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Goose Bumps and T-Shirts, Elliott's "Already Won"

The guy whose baby pictures are being flashed on prime-time television at this very moment, being seen by an estimated 28.7 million people across the country.

"It's on right now!"

"Yeah — we're all ready."

"Here we go!"

The shouts are announcements as much as warnings at Dot's Back Inn, a smoky North Side diner at the end of MacArthur Avenue, a place as unpretentious as a pencil, where the regulars are as reliable as the food. If you're here at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, you must watch TV and listen. And don't even think of leaving without voting for Elliott.

The volume is turned up and "American Idol" launches. The final five contestants — Richmond's stealth underdog, Elliott Yamin, being one — will become the final four tomorrow during the vote results show. What really matters is what happens tonight, when the show ends at 9 and voting opens to the public.

Everyone knows that during the two-hour voting period, "I'm not to be messed with," says Michael Sheets.

Sheets, 28, met Yamin when they were 15 through a mutual friend, Rob Comer. (During a recent show, Comer was in the audience holding up the "You're One Funky White Boy" sign.) They hit it off. Sheets' mom, Janet Rollins, and his older sister, Shannon Sheets — both servers at Dot's — got to know Yamin too.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's already won," says Rollins, wearing a pink flowered shirt, pink skirt and black apron. Still, she hopes Paris goes home after tonight (she does). Yamin has endeared himself to her, such a "good boy," she says.

Her daughter's running back and forth taking orders and watching the show. She's wearing a "Vote for Elliott" T-shirt.

Yamin is up, singing "On Broadway." One diner marvels, as if everyone didn't already agree: "He sings good, doesn't he?"

But it has been a surprise to Sheets. Sure, Yamin's friends had heard him sing, playing around or during karaoke nights. But "no one ever heard him belt like that," Sheets says. "No one knew."

Yamin's second song of the night is "Home." Rollins is teary-eyed. She prays he'll do well, she says: "I've got a special hook-up with God."

Sheets, a drywaller who tucks a cigarette behind his ear, has been surprised at his own reaction to seeing his friend make it big. "I can't even describe it," he says. "And when I hear his voice, I get goose bumps to this day."

It's time to vote. Don't mess with Sheets. S

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