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Mayor Bill Boner donned a fake beard, dark glasses, blue jeans and a bulletproof vest to cruise the streets and buy illegal drugs from dealers peddling their wares a few miles from his home.

"I had no idea how accessible drugs were in our community," Boner said. "The two areas where we made the buys are less than two or three miles from where I live."Boner, 43, said the pushers who sold him cocaine and Dilaudid, an injectable painkiller, are still at large. "If they (police) can go back and find them, they will be arrested," Boner said.

The mayor said he sought out the pushers as part of an undercover police operation, and promised to do so again to focus attention on Nashville's problems. The city needs to do more, he said.

"We have willing buyers, anxious sellers who will chase a car down a busy street waving drugs in the air, and too few police officers," he said.

During the three hours he was undercover last Friday, Boner bought the drugs with the help of a pair of police informants, while undercover officers in vans videotaped the deals and listened through an electronic bugging system.

The two informants, a man and a woman in their 20s, rode with him. They were told he was an undercover police officer trying to learn the ropes.

"Going undercover is not really part of the game plan, but it has already brought me to a higher level of understanding about the drug culture and how we can combat the problem of street sales to people who buy drugs like families driving up for hamburgers at a drive-in restaurant," Boner said.

Assistant Police Chief John Ross said undercover officers were close by at all times to protect the mayor.

"But we were relieved when it was over," Ross said. "These people can be very dangerous. We've had a number of shootings and stabbings in these areas."

It was not the first time Boner has disguised himself to learn more about the city's problems.

In June 1984, Boner, then a congressman, went unshaven for a week and spent two days and nights among the homeless to learn about their plight. He ate at the Union Rescue Mission, slept in a parking lot and talked to street people.

Boner said no one recognized him then. Apparently, no one recognized the mayor Friday, either.

But Boner said at one point, one of the informants said, "I hope you don't mind me asking, but is that a real beard?"