Swelter 20

The summer of discontent, tainted and debased as a leper, taking an immersion course in alien surroundings with an idyll in Atlanta: polite, humanistic, charged up with neo-Babbittry and all-American positivism, a brave new city with Coca-Cola as the munificent Big Brother. A boomtown landscape gathering strength for the Olympics and a tentative fashionableness, various pop stars house-hunting and Elton John serving as the local celebrity icon A living in a massive penthouse overlooking a sea of strip malls, shopping at the A&P, and going through an ordinary-guy phase. The city eerily mirroring the career of the famed gorilla Willie B., a 40-year resident of the Atlanta Zoo. In the old white-trash days, Willie moped around a filthy cage, masturbating compulsively, watching soap operas, and charging at children. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Now he's a centerpiece of civic rehabilitation, an upstanding father and good citizen, surrounded by natural habitats and perky Junior League volunteers, looking a little lost in a touchy-feely universe.

Pretty much our own experience actually, especially given our last visit twenty years ago, a frighteningly vital character straight out of Harry Crews leading a deranged descent through the senseless-killing district. Our guide to regional culture chugging corn liquor and indulging a penchant for irate fat women ("You want to know how much I weigh? What are you A writing a book?"), the storm of free-floating lust escalating with random bar violence and a midnight confession -- plump young boys, in a pinch, were better than nothing. This time around vacation fun entailing preternaturally pleasant entertainments, veering between terminal suburbia -- akin to being encased in a vacuum-sealed baggie of boredom -- and truly genteel society: gracious, restrained, money and other untoward subjects never mentioned, the people curious as to how anyone could actually live in the modern squalor of Miami Beach.

Staying far above Beach filth with a quite wonderful night at the opera, surrounded by an attentive audience in black tie and Margaret Mitchell dresses, the inner circle gathering afterward for a cozy dinner party in a private home. The talk, naturally, all about old Miami society: Coconut Grove matriarchs and Batista-era sugar barons (given to betting Rolex watches on individual holes of golf) promptly executed in the kill-the-rich revolution. The uptown roll continuing in the high WASP resort of Highlands, North Carolina, taking a very civilized lunch at an amazing mountain retreat, looking out over the host's very own wilderness valley. The guests chuckling over an unseemly upstart, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who'd married well and built a 40-room house at the local country club, directly alongside the highway. Thankfully, compatriots in vulgarity do exist north of the the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Back to sweet home Miami, casting off a restricting moral and aesthetic girdle, catching up on the boomtown-gone-astray news. The forever sweet Lisa Cox of Girls in the Night and the Orchid enviably retiring from clubs. Sporting life personality John Hood having a legal defense fundraiser at BASH, on the lam from a scuffling charge. The lobby restaurant in the Park Central Hotel precisely reflecting recent Beach history: from the lavish Lucky's to the art-world chic of Barocco to Burt Reynolds's meat-and-potatoes Backstage. Cesare Bruni of Bang staging a "Make Room for Baby" sale at his home and unloading assorted lifestyle emblems, a long way from Bang's glory days with Thomas Kramer's champagne-clogged birthday parties. Strippers and other exotic animals, the guests dipping strawberries into whipped-cream laden vaginas and pursuing other Weimar Republic amusements. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence of the Bad Boys production doing the stars-bearing-artifacts number at Planet Hollywood, and unlike most visiting celebs, staying away from clubs. The city, as usual, seething with off-season Madonna news: dining at Caffe Valentini, popping into the Kremlin, preying on delectable female guests at her birthday gathering. It's my party and I'll fuck anybody I want to.

Out into the night, giving full vent to a libertine nature, and it's all so un-Atlanta. Pacha, a summer camp of wayward Latins homesick for Amnesia. Les Bains, the Michael Capponi/Ocean Drive apräs party for the Dadeland Burdines "New Innovations" department launch, a stellar cast of models filtering into the VIP room. The pregnant Niki Taylor, now several months along, accompanied by husband Matt Martinez and sixteen-year-old sister Krissy. In clubs the beautiful can do no wrong. Liv Tyler and mother Bebe Buell A last spotted during Liv's sweet-sixteen party at USA in New York A flying in for catered celebrity punch, fame-charged under the umbrella of fabulousness cast by Dad, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Young Liv making the obligatory leap into movies A the upcoming Silence Falls with Richard Dreyfuss A and already tasting the dark side of fame: "It was okay tonight, although I really don't know what the purpose of it all was, and there was some creepy guy who kept taking pictures of me with his lens cap on." Mama Tyler, a real nightlife professional, dryly noting that South Beach seemed "cleaner and less complicated" than Manhattan, the table falling into an absorbing discussion about local club icon Rony Seikaly's equipment size and other filth-guided conversational matters.

The dysfunctional family of South Beach taking the low road Saturday night for the debut of Jimmy Franzo's "Felony" at Warsaw, masters of hype falling prey to the rumored possibility of live sex shows, the chump crowd featuring our own lathering personage, high-society veterans ("Darling, I love all these bodies, this sweat and madness"), and just about everybody else. Franzo giving us a hearty welcoming kiss, every girl's dream come true, then doing a surprisingly tame Matt Helm-meets-Caligula number on stage: a boxing routine with four girls followed by a tribute to ancient Rome.

The night wearing on, world without end, an isolating orbit of rampant narcissism. An ultrahip post-Lytton Strachey type, a poet of the visual, turning out to be a housewares salesman at Macy's. Our club-kitten companion, a burn-out case at nineteen, over the entire nexus of decadence: errant fifteen-year-olds losing their virginity in back alleys, screwing bouncers to crash the old Boomerang, plague-theme parties with hanging rats and lechers in the bathroom bars of The Tunnel, drugs and bad behavior. A rhapsody of her former appetites ("Ecstasy is so orgasmic; it really led me into loving clubs") interrupted by a tripping girl at the bar, up to the usual X-head tricks -- sipping orange juice, massaging Vick's Vaporub into her neck. The girl beaming beatifically, right in step with the chaos: "Hey, Ecstasy is what got me into clubs, too. But what's going to get me out of them?

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Tom Austin