Swelter 13

America the ugly, darkness visible, an eternal pinball journey through the seven circles of a tabloid Hades. The final exorcism may be at hand, but in the meantime, gossip's a growth industry and Miami remains in the vanguard of the filth follies. Reality unplugged, a bumpy ride on a breaking wave of dirty laundry, surfing the plague of universal insanity while dodging the shoals of disgust and certain doom, wrenching a few edgy chuckles from the fantastic and mundane alike. Life's kind of funny, unless you weaken.

Monday night, overcoming the march of angst, delusion, and the vapors of self-pity, akin to the final hurrah of Ethel Merman, coming truly alive only on the great stage of public life. Appropriately, easing into the week with some wholesome show business, the Rhythm Foundation's Africa Fàte, the invited-by-protocol crowd clinging to the rooftop of the Box, Les Garland's pay-as-you-go music video revue. The core group, as is their wont, more or less ignoring an assemblage of great talent -- Boukman Eksperyans, Oumou Sangare, et al. -- for the dicey proposition of each other's company. To be fair, the sudden emergence of the warrior Christ wouldn't stop the cacophony of trash talk, and then there's always so much to catch up on, even though we see each other every night. Across Collins Avenue, Chris Blackwell hosting a tempting little party in his Marlin Hotel suite for Melissa Etheridge, companion-video producer Julie Cypher, and God knows who else. No journalists allowed, and really, who among us could blame him? For once resolving to avoid the ritualized theater of fighting for celebrity access and this season's version of a VIP room -- anything air-conditioned -- summer crowd-control procedures best summed up by a personable doorman: "Sorry pal, but you're going to have to move along and enter the gates of hell."

All the good karma paying off with a hassle-free pilgrimage to the warm-but-pleasant Marlin roof, everyone exchanging tales of real estate. Another New York trend outpost, Lucky Cheng's, grandly opening this week with Madame Woo and other drag queen waitresses-cum-superstars: old news in the district, and lately even drag's a drag. White-bread sex symbol Vanilla Ice, jeered by hard-core hip-hoppers at a music conference some years back, opening a motocross sportswear shop, To the Extreme, in the former Jason Rubell Gallery space. Might there be a metaphor for Lincoln Road there somewhere? Or could it be in the unsigned political tracts now being distributed by flyer girls on Rollerblades, protesting Miami Beach Commissioner Martin Shapiro's objections to an obscenely expensive, patently absurd transformation of tenuous civilization into a grotesque theme park. Whatever, someone, usually the wrong someone, always manages to reap more lucre than they deserve.

And more sex, too, it might be added, our attentions focusing on a lovable, deserving, and truly forthright sweetheart of clubland; like us, given to saying whatever the hell pops into his mind, amid any circumstance. Our new best friend puncturing the well-being of a self-proclaimed dance record producer with a Big Truth introduction ("This guy makes porn films, too"), later dropping the casual coda, "He also deals coke on the side. One-stop shopping for all your club needs." Then it's a rueful story of nightlife addiction, the downtown press printing a compromising photo of our pal at a tender age, flashing his privates at one Manhattan dive or another: "I was so embarrassed by that picture I couldn't go out for a whole week."

From there, chugging along on the usual rounds, nonembarrassed, addicted, and happy as all get-out. A stray Tuesday, the horny talking about the imprisonment of titty-bar king Michael Peter, the fountainhead of malleable B-girl flesh failing a test for cocaine use and having his bail revoked pending an upcoming federal racketeering trial: "Michael can't understand it. He was so careful about sticking to speed." Taking a Cajun-inspired dinner at the Strand for their very own "House of Blues" night, Piano Bob and the Snowman providing a refuge from the disco-meets-luxe-dining epidemic. To the tune of "Bright Lights, Big City," the district dance continuing apace, the standard mix of conceptual models and playboys of paradise: for some reason, a television documentary on wild apes, hypersexed beasts trading food for sex, springing to mind.

In accordance with the prevailing gestalt, management hosting a table of new-era society, awash in a dialectical frenzy. Some Harley-riding regular with an admirable day job -- building homes for the homeless -- and a French woman with a promotional company called Life Sucks, as well as breast-building plastic surgeons, vaguely moral columnists, and the usual female centerpieces, gene pool of the comely. In the epicenter of the maelstrom, the poster boy of Euros-united-in-fun, Charley Schreiner ("Miami is like a nest of rattlesnakes -- people talk more shit than Paris") fondly recalling a night on the town with Prince Albert of Monaco: deep pockets, itchy pants, his royal dogness apparently quite taken by the strip club Deja Vu. In a world in which renowned physicist-author Stephen Hawking -- a quadriplegic genius with a computer-generated voice -- leaves his wife and three kids for his nurse, nothing really surprises us any more in the black hole of carnality. Except, of course, for the supremely cheesy Thomas Kramer, in full baroque fester.

The dark prince of real estate wearing a T-shirt meant for the gay market, inscribed with "I Can't Even Think Straight," and anchoring a table of Russ Meyer wanna-be's, an army of spandexed babes swilling champagne. Miami's mysterious stranger all over the place at once, sharing a bathroom stall with some madly chortling crony ("Stop, you're kiling me") and fueling the power of Kramite, the sinister force that's weakened, bought off, and tainted the city forever. None of this charming rogue/eccentric tycoon crap, either: This is a man who, shortly after his now-estranged wife lost their baby, went back out on the prowl. Another classic instance of evil's banality, although his companion in debauchery, developer Jorge Perez, might spark some interest. The real McCoy, a certifiably valid businessman: president of the Related Group of Florida, Kramer's partner on the monolithic Portofino Tower in South Pointe, heavy hitter in the Democratic Party, and a member of the NEA board. On our last encounter, Perez and his elegant wife were chatting with Lawton Chiles and Al Gore during the Summit of the Americas, living large at the Vice President's gala. The pussy patrol of South Beach, if nothing else, makes true democrats of us all, slaves to sex and trash.

On to other pursuits, struggling toward the light of the surface, desperate for the polite. Down to the Miami River for a floating dinner party aboard a splendid yacht, an opulent adornment for the Sandals Resorts chain, the cold, clear lights of a nasty little town shimmering in the distance A God, we love this whimsical business. Back to Miami Beach, this sceptered isle of madness, Lure hosting a popping champagne-and-delicacy-clogged bon voyage party for Robbin Haas, escaping the bad vibes of Bang for the big time. Our favorite party restaurateur joining forces with Mark Miller of the wonderful Red Sage in Washington, D.C., and, as it happens, Haas proving his mettle on a delicate Miami matter. When the going gets tough, the fellow survivors of the gulag -- even when they break loose from hell town -- take care of one another.

Forever on to the end, we're a hometown boy, through and through, wired-up and ready to get our hands dirty. Unfortunately the week marred by an onslaught of gutter-driven phone calls -- all from ostensibly serious, nontabloid publications -- on the tragic death of Krissy Taylor. Another casualty in the dank industry of modeling, an always reliable bellwether (along with celebrity addiction) of the trouble looming ahead in this country. Been there, done that, already bought the T-shirts of the Apocalypse: Bonfire of the Vanities on a budget, the navel of the bottom-feeding underbelly, the soul checked at the door, a hired scrap of chum for the sharks. But along the way, we've also acquired our own connections to the underworld: capable, like all the other glittering monsters, of arranging a hundred catered girls, a thousand thrills, drugs, hustlers, and vital decadence support services. The real story on way too many people, like the Beach politician who took that shameful silicone valley tour of the Michael Peter empire with all those shady developers. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to enter the political arena and do some real public service.

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Tom Austin