He is the unseen organizer who for one week turns his life over to setting the scene for the candidate's triumphant walk-on.
To the television camera crews and to Kennedy, the reception Tuesday with 400 Greek Americans at the barn-sized Jimmy's Restaurant was simply one more rousing 30-minute stop sandwiched into a frenzied swing through Baltimore.
But to Sfikas, a first-generation American who says he imbibed the Kennedy mystique along with other's milk, it was . . . "Well, how can I explain it? It's everything," he blurted out, a little self-conscious over his openness.
"Suddenly you realize this guy you h ear about and read about is going to be standing right next to you," he said Tuesday afternoon, as he made last-minute preparations for the 7:45 p.m. reception.
Also, he acknowledged, he had personal aspirations to public office, and the Kennedy affair could mean as much -- maybe more -- for his own career as for Kennedy's.
Sfikas was given the task of organizing the reception by aides to Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Baltimore). He works in her Baltimore office, and is one of his community's most active young people. Mikulski is Kennedy's most visible backer among Maryland's elected officials.
The importance that the reception held for Sfikas was evident in the way that he planned it.He consulted on everything -- even on what to wear -- with his mentor, accountant Michael Stefanaras, a man Sfikas regards as "mr. Senior Politico" of Greektown, and who served as the titular chairman of the Tuesday night event.
In midafternoon, Sfikas learned that one of his and his parents' dreams had come true: He was admitted to law school. But now that didn't seem all that important.
"My comprehensive exams [for a master's at George Washington University] and law school, they were the biggest things in my life a couple of weeks ago," Sfikas explained. "But suddenly they're way overshadowed by this."
As the young Sfikas rushed out the door of his home late Tuesday afternoon, his grandmother, Nancy Mavrogiannis, stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.
"Ya gouri kale tichi," she said in the language of the old country, which the family still speaks at home. Translation: "This is for good luck."
In the next hours, as he made final preparations at Jimmy's Restaurant, Sfikas alternately said he was calm, he was tense, the restaurant seemed too empty, it seemed too crowded.
And then the moment came. The motorcade zoomed up, and there was Kennedy, inches away from him.
"I kept telling myself, 'That's him, that's him. It didn't seem real," Sfikas recalled later. In a split second, a violent knot of cameramen surged behind the candidate, forcing Sfikas five people deep into the mob.
The moment of glory came minutes later, when Sfikas took the podium and welcomed Kennedy in "high Greek" -- the language of the academy and the ministries. Since he speaks the common Greek at home, Sfikas had practiced his few lines to distraction, terrified of faltering in mid-sentence.
Sfikas' speech was a great success. He was interrupted with applause and cheers every time he said Kennedy's name. His bright, dark eyes flashed as he looked out at the cheering crowd.
He moved away from the podium, and looked at Kennedy, but the senator was looking elsewhere. Their eyes did not meet. Sfikas stared in wonder at the cheering throng of about 400 people as Kennedy spoke of Cyprus, of ethnicity, the economy, foreign relations. It was a success, a great success.
Then, minutes later, Kennedy and his entourage were gone -- off to another campaign appearance where another Perry Sfikas awaited.
"I heard someone say, 'His car just left.' I could hardly believe it," Sfikas said later. "I ran to the window to see for myself and It was true. It was gone."