Swelter 4

And so there we are at The Forge, the palace of excess, working the great game show of American life. Another week in the popularity sweepstakes, another a-star-is-stillborn story, another feast on the gravy train. The clean-living Tommy Pooch celebrating a birthday amid the nomadic beasts of pleasure, dodging an older woman dancing through shekel central, the life of her own private party. Owner Shareef Malnik, a part-time actor, hosting film producer Ben Effraim, planning a six-part opus called Miami Sizzles. The first installment, Hello, She Lied, apparently in the "erotic romanticism" vein. Malnik appearing with swimwear-model-turned-actress Kathy Ireland, ex-club dog John Enos, formerly a Madonna boy toy, playing Ireland's love interest. As it happens, privy to Enos's own streak of romantic yearning, having once flipped through his mislaid Filofax. A low-rent move, though spectacularly productive. All the predictable home phone numbers -- from Linda Evangelista to Sean Penn and John Kennedy, Jr. -- as well as some startling diary entries of the love-sucks ilk, heartfelt and obviously painful. The tuggings of the soul touch the most unlikely beings, and there are always a few revelations out on the town.

Satiated in the oasis of plenty as the parched lap at the waters, stumbling out of the house -- a celebrity-free trade zone -- for a night at the movies. Appropriately enough, nodding through The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll's tough downtown poetry transformed into well-meaning dreck. Marky Mark, who we last witnessed at Warsaw performing his trademark cock-teasing routine, making a nonembarrassing bid for muscle legitimacy. Back to the shooting gallery of Miami Beach, a friend talking of Barcelona, where twelve-year-old addicts play basketball and inject heroin on the streets, the government helpfully providing sanitary needle dispensers. As if on cue, a call coming in from Europe, a regionally famous heroin addict in exile -- known for having very young things around in sordid circumstances -- spending the summer on methadone. Unlike us, the prince of darkness doing the grand tour in style: surfing, riding around in a convertible, three models-cum-nurses attending to his recovery. It's a small, ugly world, the support group featuring a sixteen-year-old lass Madonna once toyed with to torture John Enos, assorted Nurse Ratcheds, and Shareef Malnik's former girlfriend. Naturally enough the conversation revolving around the golden arm of Miami:

"I made a deal with God on Good Friday -- keep me away from that shithole world of South Beach, those fucking clubs, and I'll quit dope. Maybe it's time to write a Philadelphia kind of thing about drugs. You know, it's no wonder I became what I did A just look at my affinity group: Jim Morrison, Baudelaire, and Tommy Pooch." But then perhaps we're all guilty of original sin, plunging sensitive youth, the poster children of the new millennium, into the bowels of the netherworld.

From there, staying well above ground, letting various social opportunities drift by. Monti Rock III, "the outrageous, the unthinkable," hosting a "Tres Bizarre" alternative talk show at Cafe La Bonne Crepe in Fort Lauderdale, the Rock always in step with the times. The "Thursday Nite Live" series at the Center for the Fine Arts, a provocative Andres Serrano giving the white-wine set something meaty to talk about. Monday madness at Embers, suffused with the siren song of models. Norma Jean Abraham having a birthday party at S.O.B.'s, bringing a morsel from her dad's automobile dealership: Rolando Martinez, former political person and current car hawker, flying out to Los Angeles for a technical advisory stint with Steven Spielberg, now working on a Bay-of-Pigs-meets-Watergate movie in his spare time. The great force of Spielberg, the man who's stayed home, stayed focused, and beat every game.

And really, why go out when there's work to be done, and the telephone is so handy. The 79-year-old Angier Biddle Duke -- rake, ambassador, and scion of a vast tobacco fortune -- departing Earth with a cheering aplomb, struck by an errant automobile while Rollerblading in Southampton. Nick Nolte looking at a home on famed stretch Brickell Avenue, the family-man-gone-snatch-crazy Kevin Costner probably on the Miami track, as well, happily married celebrities never seeming to take second homes here. Johnny Depp, normally given to quietly shacking up at the Raleigh with Kate Moss, sucked into the glittering vortex of Gianni Versace, host-with-the-most. Depp, a hometown boy from podunk Medley, joining the endlessly expanding roll call of celebrated house guests. One day, no doubt, the Clintons will take their rightful place on the Versace all-star team.

Calle Ocho, the land of light on a splendid Saturday evening, taking in Albita Rodriguez's show for the first time, the last remaining quasi-hip American to make the obligatory pilgrimage to Centro Vasco. Since our initial encounters with the budding legend some years back, Albita has evolved into an iconographic figurehead of chic, the isn't-Miami-cool nexus of the fashionable world. In her days as a freshly minted exile artist of authentic Cuban country music, Albita had talent to burn but no act, standing around in butchwear, earnest and wooden. Now under the stylistic guidance of the useful -- Emilio Estefan, Madonna, Ingrid Casares, Gianni Versace -- and the hype of famous fans, from Jack Nicholson to Liza Minnelli, Albita has become a true star-is-born story, learning well from the masters.

Miami is a fluid town, and Albita's climb has been especially meteoric. There's the upcoming album, released by Estefan's Crescent Moon imprint; the record company is also paying for English lessons. She just played Versace's latest fashion show in New York, and now owns her own house in Westchester. A new darling of the press, glorified in Spin, Penthouse, Interview (nicely profiled by super realtor Esther Percal), and all the other chattering-classes magazines. She's slick, smart, and adept at working that sexual ambiguity thing, becoming a one-name star on the order of Barbra Streisand, one of her idols. And on the cusp, perhaps, of selling out, moussing up the hair always being the first step. But in the meantime, she's at an utterly fabulous pivotal point -- like Elvis during his triumphant Tupelo concert, shortly before the trivialization of Ed Sullivan -- and she's put together a real show, one of the true treasures of Miami culture.

Beforehand, our party subjected to the usual series of petty humiliations A what happened to the mi nightclub es su nightclub policy of Little Havana? -- and obligatory pitches: "No more Kmart clothes for Albita. We're going for a cross between Beny More and Marlene Dietrich." The greatly expanded lounge overflowing, our knack for pleasantly negotiating the unpleasant -- when it's time for the ugly, we're your man -- eventually paying off with a ringside table. Albita totally done, totally right, emerging in a white Santera-style outfit accented with bright-red lipstick, Louise Brooks gone cha-cha, almost satanically glamorous. A very tight band offsetting some vocal flaws, Albita relaxed, goofing with the audience, and orchestrating a postmodernist deconstruction of every known entertainment discipline. It's a curious cross between a jingoistic Cubanisma rally, an evangelistic wallow, and a Las Vegas revue: early Marky Mark rap moves, Elvis karate chops and sneers, stadium-rock exhortations, the melody-quoting techniques of jazz.

The time warp back to old Cuba marred by a screening of her overly cunning "
Que manera" video from The Specialist soundtrack, although there's plenty of tradition on hand. A Cuban version of American clogging, the group stamping out insistent staccato beats in chancletas, the wooden sandals worn while using rural outhouses. An a cappella number followed by the street music of carnival, the band banging on machetes and cowbells, Albita seguing into an elegant dance with the handsome young conga player. Throughout, transformed into a rabid convert lacking rhythm, madly waving a red napkin for the "Chang cents" number, cleaning out all those evil Anglo spirits. And somehow the nationalistic fervor of "Que culpa tengo yo" ("Why am I to blame for being born in Cuba?/ Why am I to blame for my blood rising?") renews our own ambivalent patriotism, a twisted love affair with a fractious and truly deranged country, a land marked by nightmares, unamusing absurdities, and sheer unmitigated wonder.

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Tom Austin