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?
Despite the threat of death, Rushdie's a remarkably lighthearted icon, a man who wants to have fun like everyone else. He's a great writer and, it should be noted, an unusually talented lobber of sound bites: "This tour has given me the freedom to see some of your wonderfully corrupt, decaying American cities. . . . Circumstances dictate your writing, although people have told me that The Moor's Last Sigh is my funniest book -- so these circumstances must have cheered me up. . . . My experiences have proved that there is such a thing as negative fame. . . . The advantage of attracting new readers has been negligible, a small gain. Just because a taxi driver knows my name, it wouldn't follow that they would necessarily think I was a terrific writer."
The dinner party for Rushdie at the Delano's banquet room that evening demonstrated that fame, if nothing else, functions as a kind of cosmic vibrator, lending an edge to any occasion. Hosted by the ultimate publising operator, Sonny Mehta of Alfred A. Knopf -- who'd been down here before to sign up Vicki Hendricks for her Miami Purity novel -- the dinner offered an opportunity for local novelists to meet the Greta Garbo of literature. Among others, John Dufresne (Louisiana Power & Light), Edna Buchanan (Act of Betrayal), and poet Jeffrey Knapp (Isle of Flowers) showed up for the Rush, who seemed perfectly at ease on the reception circuit. The Blue Door's Brian McNally, an immensely likable pro in the glamour industries, anchored a table with Shakira Caine and art world/party world figure Ashton Hawkins.
The celebrity possibilities, given Rushdie's stature (David Byrne and other pop figureheads have attended his previous appearances) and McNally's Rolodex, had seemed limitless. There had been the usual self-generating lather, the speculations of a dream guest list from the heavens, but Rushdie ("This is my 'fuck 'em' book tour") turned out to be enough of an attraction. An intelligent dinner party is rarer than a fame feast anyway, and the mere sight of Rushdie in Delano wonderland -- a world far removed from Islamic fundamentalism -- was a sustaining image of the surreal.
Rushdie's bodyguards stayed in the background as he politely circulated from table to table ("I'm going to need some Alka-Seltzer after all this jumping up and down"). Remarkably enough, his trip to the bathroom attracted scant attention from the golden hordes at the bar, who were immersed in the devil's workshop of hedonism. Over dessert I confronted my own monstrousness and flipped through The Moor's Last Sigh, one sentence having a particular resonance: "I have done the dirty as and when required, done it, and taken pleasure in the doing." Literature can be a great consolation in life.