Swelter 41

Life's a banquet, most poor suckers are starving, and the world's out of whack, past proportion and reason. And now, dear God, even money -- pretty much the only thing we care about lately -- coming under fire. Socialites rioting in Mexico, all in a tizzy over the failing luxury quotient in the land of eternal poverty. The Third World approach to the politics of consumption, no doubt, looming in America's future. Ladies-who-lunch in New York protesting the ruinous expense of Le Cirque's inner-circle menu as the poor grovel on Fifth Avenue. Miami gals sweating the overhead on the domestic-help crisis. Power wives in Beverly Hills paying retail for lifestyle-support services, the quacks and coke dealers, and mobile-exercise vans making house calls with soothing workout instructors. In the meantime, we all can nibble or gorge, as the case may be, at the consolations of life -- food, sex, culture, a laugh or two -- and take our place in the floating hustle. A nasty scramble, save for the occasional munificence of privileges and perks, the mercy of second acts, grand gestures, and big finishes.

A dead heat on the cultural carousel, bright moments in a social program marked by an unceasing appetite for the squalid. Work and love, Freud's overrated passport to happiness, unfortunately intruding on good intentions, missing the Johnny Cash concert at the Gusman Center downtown: Cash taking the Tony Bennett/Tom Jones path to rebirth via MTV cultdom, fighting the cruel whimsy of renown with American Recordings. Beaming back to Berkeley, circa 1968, with a Loray Mystik show at World Resources on Lincoln Road, content in the vaguely alienating circumstance of ethnologically attuned nice people. An interesting reprieve from our normal milieu of heroin addicts, pimps, and mobsters, all the gypsies, tramps, and thieves that make nightlife so compelling in a charming Runyonesque way. Another sampler pack of sensitive souls turning up at the Miami Light Project presentation of monologuist Eric Bogosian, the downside of alternative culture being the deflating realization that way too many other fans share your singular tastes.

That said, Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead, at Maurice Gusman Hall, deep within the terminally mundane University of Miami campus, turning out to be an absolutely riveting evening. Bogosian gagging on "the cutting edge of the black hole of the American psyche" hype but still, bless him, pissed off at pretty much everything. A series of character vignettes revealing a bleak, coruscating, and sublimely vulgar Armenian vision, nailing the innocent and guilty alike. Somehow each archetype of insanity striking a responsive personal chord: from aging wastrels ("My one principle in life is never miss a party") to lunatics, criminals, and a rich shit immersed in I'm-all-right-Jack-fatuousness and the art of barbecue. Our own psychic niche somewhere between a rueful suburbanite ("My whole existence now, the good life, is a reward for just saying no") and a psychotic madman, screaming "blow me" at various bourgeois institutions and plotting obscene scenarios: "I'd like to mount a huge pig right up the ass, simultaneously smoking a crack pipe on its back, while Sally Fields straps on a dildo and fucks me from behind.... Blow me!"

Tough love, tough performance art, Bogosian pushing the limits with a parody of his adoring audience ("So, what'd you all do, have dinner at some trendy Third World restaurant, Thai or maybe Indian, where the food's all served by waiters who can't afford their own native cuisine?") and a dead-on impersonation of a dangerous seething-with-ambition young fan, seeking agent contacts and the warming glow of fame. Chilling stuff, and accordingly, pointedly not crashing Bogosian's postconcert dinner at Starfish, stalking monologuists beyond even our infinite capacity for self-debasement. Afterward the fast set assembling at Norma's on the Beach! a nouvelle Caribbean experience eerily mirroring Bogosianland, the shiitake-mushroom staff gushing over indigenous Jamaican dishes "adjusted to the American palate." Across Lincoln Road, the homeless sleeping fitfully in doorways -- misery escalating concordantly with rising chic levels -- some friends back from Cuba that day, brimming with tales of true squalor and absurdity. Stray dogs roaming around yacht clubs, former aristocrats raising pigs and chickens, children selling themselves for a dollar. In the horror, desperate citizens seeking Hollywood news, asking about Forrest Gump and the Academy Awards. One gentleman touring his family's devastated estate and recapturing a cherished memory: "At least I got a picture of the bathroom where I first masturbated."

Other dinners, other parties and sociosexual scenarios. Amnesia, taking in Gary James's Thursday-night party, James also working full-time as Amnesia's promotions director. All the usual girls, die-hards, and diversions: Zee Bladerunner, a black go-go dancer in white tights and Rollerblades; some Marlin Perkins type selling photo ops with alligators and snakes. A preview party at the Embers restaurant, owners Steve Polisar, Sid Lewis, and Larry Schwartz re-creating the classic Beach watering hole, the original Embers space now occupied by Paragon. Lots of simple but well-prepared food -- chops, fish, and the trademark apple fritters -- along with a redolent Sam Robbins interior design: dark wood paneling and blinds, flattering lighting, and old publicity photos. Very nice, despite the usual struggles of courtesy dining, actually reduced to consuming someone's leftovers at one point -- the sensitive need not apply for comp duty.

On to the Luciano Pavarotti festivities, this week's installment of pop history commencing on Fisher Island with a press conference, the great showman saluting his colleagues A Tibor Rudas, Judy Drucker of the Concert Association of Florida, the City of Miami Beach, et al. A and being perky: "Judy gave me my American debut here 30 years ago; I've learned to never say no when she asks for something.... The things that give me the most pleasure in life are performing, friendship, making love -- well, I am a normal man -- and eating. Notice, I save that for last." Sunday, the main event, a miraculous golden afternoon after a gloomy morning, as if Drucker had wrestled God down to the ground and changed the weather. Opera Woodstock throughout, video monitors and speakers lining the beach: Two city blocks of private seating on plywood floors, the multitudes stretching into infinity. Soprano Cynthia Lawrence wearing a diaphanous white gown, making for an arresting visual clash with Pavarotti's Miami attire -- jeans, a Hawaiian-style shirt, black jacket, and cap -- the great tenor plunging into a specially designed program, ranging from "Ave Maria" to "Donna non vidi mai": "I dedicate this song to all the beautiful ladies, and especially Mrs. Gleason. How sweet it is."

The social frenzy of intermission, benefactors using cellular phones to gloat about expensive seat positions, Gianni Versace watching the proceedings from his aerie on Ocean Drive with Sly Stallone, the actor going backstage after the show. In the front row, a crowd shamelessly swarming over Gloria Estefan, one seasoned Beach veteran noting that "the wealthy are worse with celebrities than ordinary people -- they think they're just as good as them, entitled to an autograph." From the $1000-a-pop entitlement seats, a stunning second act as the sun set: The Florida Philharmonic Orchestra cranking up in black tie, the University of Miami Chorale framed against feathery cirrus clouds, a spectacle taking on a certain trompe l'oeil quality. Encore after encore, concluding with a fireworks display, shimmering over a flotilla of yachts anchored offshore. The troops, everyone from Elie Wiesel to Donald Lefton, filing down for a postconcert dinner in a vast party tent on the beach, Pavarotti sitting on a dais with the invited-by-protocol set. Speeches and proclamations, the core group -- Lenore Toby-Simmons, Charles Cinnamon, I. Stanley Levine -- looking relieved, everyone having pulled off a civic triumph. An amazing afternoon, and a true Miami Beach event A grand, absurd, and staunchly operatic -- bringing back the glory days, the flash of Carl Fisher and Jackie Gleason. The Teflon city -- built for glamour, pitiless and yet forever captivating -- down at times, but never down for the count.

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Tom Austin