Swelter 12

Another fling on the food chain of status, happily gearing up for the hard-fought national privilege of summer vacation, content in a suddenly tolerable city. A perfectly pitched Saturday night getting off to a great start with the ACME Acting Company presentation of Jeffrey at the Colony Theater, a well-done frolic in gay carnality and wit, an AIDS-sufferer in our party finding the sexy-amidst-the-plague tone a bit extreme. The crowd laughing along heedlessly, a very sweet 82-year-old lady winning the door prize -- a year's worth of drink tickets, the true currency of South Beach -- and looking forward to being the most popular gal at Paragon. Out to the streets, running into the truly likable novelist John Knowles, responsible for the touchstone text of adolescence, -- Separate Peace. South Beach, where all roads eventually meet.

As it happens, Knowles a six-degrees-of-separation acquaintance from the glory days of college: the sexual Arcadia of Gainesville circa 1975, our own psychic baggage laden with images of sorority romps and encounters with visiting culturati. Stephen Spender coming to mind, infatuated with a walking-between-prose-and-poetry lad from Podunk, Florida, the literary legend given to fleeing the oppression of married life in London and taking New World culture cures at the University of Florida. Great stuff, Spender drinking cheap wine and playing guitar in dorm rooms, talking about the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood, the Spanish Civil War, and the private side of W.H. Auden.

The encounter with Knowles recalling a golden era when the world was fresh and new, gloriously horny, and freed from the horror of employment -- a long way from our current milieu of dumbed-down personalities and the pointlessly famous. At the time, -- Separate Peace defined the dank chaos of youth -- the longing and jealousy, the friendships without hustles -- Knowles surprisingly lighthearted in person, living in Fort Lauderdale and still "scribbling away" in the shadow of an epic lifetime annuity. His 1959 novel still selling 500,000 copies per year, long ago eclipsing J.D. Salinger's controversial Catcher in the Rye. Knowles staying in touch with modern adolescent angst through public appearances (not exactly Salinger's line), teaching stints and thousands of fan letters: "The book is all boys, because that was boarding school at the time, but just as many girls write me. Most of it is positive, although someone objected to the use of the word bastard A hard to imagine in this age, when children are exposed to everything on MTV. But teenagers are still the same. They always respond to that one line in the book about sarcasm being the defense of the weak, and they all want to know whether Gene shook his friend Phineas off the tree limb. I've never revealed the answer. I think it's important for kids to question themselves about what they would do, to understand the darker urges of humanity."

The moment of literary light followed by a plunge into the netherlands of clubs, the union of social columnists demanding a constant witnessing of the human assembly line, in all its squalor and glory. Glam Slam for Tara Solomon's much-touted birthday party, other engagements prohibiting our appearance at her upcoming Stefano's media dinner. The district constellation of stars -- artist Bobby Radical, promoter John Hood, club owners and tradesman of every ilk -- mobilizing for a carnival of love, laughs, and plugs. Solomon anchoring a small booth like a splendiferous pope of publicity, alone at the top with the benedictions of fame, gleaming like a glazed ham and surrounded by an enviable pile of loot: champagne, gift certificates, jewelry, flowers, and lavish food baskets. Stay in the game long enough and it all comes around. From there, the movable feast A two whiny writers, a saint-like woman who wouldn't say anything bad about anybody, and a former ashram dweller turned social photographer and Pier Paolo Pasolini scholar -- tumbling down Washington Avenue, the spiritualist living proof of his guru's pronouncements about the Beach's eerie energy. Sliding on to Dune and The Orchid, a swarm of perky lesbians taking the psychosexual edge off things and making life pleasant, our thoughts drifting back to the space's earlier incarnation as Sinatra Bar, memories of watching Donald Trump and Eddie Murphy on the prowl, as appetizing as the prospect of jerking off with sandpaper.

The rest of the week spent in the suspension of a preholiday reverie, rooting around the horn of plenty. Missing a postconcert appearance by the Stone Temple Pilots at a Knight Center banquet room, the group already too big to pose with the corporate regalia of their Hard Rock Cafe hosts, wild-boy singer Scott Weiland perfectly polite. Miami Beach icon Andrew Delaplaine throwing a launch party for Yes!, the let-us-now-praise-pretty-people magazine vapid and superficial as promised, Delaplaine figuring we've pretty well exhausted the angst beat and looking ahead to his own rosy publishing future: "With any luck, Yes! is going to be my ticket out of this cow town."

Awash in these little-town blues, taking an I-wake-up-screaming retreat from the fray, the removed pleasures of news tips and phone masturbation: producer Don Simpson doing preproduction work on a new movie and spotted making the pussy-power rounds, George Plimpton set to come down shortly for a part in the new Sean Connery film. A college student wondering if we'd help him with a term paper about why clubs fail, the success of certain lame establishments perhaps more fitting for scholarly speculation. Some misguided soul wondering if we were the "sex writer who went to Madonna's party." Our relatively polite column about Bill Clinton's sociosexual machinations making the true big time, the unsympathetic journalists' file in the White House press office. An offer coming in from Chicago to attach our good name to a national youth culture advisory board, an august panel of experts gathering for the higher good of flogging a hopelessly domestic brand of beer before the grunge wasteland. Generation X beer, curiously enough, a particular favorite among our own working-class relatives, the eager-beaver publicist noting that most alternative columnists could be leased for a few complementary cases now and then. The concept of more free alcohol somehow not all that appealing.

Out again into interpersonal land, making a series of wrong moves. Knowles turning up at a private party we'd just left, regaling everyone with tales of Truman Capote and literary Morocco. Winding down the parade with a Madonna-meets-David Letterman moment in some low dive, another girl with an air of studied boredom eagerly throwing mud at our column. The standard moment of cognitive dissonance upon introduction, a sweet ice-cream face confronting the rude shock of reality versus journalistic artifice, our faithful reader bouncing back with the wonderful obliviousness of youth: "You used to be cool, ragging on all these tacky clubs. But now it's almost too nice, like you're trying to kiss up to everybody but don't know how to do it.

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Tom Austin