Swelter 15

There's a certain pathology to this pop life, this culture of the damned, a sick compulsion shrouding the worship of the superficial. Once you're trapped in the lower orders of the glamour mafia, it's impossible to escape the pernicious pall of the cartoon void and the trivial -- all the debasing social assaults and attentions paid to the celebrated take on a lunatic, albeit consuming, seriousness, past reason and redemption. But then the airing of froth and filth, aside from the pursuit of bad taste, remains this nation's favorite hobby, a kind of generic vice in the bull market of gossip. In particular the fame tribes have become a floating peep show and soap opera, a wallow in the amateur strains of voyeurism and melodrama. Stay in the game too long, turn professional, and the convictions of youth, all that basic human-dignity nonsense, begin to seem hopelessly quaint, faintly lame, lingering on as a dim memory, a taunting dream of what you once were.

And yet the night grants definite rewards, bright moments in the psychic darkness shining through amid the oddest circumstances. For instance, the high Cuban stretch of Coral Way, taking a family-style dinner at Latin American Cafeteria with the cult of Richard Jay-Alexander, the theatrical producer and student of junk America. All of us, the devotees of pagan sensation, thrilling to the camp: hanging hams and aging vixens with volcanic decolletage, all sex-sizzle bras, fishnet tops, and bizarre platinum perms, transcending style, fashion, and architecture. Despite all the "Breck girls at 60" and the throbbing prole vitality, the fast set staying rooted in the minefield of trash culture, tote bag of the sordid.

Over piles of tasty, death-by-cholesterol pork, the gang mulling over the Hugh Grant saga, Grant nabbed on his second visit to Divine Brown, according to the Hollywood tabloid mill. A brief encounter between a cheap, kinky English dreamboat -- slightly more accessible than one might have thought --nd a street whore neatly establishing, yet again, the profits of notoriety. Almost too juicy to be true, ridden with enough journalistic angles to resemble a sinister publicity stunt, the episode paying off for all concerned. Brown, bless her, snatching a retirement trick; Grant's case helped along by devoted female protesters, showing up at the Los Angeles premiere of Nine Months with "I'd pay you, Hugh" placards.

Proof positive, yet again, of the feminine knack for overlooking anything in a man they want: both a blessing and damnation, the best and worst quality of women. Men, conversely, given to misplaced hubris and focusing on minor flaws: One of our dog friends once turned down a particularly valid executive, entirely on the basis of her dry-hair problem. Up or down the status scale, it's war out here on the carnal battleground, the subject of Michael Douglas's imminent and stupendously expensive upcoming divorce. His wife, Diandra, charging rampant philandering, but as it turns out she's also been -- according to the gossip nexus -- popping a New York social fixture for years: a gentleman who's done the Duchess of York and various ignoble stuff throughout a brilliant career of pussy consulting.

Under the circumstances, a moral dilemma arising. Do we, as a charter member of the great national fan club -- and more to the point, a former co-celebrity judge with Douglas at a charity affair -- help our boy out or let him take a huge financial hit? As if on cue, the conversation taking a detour to pure money, a fellow guest celebrating her made-for-Miami screenplay, How to Marry a Billionaire: "It's kind of a remake, but let's face it -- a million's just not enough any more." From there, more merry chatter about Tonya Harding, O.J., and all of our tabloid friends, Jay-Alexander pointing out the essential absurdity of the situation: "I can't believe how you're all talking about these people -- they speak so highly of you."

Another night, another frolic in alien atmospheres -- the tony Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove -- inhaling cocktails, lavish hors d'oeuvres, and the passing Grand Hotel parade. People come, people go, something eventually happens. Followers of Faye Resnick angling for sugar daddies, actor Tom Berenger politely deflecting ambitious admirers, everyone brimming with tales of Robin Williams, an actual honorable movie star. The locus of the Birds of a Feather production staying on at the hotel, hanging out at the pool, celebrating a birthday, and fortuitously running into a new bride in the elevator. Ever the showman, Williams escorting her into the wedding reception with his trademark rapid-fire imitations, pratfalls, and life-enhancing jokes. Some fans have all the luck.

The adjuncts to renown, reporters and publicists, moving along to an enjoyable dinner at Brasserie L'Entrecote. As usual, going native on the gravy train, this time to a French theme: the classicism of foie gras, steak, and pommes de terre frites, washed down with Campari. Appropriately enough, picking up Gallic tidbits, Charles Aznavour and Jean-Paul Belmondo dropping by on Miami visits. Within the new American frisson, every pleasure -- from food to sex to parties -- somehow becomes more savory when a celebrity, any celebrity, has been there first.

On to other delights and diversions, tainted and tortured by talk of fame. Uptown circles, a female reporter bringing back the private side of Roseanne from Hollywood: Television's favorite she-beast sharing a just-us-girls moment, revealing her private collection of rubber fetish wear. In this instance, standard lingerie might qualify as sufficient perversity. Some suburban mall or another for a screening of Nine Months, an insult to the brain, not that it really matters in the cute campaign A ladies, let's all coo on cue. Tobacco Road and the slap of real life, some hustler in the parking lot hawking tokens of athletic glory, baseball memorabilia, at 1:00 a.m.: "How about some Babe Ruth cards, worth hundreds of dollars, for a couple of bucks each?"

And then it's the pop pageantry of South Beach, ruled by the couple-of-bucks principle: the end of the ride, the exhale of life, but we're still clinging to the modern order. The weekend, a photo-op alignment of the old and new, the play of district history. Dennis Britt, club pioneer and bongo hero, playing with West Indian at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge. At Lua, Billy Baldwin, the star of Curdled, turning up for the film's wrap party. Let's all go Hollywood.Out of the house for another Saturday night on the town, joining the lesbian nation at the Kremlin, the patrons ("Girlfriend, put your mouth where the honey is") keeping things light. In his own quiet corner of insanity, some street faun -- the chic of exposed underwear, shirtless to no avail -- dancing obliviously in the Sapphic matrix. Being a magnet for lunatics, our newest stalker materializing in the men's room for a male-bonding session, posing the age-old question: "Do I look all right?" At the point of screaming the obvious -- it's a dyke bar, you idiot -- and then weakening in the face of abject emotional poverty, gushing the appropriate you-look-so-fabulous sympathies. As if we know anything.

Thrills, chills, and circles of hurt, the sociological circus winding down with an A-gay affair, immersed in endless food, drink, and forced jollity, touched by the dark whisper of boredom. Amid all the techno poses and cutting remarks, falling into a strange discussion of ennui through the ages -- the saving grace of historical relativity -- a philosophical friend to glamour having made a study of nightlife's paradigmatic ailment. Samuel Johnson's deep cynicism, all human endeavor -- from romance to empire building -- nothing but a futile attempt to "fill up the vacuity of life." From there, a dollop of the Marquise du Deffand, the reigning social addict of the Louis XIV era: "I am left to myself, and I couldn't be in worse hands. An ennui such as to extinguish all light from the mind." Arthur Schopenhauer's idea that mankind eternally struggles between need and boredom, a limited capacity for pleasure vying against a vast talent for pain, malaise descending after the basic needs of survival are met. Our pal, a man of many worlds, illustrating the principle in layman's terms: "Boredom is this -- need is why I had such a great time at the Boardwalk last night, playing with all the strippers."

Inevitably, a bleak turn of conversation winding down with Friedrich Nietzsche: Boredom coming as a "disagreeable windless calm of the soul, necessary for lesser natures," a vital prelude to achievement and good cheer. Hope in the ruins, Nietzsche, as it happens, also something of a party boy, his rueful summation of social seduction in Human, All Too Human still holding true: "Why do we feel pangs of conscience after ordinary parties? Because we have taken important matters lightly; because we have discussed people with less than complete loyalty; because we did not jump up and run away. In short, because we behaved at the party as if we belonged to it.

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Tom Austin