By Chuck Strouse
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This is the last "Swelter," the end of the road. It's time to say goodbye to all that, keep things short, sweet, and even more about me than usual. I've had a long enough run, God knows, given that the first column appeared on August 21, 1991, which translates to almost five years of booze, drugs, insufferable music, and beating my brains out. At this point I've become accustomed to the routine, like a horse plowing a familiar furrow in the same old field. For a long time to come, Sunday afternoons will -- in the manner of Pavlov's dogs -- mean it's time to really get to work. A Monday-morning deadline is a yoke around the neck, a sure-fire way to ruin the weekend.
But the discipline has kept me from complete degeneracy, and the freedom granted to these efforts has been quite remarkable. Not too many other social columns contain half-baked ruminations on the looming apocalypse. Like any writer would, I've abused the privilege at times, launched some atrocities out into the void. But throughout I've tried to make sense out of nightlife, to bring back something useful from the darkness.
"Swelter" began in the world of dance clubs, though it strayed into all kinds of territory, from profiles of the legitimate to celebrity gossip A a pact made with the devil of pop journalism. Somehow, though, everything comes back to the great leveler of clubs, which, by their very nature, are institutions built on insensibility. They aren't supposed to provide anything more than heedless, foolish, and often downright dangerous pleasure. In the beginning, South Beach dissipation was a new and fresh experience, but then, your stamina is better at 35 than 40. Now I trudge down Washington Avenue like the Road Warrior after a particularly brutal skirmish. After all these years, my hearing has suffered, and my tolerance for loud clubs (they're all loud) has ebbed considerably. But in those early days, an eight-hour evening wasn't unusual: chitchat and jism videos at Hombre, dancing at Boomerang, a last-call drink at the Spot. And then there were all the floor shows at Warsaw. On one watershed evening, Lady Henesy Brown, the stripper-performance artist, mounted beer bottles on-stage, squirted the stuff from her vagina, and topped that by having a patron tug a twenty-foot-long, bell-encrusted ribbon out of her none-too-private parts and string it over the club like an insane Fourth of July streamer. When I didn't flinch at the spectacle, I knew I was born to this job. Brown's antics seem positively quaint now.
From this age and a more sober perspective, the endurance era feels like it happened to someone else. All those nights out. All that liquor. Nightclubs, of course, are designed to encourage drunkenness. As the first local mainstream reporter covering that world, I was always bumping into people who would buy me drinks and tell me how fabulous I was, a perilously heady combination. After a year or two, a sense of moderation kicked in. My liver actually sent a thank-you note at one point. These days, standing in some chaotic dive at 4:00 a.m., I look like a demented, middle-age golfer, going about my duties with what passes for professionalism in the nightlife trade. Clubs will either kill you or make you cooler, as Michael Capponi once pointed out to me. They've done a little bit of both to all of us.
After steadily gazing upon incessant and flagrant carnality, gay and straight, I'll never be able to think of sex in the same way again. There have been too many let-us-worship-the-erection theme parties, too many brazen strippers in lesbian bars, and way too many wanton teens, overblown children who can't handle the underbelly of existence. One thing I've never grown accustomed to is the relationship between sex and money, trick boys or tender young things offering themselves at wholesale prices. Time and time again I've watched young girls A from both good and bad families A zeroing in on well-heeled dogs. (One grim evening I found myself at a dinner party with a fourteen-year-old girl who looked like the early Tina Louise and who should have been doing her algebra homework.) Maybe it's nothing but the great lie of nostalgia, but in my own youth no one seemed to have any money or care about getting more, and a good healthy romp between two horny people had no other agenda beyond orgasm.
Besides that ugly issue, nothing human is foreign to me any longer, and at a certain point there's no turning back to what you once were. These days, aside from friends and family, pretty much all I care about is making a living with a semblance of self-respect. Sex and fabulousness are the least of my concerns. Any kind of reporting, but especially nightlife reporting, both amplifies and taints your enjoyment of the subject matter. Clearly there's something to be said for the always-a-pleasure approach, but unfortunately social reporting makes you exist within and without the gathering at hand. Every affair is reduced to column fodder. At my own 40th birthday party, surrounded by true friends one and all, I actually worked the room for material. Not an attractive frame of mind.
A good time, by definition, is a random blessing, something that cannot be engineered, lived secondhand, or brought into being by courtesy treatment. The most fun I ever had in a club was during a lame early-Eighties period in New York, when I asked a terminally hip creature in black where I might be able to hear some jazz. With absolute contempt, he muttered, "Why don't you just go to Bloomingdale's." Amazingly enough, he took pity on me and brought me along to the early Mudd Club. As a schlub tourist from Coral Gables, I had to pay top dollar at the door and withstand more sneering, but I was right at the heart of nightclub history, watching people shoot up in the bathrooms and dancing to the Who's "My Generation." Nothing since has matched the perfection of that evening.
Good and bad, you become what you behold, and I've seen too much: the rise and fall of various South Beach stars, the resurgence of heroin, the new order of money and celebrity. My first story for New Times, well before the first "Swelter" column, concerned a New York press junket to the Fontainebleau Hilton. The idea of spending two consecutive nights with such trivial people was inconceivable then, but now I gossip with the best, dwell on the petty, and consider some of that same group to be colleagues and friends. Among other things, the first "Swelter" featured a Linda Bedell save-the-whales party at the old Island Club, the first inklings of Hippodrome hype, which opened and closed in a week -- the space is now the Kremlin. There was a bit of froth on the Butter Club, at the site of the current Bash. Those were the days, the ballyhooed pioneer era, although a lot of it had to do with people who were fabulous for no good reason, save for their capacity to snare drink tickets.
But we were all a kind of extended family then. Some, like James St. James and Craig Coleman, have vanished or died. Others got jobs, married and had kids, and stopped going out. Most of us, though, are still around and still working it: Tara Solomon, a lady then and now; Andrew Delaplaine, George Tamsitt, and Louis Canales, tough souls one and all. A thousand glittering nights on the town, a feast of pop history -- South Beach is an entirely different place now. No real regrets, though if I'd bought real estate then, some trashy journalist might have been putting my name in boldface type. It's been a long, strange trip indeed, and despite all these laments, the losses and aches of the psychic-horror network that is nightlife, this has been the best job I've ever had. It wouldn't be a "Swelter" without a bleak heart.
Since that initial, tentative effort, "Swelter" has traveled widely -- the Jordanian desert, Brazil, the Hamptons -- but it always has come back to sweet home Miami, where I've met everyone from Bill Clinton to diet queen Susan Powter. And always there's been South Beach, the world of possibility. Recently, for instance, I shared a joint, the first in years, with Oliver Stone at one club or another. Even though pot gives me a headache -- mean and immediate -- it's important to fit in while on the job. Around 4:00 a.m. Stone roused himself out of a trance, asked if I were a journalist, and, surprisingly enough, obligingly reeled out a sound bite: "Miami's become a real night place that never stops -- it's my kind of town."
Not quite the inner-circle chatter I'd hoped for, but Miami's my kind of town too, and this column has made me love the place even more. Ultimately, you stay in a city for your friends, and my circle A in and out of the life A is more patient and kind than most. Thanks to Myrna Kirkpatrick and Charles Recher for listening and making me laugh, and to Brian Antoni for being a gossip columnist's best friend: always there with the 411 and an appreciation for the absurdities of the night. Thanks to everyone who ever hooked me up A with a celebrity, a plug, or a cheap thrill A and kudos to those brave beings who refused to leave me behind at the velvet ropes to the VIP room. My deepest appreciation to the readers who took the time to write letters, positive or negative. The kindness of strangers means something in this business. And to all the vampires of South Beach, I'll see you on the rounds.