Swelter 20

The dog days of the killing season, tempers fraying, minds unraveling, the dark reaches of the collective unconsciousness bubbling up to the surface like an evil cancer, a plague upon the hot bottom of the Earth. Lost and dispirited in the seventh circle of the inferno, the reassuring tug of contentment and transcendence somehow emerging in the most hellish circumstances, happiness often being a simple defiance of what is, a collection of stolen moments wrested from the banality and pain of reality.

Planet Grove, an unreal parody of a parody, the itch of alienation taking hold in a cartoonish landscape of pop-up architecture and pointless agitation. Adolescents, charmless demon seed children, littering the streets: Cuban buds of the look-but-don't-touch school of cock-teasing; gang boys hungering for sex, or failing that, trouble. Old bohos clinging to a fading fantasy, when characters like the mad queen Drano lunched at the Pharmacy and Jimmy Buffett was something more than just another tropical concept for sale. Our companions on the glory days Coconut Grove tour, attorney Jim Hodes and artist Alan Treister, old enough to pine for the John Sebastian era, and like us, more or less invisible to teenage girls.

Out and about in the American wasteland, looking for lost youth, a few laughs, remains of the past. A strange but heartening time warp at the classic Taurus Steak House, the same lush life divorcees and Iceman Cometh regulars, the bartender setting an eccentric tone with a "Happy Independence Day to Bolivia" button. Hodes reminiscing about a late-Eighties bachelor party in the north Grove, a pack of perky vixens in bell bottoms miraculously walking through the front door, the nymphets combing the neighborhood for a Seventies-theme party, goofing on the last decade of unequivocal, nonironic fun for the panting old-timers. Into the heart of CocoWalk, the postmodern lifestyle mall beyond redemption, a not-so-sweet young thing in Dan Marino's American Sports Bar & Grill sticking out her tongue -- bearing a rubber cockroach -- as a gesture of provocation. Upstairs to Baja Beach Club for toga night, Animal House revisited, the minions chanting "toga, toga" in unison, stupid enough to qualify as Lite Fun. Closing down at the Hungry Sailor, reggae in an English pub setting, a resolutely low-voltage crowd save for a stunning Ethiopian waitress, luminous and exquisite as an orchid, a beacon of possibility and hope. All of us dumfounded and awkward, Treister mustering up nerve for a valiant stab in the romance game, a doomed-but-heroic lunge toward the great American happiness sweepstakes.

Miami Beach, another dreamy catch-as-catch-can proposition, the denizens of the netherworld addicted to cocaine and publicity, neither compulsion ever completely sated. Club animals steadily working the nerves, crossing the river Styx for a Latin glitz transfusion with a Univision press conference/cocktail party on Fisher Island, the let's-all-stay-rich-and-removed theme park. The network launching its new effort, The Chabeli Show, hosted by Julio Iglesias's 21-year-old daughter Isabel Iglesias, the international "supermodel/celebrity" doing an Hispanic Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous number on her more fabulous jet-set friends. Our own chaotic late arrival by golf cart verging on the pathetic: The car breaking down on the ferry, security personnel swarming around with walkie-talkies ("We have a situation..."), Chabeli waving goodbye from a yacht, the caged parrots on the clubhouse grounds venting their contempt. Life can be so cruel, even on the glamour beat.

Down to the district, the village without pity or shame, sort of a hip version of Bosnia with rebel factions of promoters. A fake bomb threat at "Fat Black Pussycat," the caller admitting that she'd been paid $50, and undoubtedly given a few extra drink tickets. WOW Bar and "Girls in the Night" fighting for turf in trendy Sapphoville, the Girls crew throwing a go-go dance contest at Third Rail on Friday night, Lisa Cox set to open the lesbian club Purple Orchid on Lincoln Road. Sinatra Bar, the classic rise and fall study of internal club warfare: -- big deal model-press-Donald Trump-clogged opening assault some months ago, hard times, a drink-till-you-puke closing party last Monday night. Three new South Beach-based Italian restaurants in the development phase, the upscale Old San Juan taking over a former Collins Avenue crackhouse, Blue Star principals Kerry Simon and Warren Coulter leasing Debbie Ohanian's restaurant space, the old Gatti's on West Avenue. The trio enviably escaping the summertime let's-hate-each-other blues, spending the past weekend in Havana, our own pitched retreat from the nightmare slightly more localized.

The taking-the-high-road-tour commencing with a brief idyll amongst the valid at The Foundlings -- architect Billy Kearns, currently working with Morris Lapidus on Jennifer Rubell's upcoming restaurant, art collectors Ruth and Marvin Sackner -- for a Sengalese-theme dinner party. Leita Kaldi, the forever buoyant director of the club, leaving Miami society behind and joining the Peace Corps for a two-year stint in the "blissfully black and warm" Senegal, Judith Gatti of the Gatti restaurant family stepping in to fill very big shoes. Van Dome, the Jessica Rabbit-style chanteuse Laura Diane Bradley working the early evening weekend trade, the soothing medley of popular standards ending with the onslaught of the "hormonally obsessed, gotta dance crowd." Drifting off course to the Saturday night crush, Les Bains waitress Danielle Loncar celebrating a birthday in the VIP area, Loncar totally over the rabidly heterosexual son of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, another unwelcome brush with fame and lust. Drag legend Kitty Meow in fine form at Paragon, sporting a new eminently sensible sweetheart tattoo -- his own artfully adorned good name. The love affair with oneself, in a fractious world, being the one passion that never dies.

Lots of style, passion, and snap the same night at Stephen Talkhouse, the Rhythm Foundation presenting exiled Cuban entertainer Albita Rodriguez, the k.d. lang of Cuban country music. The band tearing through a selection of guajira and son rhythms, tap-dancing and playing machetes on occasion, a sizable contingent of lesbians happily lapping it all up. Thoroughly uplifting entertainment, a decorously translated postperformance interview with Rodriguez -- who arrived in town only four months ago via Colombia and Mexico -- turning out to be an instructive example of happiness under pressure: "To know where you're going, you have to know where you've been. One day I will play in Cuba again, because I will last longer than Castro. And here, there is the smell of the sea, other compatriots, memories. If you can't have the real bread, there's always Miami Beach.

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Tom Austin