Swelter

Miami approaches its centennial celebrations, and during certain moments it feels as if I've been on the job for a hundred years. Amid a profound delirium, my early days of discreetly licking Julia Tuttle's ass for invitations to tea have yielded to the current epoch of scattershot sycophancy extended to whatever tenuously exalted beings happen to be in power for the moment. In the pioneer era society had a certain order; back then Miami wasn't as unfailingly surreal, an unfathomable phantasmagorical landscape that defies the reach of imagination.

In that long-ago era, a few eccentrics and pre-bingo Seminoles served as local color. Now a melting pot of madness keeps life interesting. Last Thursday night Latin mania -- always good for a few thrills -- was the rage at the Yuca outpost on Lincoln Road, the restaurant premiering its new upstairs music lounge with an appearance by Albita and her band. A perfectly splendid evening in an elegant venue, the songbird of Cuba attracting high rollers and exile artists, the obscure and well-known. Herald columnist Liz Balmaseda and free-lance photographer Michael Levine, working on an article about Albita for the new Si magazine, represented the press division with some aplomb, while the power crowd, people such as Care Florida's Paul Cejas, mingled with Pepe Horta of Cafe Nostalgia, the former head of the Havana Film Festival.

For the occasion Metro-Dade Commissioner Art Teele and Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo -- still crazy after all these years -- made things official with a "Yuca Day" plaque. Some helpful Cubans of a gossipy bent pointed out ironies from the guest list: One of Carollo's earlier campaigns had been bitterly opposed by Yuca co-owner Amancio Suarez. The beauteous exile flutist in Albita's band, Mercedes, has been romantically linked with Jose Diaz-Balart, the Channel 6 anchor from a prominent Cuban-American political family. The old-line institution, Victor del Corral of Victor's Cafe, came with his restaurant's singing sensation, visiting Cuban folksinger Pedro Luis Ferrer. Business is business -- the cult of Albita transcends politics and the usual alliances.

After the cocktail hour had reached a feverish pitch, the one-name legend and her band A which Yuca has been trying to lure away from Little Havana's Centro Vasco A turned in a tight show. Albita tearing through her classics, echoing everyone from Marlene Dietrich (calculated sexual ambiguity and blue spotlights) to Johnny Paycheck's looking-for-trouble period, hands thrust in her jeans in a folksy way. Over time the show has become as ritualized as the Super Bowl celebrations: The devotees cheer on cue while wiggling their seated fannies, and at evangelistic moments -- say "Viva Chang cents" -- they stand up and erupt into full-bore dancing. The transcendence of fandom, even for game WASPs on a peculiar rhythm tangent, is really what matters.

One woman in the audience outclassed everyone, moving like a supernatural force. Of course no one could blame her for those hips, and as it turned out Nora Flavia was a professional, a 30-year veteran of Cuba's Tropicana and Miami's Les Violins: "The painting of the showgirl outside Les Violins is of me." Her equally adept partner, Yugo Morales, had hosted an amazing St. Lazaro party in December at his home near the Miami River, a showplace equipped with a private zoo (from monkeys to cougars to pigs) and his own stage/dance floor. An enormous shrine to St. Lazaro, beautifully accented with white linen, candles, and flowers, rounded out the stylistic equation that night. For the flexible, the social permutations of this city are endless, a thing of wonder.

This installment of the delirium report will conclude with an upright Englishman abroad, Salman Rushdie. On a whirlwind book tour for The Moor's Last Sigh, Rushdie miraculously materialized at Books & Books in Coral Gables on a stray Friday morning. Unlike his other American appearances, hyped readings with intense security measures, the publicity pit stop in Miami was a truly underground affair. Only a handful of reporters and literati had been notified about Rushdie's book-signing stint beforehand, the gaggle including some frighteningly serious readers and a trio of high school girls on their own cultural field trip A a cheering sight that inspired new hope for American youth. In clubs the spectacle of misguided adolescent girls draped on wealthy and celebrated men, middle-age monsters one and all, is dispiritedly commonplace.

However, there's nothing ordinary about Rushdie, who rose to public prominence on Valentine's Day 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa, decreeing a death sentence on the man who had "blasphemed" Islam with his book The Satanic Verses. The controversy rocked the world beyond the cozy ghetto of literature. In Pakistan and on the streets of London, people died while protesting against a novel. A literal prisoner of fame, Rushdie has remained the poster boy for artistic freedom, a cause celäbre especially among his renowned friends, from Julian Barnes to Martin Amis. Simultaneously, he's not real popular among the unwashed British masses, who resent his complaining about seven years of expensive police escorts -- the royal family being enough of an overhead situation for taxpayers. After all this time -- and given the death of Khomeini -- the fatwa may be nothing but a lingering bureaucratic black hole, a way of fucking with Rushdie for eternity. But then again, who knows?

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