Swelter 28

Unlike the drawing rooms of Henry James and Edith Wharton, redolent with intricate ironies, the comedy of manners that is contemporary nightlife inevitably degenerates into broad, knockdown farce. But still, the modern velvet jungle remains a wilderness of artifice where image is everything, one long hand jive of self-delusion, fantasy, and one-upmanship. Predictably, even the most carefully cultivated personalities tend to unravel after midnight. Rather than put on airs, it's easier, and far more sensible, to trick others into thinking you're worse than you really are. That way one always comes off as a pleasant surprise rather than yet another disappointment. In the societal circus, a floating fun house in which only the strongest clowns survive, hang on long enough and nothing counts.

Appropriately enough, the diary of a journalistic jester commencing at a new cartoon wonderland, the bar-restaurant Swirl Shop, located within the old Barrio/Bicycle Beach Cafe space. In the interests of avoiding the let-us-now-praise-the-press grand opening this week, I took a blissful beer or two there before the media jackals' onslaught. Owner Digby Leibovitz and designer Rolf Seckinger creating an amusing cafe in the neo-bohemia-goes-Pee-wee's-Playhouse genre. The palace of whimsy incorporating a wall of AstroTurf, cocktail tables topped with sandboxes and toys, and a trough of water running atop the bar. As ever, my professional interests focusing on the kitchen, nibbling on chef Joseph Minotto's tapas-like selections: Zsa Zsa's smoked salmon quesadilla, Tara mi su Solomon, and Twinkies. In thematic sync with the principles of kitsch, the hostess doing a truck-stop sweetheart number: "Honey, nothing's shaking tonight but my ass." Tell me about it.

If it's Thursday, it must be La Voile Rouge, the Tommy Pooch empire of high-jinks dinner theater gearing up for another season. The last surviving nonpsychotic Beach promoter on something of a roll lately: three restaurant nights, his own mini-pizza-parlor chain, and an upcoming return to clubs, cohosting the Friday-night party Danceteria at Warsaw. Partner John Argento down from New York City for the deal, and, like any nightlife legend, drawing a blank on the halcyon Eighties: "They say it was fun, but I can't remember anything." Argento, whose career encompasses eight incarnations of New York Danceterias, looking forward to his Miami debut:

"I like to do Day-Glo nightlife, black lights and video projections -- we're using all the stuff from the Ritz -- keep the decor playful, tongue-in-cheek. At Warsaw maybe do an Andy Warhol lounge upstairs, play some New Wave in the front room, and keep some pumping house and acid jazz in the main room. Three years ago I was going to open a Danceteria on Washington Avenue, but the zoning board shot me down. One of the board members came over afterward, apologized, and then offered to lease me his property. That move even beat New York."

Miami Beach, a perennial contender in the amateur corruption division -- everyone's always eager to screw somebody, if only they could get it together. This being election season, political encounters inevitably cropping up. South Beach's fave-rave mayoral aspirant, Andrew Delaplaine -- the first candidate of the surreal -- having an endless series of fun fundraisers. With any luck he'll throw out all the rascals, and life will be a party again. At Lua social critic and occasional doorman Gilbert Stafford rhapsodizing about Delaplaine's kickoff reception: "Very A-gay, very cruisy -- even I got laid that night. There was one 50-year-old man abusing his date by inhaling helium from the balloons, then talking funny. A perfect moment." Down to city hall, in a rare instance of political engagement, finding myself chatting with Miami Beach City Commissioner Martin Shapiro: "About ten years ago I had an interest in that club Biscayne Baby, down in the Grove. You wrote it up in the Herald, and our business just skyrocketed. Anyway, I've always wanted to thank you for helping us out."

My pleasure, my courtesy, my club ghetto. And although Shapiro's been voting my way on the Lincoln Road and Portofino projects - thanks, Marty -- professional fairness and sheer common sense demanded my appearance at a North Bay Road fundraiser for his opponent Matti Bower. Felicitously enough, the reception hosted by everyone's favorite realtor -- Esther Percal, of Gerard International Realty -- and the energetic Wallace Tutt, contractor for deeply serious homes: Thomas Kramer, Cher, and Gianni Versace, among others. Throughout, Tutt's own showplace, currently listed by Percal's firm, evidencing a certain invincible allure. No mere bungalow this, a setting capable of soothing the most savage vulgarian.

A tasty little party, polite and restrained, the realtor set on the yellow brick road to the Oz of deals, dropping celeb bites of a personal interest: Jon Secada and Rony Seikaly acquiring properties sort of within sugar-borrowing distance from my overinflated bungalow. Next it'll be loud parties, paparazzi stalking homeowners' meetings, and, horror of horrors, publicity. In between assaults on the buffet table, moving on to other agendas and professions: Jeffrey Thrasher, an interior designer of rare discretion and taste, along with Israel Sands, of Flowers & Flowers. Sands forever dangling dictums of style: "I'm not interested in anything complicated but myself." The mix leavened by Percal's clients of noble birth, most notably the elegant Johanna Walter, who'd flown in from Europe for a respite in the newly sympatico Miami.

And then a long chat with a witty gentleman, my new best friend eviscerating a grossly distasteful guest: "There he is, still inflicting himself on decent people after all he's done. Sometimes, I suppose, it's easier to go on covered in blood, like Lady Macbeth, rather than retire from the stage and attempt to wipe it all off." Wit, as Sheridan noted in The School for Scandal, depends on malice. With some reluctance, making contact with the more judiciously spoken political set: Bower, the focus of the evening, beyond down to earth and looking content amid a reprieve from more mundane campaign circumstances: "Wallace and I met at the Miami Design Preservation League negotiations, when he represented Gianni Versace, who was lobbying to tear down that hotel next to his house -- what was the name of it? Oh right, the Revere. Anyway, we fought and argued endlessly, but I'd always go up to him afterward and remind him that it was nothing personal."

My feelings exactly, and a modus operandi that serves as the foundation to success, particularly in Miami. The weekend, and more mingling opportunities loom on the horizon. Saks Fifth Avenue Bal Harbour hosting a benefit for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the Murder Mystery Extravaganza serving as a cozy metaphor for ballroom society: Watch your back lest you be slaughtered, and the biggest diamond always wins. On South Beach, district pioneer Tomata du Plenty presenting his "Floozies" exhibition at Ted's Hideaway, amid the new world of commercialism. The Virtua Cafe unveiling the Red Room. Caffe Torino opening in the long dormant I Tre Merli space. Cafe Manana evolving into Mex Mess. And of course the usual club fray, enough to send St. Francis of Assisi back to the devil of dissipation.

Somehow the clarion call of nightlife boot camp having limited appeal, an innocent stroll on Washington Avenue in search of ice cream proving philosophically profitable. A series of acquaintances wondering about the night's social program, wanting me to go somewhere -- anywhere -- of an exclusive nature, some mystical VIP room of the great beyond. Unfortunately in a marked-down world there's nothing untainted left. The scrambling uncompables chase mirages, intimidated and humbled by media creations. Social columnists are closer to the nexus, but forever conscious of being beggars at the banquet, indulged and tolerated for a certain outre usefulness. At the top there's always the gnawing fear of stumbling off the treadmill. Nobody really has a clue: There's no secret society where everyone's having more fun than you are, and a good time starts at home.

On the let's-get-happy wanderings, sheer professionalism demanding a midnight pit stop at Kremlin. Filmmaker Melanie Morningstar shooting a segment for Eurotrash, Jean-Paul Gaultier's campy newsmagazine show on England's Channel 4; Monti Rock III, my black sheep uncle in the cheap renown game, scheduled to appear on the show. As the Rock's personal image consultant/Greek chorus -- talk about existing in the unholy shadows -- I'm always happy to help with fame maintenance. After all, Monti is family. And more important, I've never met a television camera I didn't like.

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Tom Austin