Swelter 32.10

Standing there on Washington Avenue for the midnight reckoning, confronting the nasty mob waving VIP opening-night invitations around the front door to Liquid, my entire career as Stepin Fetchit to the nightlife industry assumed the clarity of a bullet to the brain. If the club had gotten it together to open on time at ten o'clock, the whole daunting mess could have been avoided, not that chaos doesn't have certain charms. The snootier strains of social intercourse are required for a respectable entertainment erection these days, and the public in general leaves me flaccid. But then, business is business, commercial masters have to be attended to, and nobody likes a full-time snob.

As usual, the evening had started out bright with promise, fellow travelers in hype assembling at a private home for warm-up cocktails. All of us counting on Liquid's management team -- Chris Paciello of the departed Risk, and Ingrid Casares from the glitterati at large -- to provide something vastly different from the space's previous incarnation as Le Loft. And we were all looking forward to some hype and fuss: Lately, it seems, clubs open with a whimper customarily associated with frozen-yogurt shops. Aside from the usual locals, two tourists -- Ajay Sahgal, author of the novel Pool, and the perfectly wonderful actress Kelli Williams, who plays the eager-beaver reporter Ellie Melanski on New York News -- were down from New York. As a professional, Williams politely addressed an immediate press barrage of trashy questions about costars Mary Tyler Moore ("She's a TV legend") and Madeline Kahn ("Exactly like the characters she plays and just as funny").

A rather less hilarious moment came up at Liquid shortly thereafter, the doorman reporting that everybody -- legends and stars alike -- would have to wait. On to other clubs for more warm-up cocktails, and then the moment before the monolith, the Liquidian acolytes ready to turn violent at any moment. In normal circumstances, I might have called it a night. But the rules of the game dictate that you take care of your friends, all of whom were gazing upon me like children at Christmas, hoping Daddy would climb Sugar Mountain and unveil the mother lode of delight. And so I turned ugly -- a personal specialty -- and penetrated the crowd like a riot-squad horse just as John-John, the club's publicist, materialized at the door. In the crush, my little daisy chain linked hands and withstood the inevitable abuse -- Sahgal was actually spat upon by some sore loser -- and we all had the best time, laughing like triumphant warriors, young and brave again. As Satan noted in Milton's Paradise Lost, it's better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

After that everything else was anticlimax, the tug of emptiness that undercuts all social victories. Naturally, the place was already full of district flotsam and fortunate beings who'd been slipped in through the back door. Within moments I'd performed all the necessary duties, met Michael and Shakira Caine in the VIP room and paid homage to Ingrid, a one-name wonder who knows all the rules. At the mention of New Times, as opposed to the blow-job press, people tend to run, hide, and brandish lawyers, but Ingrid maintained one-hand-washes-another protocol: "Whatever you want -- you guys have been good to me."

For once I was in and out within fifteen minutes -- brevity may be the soul of pleasure -- but Liquid is definitely my new favorite club. For one thing designer Chu Oroz has done an amazing job with glass, steel wire, and the video-screen panels that flank the massive room, beaming out computer-generated images of liquid go-go girls and such. And for another thing a simultaneously demented and catatonic half-nude kid on some variety of teen spirits had to be carried out by a bouncer, kind of a cheery spectacle. It takes a mean old dog to really stay the course.

Unfortunately, timing and endurance went astray on Friday evening, and I missed China Grill's newest sideshow of fame. Soon enough the place is going to start serving up fricaseed celebrities. Top dog Jack Nicholson, in town to costar in Blood and Wine with Michael Caine, dining in state with Sean Penn, who directed him in The Crossing Guard, the merry throng rounded out by assorted models and -- who else? -- Ocean Drive's Jason Binn. Another season, another unholy alliance with my favorite celeb vibrator.

The three amigos going off to Bash, which Penn co-owns, and then, of course, Bar None, Jack Nicholson staying behind at Bash and apparently showing up at Bar None after I'd left. Penn's traveling protective shield A no press please, I'm tortured already A did brush past, in no mood for engagement. Just to pump up the Bar None celeb circus, Whitney Houston stayed in a corner with formerly estranged hubby Bobby Brown, who's been through rehab programs for sex, alcohol, and drugs. (I hear he's going through chocoholic withdrawal as well, but that's his prerogative.) Houston, none too happy about Brown chatting with ballistic female admirers -- for God sake, girls, draw the line of decorum somewhere -- justifiably leaving early.

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