Nightlife land. An Avenue A party at The Institute, beautiful space, good music, great fun. A frenzied mob clustered around the door at midnight, the place virtually empty inside - the oldest and most unerringly effective club hype trick in the book. The room gradually filling up with an interesting mix: club girls in white face, the odd model, satanic Jewesses on the prowl. A fairly engrossing conversation about Madonna's recent sex-world photo sessions for her new book: hitchhiking in the nude and a tableau involving dancing around Big Daddy Kane with model Naomi Campbell - a truly weird scenario. The Avenue A action picking up around 2:00 a.m. with the arrival of 1984's favorite celebrity, Grace Jones. Miss Jones, wild-eyed as a cornered jaguar, devouring a hot dog. Someone telling a great story involving the black Narcissus at Le Loft, of all places. An irritating admirer apparently worked on her nerves to the point where she felt compelled to throw him on the floor and place a massive, boot-clad foot directly on his crotch. For once something actually happened in a club. Missing the good stuff is positively heartbreaking.

And there's so much good stuff lately. Like the new Paragon, which opens officially March 21 after a string of parties and the taping of an HBO comedy special. The preview party last Friday had all the right ingredients: Wendy ("I change places and lives as often as some people change their hair") Doherty, a supporting cast of thousands, and designer George Tamsitt: "We did everything in five weeks. I think I've added a few more gray hairs. But it's a lot closer now to the way it used to be." An appearance by the truly legendary Patti LaBelle at the "Decade of Triumph" gala last Saturday night, benefiting UM's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Miss LaBelle, who's lost four immediate family members to cancer, receiving the "Cancer Awareness Spokesperson of the Year" award.

Out and around, with lesser luminaries. Tatiana von Furstenberg, pretty but fairly nonroyal, walking down Ocean Drive with her lover. A big-deal dinner at The Spot, Gary James dancing and blowing a disco whistle, carrying the restaurant/club aesthetic to its logical conclusion. A heavy contingent of the uninvited hanging around the table, the publicity-obsessed Sukhreet Gabels of club world. In South Beach, people must be invited to come late and just lurk at parties. Another South Beach summit meal at Sencle's, hosted by Tara Solomon, back to her baroque stage as the Mary Richards of South Beach, free to earn a living simply by being fabulous. ("It's you, girl, and you're going to make it. With each step and every little movement....") Afterward some guy in a Rolls Royce drops off the gang for Karaoke night at The Underground. The cast of Forever Plaid out on a quiet spree, a helpful someone with the proper survival tactic: "Just think of this as bad TV." Kind of disgusting, really my favorite thing. The final jump start to a one-nighter with failing vital signs commencing tonight, Wednesday, with Tara's Karaoke reunion party. Bingo games. The return of the Regine's Junior International set. Sandy Perkins, Charlie Burkett, Ian the singing lawyer. Prizes dispensed at the whim of the hostess, who promises wilder, zanier, but gentler fun: "I'm going to be nicer now."

The former "Le Trick" at Egoiste. Fashion from Meet Me in Miami. Porn stars, Kitty Meow, Jon Jon Bubblegum holding down the Egoiste VIP room: "The whole night is genius." Outside, the bloom of youth still resting lightly on the cheeks of all the tricks, sort-of-fresh faces untroubled by the nightmare of actually making money. A suave rico in a Corvette outside Le Loft, pulling a bottle of Paco Rabanne out of the glovebox, as two louts stumble by: "Don't freak on me, man." Where have all the good times gone?

The Playhouse at 3:00 a.m. Wednesday night, a major hair boy named Fabio materializing at our table. Gossip about Danceteria looking for a space on the Beach, as yet another drunken Manhattan-nightlife marathon type calls the Beach "one big rehab clinic." (South Beach may be many things, but it's definitely not the place to quit drinking.) Host Paul Gabay chatting about the 88-year-old owner of the Playhouse, who lives above the bar: "He's sold the place to a German guy who's bought the whole block; he's going to build a big shopping mall or something." Fabio taking off with the more attractive people at the table, Gabay suggesting it might be time to call it a night. You know you're in trouble when a club promoter says it's time to go home.

Other clubs, other conversations, things beginning to blur nicely. Ty Bassett of the Raleigh and Suzanne Bartsch talking about the club-clothes-by-mail-order operation he's trying to put together on the Beach. Two very drunk toughs, putting out cigarettes in their hands for a goof. A stroll past the fashionable world - La Troya, Brega & Chic, House of Flesh and Sin, Bomba, and then a drink at Hombre. An older gentleman pointing out that there are only "96 people in the world who matter, and they all know each other." An attractive, intelligent person commenting on the attractive, intelligent nature of the crowd: "It's more honest here, more direct - lots of professional people who know what they want. We signed up a big group of them for Dade Action PAC."

Warsaw, an ugly embrace of the conceptual morality of the Beach, a confrontation with a fan unhappy with our new best friend: "Are you attached to the fabulous blonde?" Naturally, no more real commitment than stray dogs extend to one another. After all, it's club world, and this might be somebody useful, somebody who'll sweep us up into Versace-ville. Out the door, some far gone middle-age man pleading with a transvestite: "Are you half-man, mostly woman, or what? I just want to know what I'm dealing with." And a final chat with a friend of a philosophical bent: "The perfect club for people like us would be really plush restaurants with Plexiglas floors, so we could all watch the young sex slaves dancing and sweating down below. To actually be in it is so boring, so pointless. I feel like a blown speaker dragged through a communal gutter of longing."

Well, that's it, exactly. People like us have to keep trying, though, even when its 6:00 a.m. on Lincoln Road and there's a psychotic cab driver trailing alongside like a renegade police escort. Another grand evening drawing to a close, the world crystallizing into something perfect and whole, the shimmering paradise within reach. A meaningful moment that suddenly slips away into nothingness. Longing, drink, transcendence, the nature of desire. The great issues that come up late at night, the questions that never quite seem to get answered.