In Miami, ground zero of bad taste, can such a thing as terminal tastelessness really be said to exist? Stay here long enough and you're not fit to live anywhere else: A gaudy spree of no-holds-barred behavior eventually washes away all remaining standards of acceptable civic conduct. Over time other American cities begin to seem quaint and outmoded, occupied by a bunch of tight-asses who haven't made the leap into aesthetic and moral chaos. There's an exhilarating empowerment in debasement and shamelessness, and luckily it's almost impossible to be unconscionably vulgar here, especially when someone else is always going lower than you are.

Even on the restaurant rounds, ostensibly a reprieve from the agitation of clubs, the conversation always seems to turn to the dark, the inappropriate, and the downright grotesque. The dining-as-gossip-fodder tour begins on Miami Beach, always in the vanguard of questionable taste, though there are oases in the wasteland. Like say, Mex Mess, located within the former Cafe Manana space, which opened years ago with Albita -- then in her earnest who-needs-makeup era. Another trash-driven dinner party, and apropos of nothing, someone recounts a particularly nutty vignette from New York City, his hired limousine driver reminiscing about famous passengers. For one, the truly reprehensible O.J. Simpson, in his pretrial period, getting into the limo with a cellular phone and immediately calling all of his friends. Simpson in a kiss-and-tell mood, gloating over having "fucked" Katarina Witt, the sweetheart of the ice-show circuit. Talk about depressing alliances of fame.

Although not pretty, another tale -- this one told in Lulu's tribute-to-Elvis room, appropriately enough -- had a certain poetry of the big time: Barbra Streisand at one Manhattan party or another, in an I-remember-Elvis mode. Apparently the midperiod Presley painted her toenails in the first flush of passion. Say what you will, the King had a way with the ladies.

Then it's on to a blissful interlude, a dinner without gossip at Moe's Cantina, located in the old Stephen Talkhouse space on Collins Avenue A the latter possibly the last, basic-human-values club on the Beach. Naturally I never spent much time there, although the adjacent Velvet A now a parking lot -- was a particular favorite. Times have changed, what with the Talkhouse transformed into a fake Mexican hacienda by co-owners Morgan Craft and Connor Lumpkin; it's suitable for families and the club trade, with lots of good food at reasonable prices. A fellow early-bird diner, Rosie O'Donnell -- new mother and an actual cheery celebrity -- helping along the simple-pleasures theme. And just for the sake of historic relativity, Lumpkin chatting about the old Velvet days: "It was so degenerate --food, we all had so much fun there."

Another night, another Mexican/Southwestern dinner with a veteran of the club circuit, Jody McDonald opening Tita's on Espanola Way with partners Noel Busby and Lawrence Turner. Tita's managing to be nice, hip, and tasty -- not the easiest trick -- with a trendy crowd and interesting industrial elements, from exposed pipes to lighting elements made of iron baskets. McDonald, the former tea dance and "Uranus" promoter, taking a born-again approach to his new career: "No drag shows, no parties -- we're just going to run a real restaurant and hope for the best."

Not a bad idea, although the restaurant party circuit does have a certain charm. The Embers hosting a reception for NARAS, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which just opened a Florida branch. Mike Greene, NARAS president, flying in to take care of business, as Elvis used to say. On to more taxing atmospheres: If it's Thursday, it must be Bice at La Voile Rouge -- the money-meets-sex equation floating all over the place. One well-heeled dog, who'd been through several expensive divorces, now immersed in the sorrows of gin, groaning, "Next time around, I'm buying a house for a woman I hate -- it'll be cheaper." A young promoter from New York lobbing out a blind item concerning a trio of rich cheapskates who lure female victims with fake coke in the form of powdered nasal spray: "One girl convinced herself she was high, did them all, and then sneezed -- her whole nose fell apart."

That same night the grand-opening festivities for the Tudor Restaurant and Lounge commenced, with Kelly Klein, among others, turning out for the occasion. Celebrity chairwoman Traci Lords -- teen porn star gone mainstream actress/singer -- accompanied by club legend/Melrose Place actor John Enos, one of Madonna's old flames. Maybe it's me, but isn't there a beautiful symmetry to that whole romantic triangle?

And isn't it timely for the National Enquirer to be working on an upcoming season-of-the-dog pictorial featuring famous actors united in dissipation with bimbettes? Alas, that sex thing -- famous or otherwise -- didn't come up for me on the club rounds, although the hateful buff boys and girls were all having a grand old time. While I missed the we're-drug-free reopening parties for Twist and Groove Jet, I somehow found time for "Lover Boy" at Les Bains. Steamy as all get-out, the appearance of former New York cop/Playboy Bunny Carol Shaya at Les Bains's "Stag Lounge," apparently vibrating lesbo and hetero gonads alike.

As usual, everyone was talking about the club drug busts, claiming that the operation -- motivated by a television expose -- was accomplished in a highly visual style. Village People cops in masks neglected to arrest any real dealers, but made the local news as the forces of decency. Outside on Washington Avenue, a ray of light arrived with one formerly decadent club kitten gone legitimate. In the old days, when she was living in poorville, I'd buy her a hamburger now and then. Now, bless her worthy heart, she's respectable and living large as a happy housefrau, domestic engineering defined as "fuck, suck, cook, clean."

The next night, the appetite whetted for more food and merriment with an edge of renown, I took an opulent dinner at the celeb-ridden China Grill with a woman of means and pronounced refinement. Splendid platters of East-meets-West cuisine go a long way toward lightening the mood, although I may have miscalculated with a story of youthful erotic triumph: eating too much foie gras at a dinner party and barely managing to complete the sex act without throwing up all over the object of my affection. For some reason my date seemed unamused. Maybe it's a guy thing.

At that point it seemed advisable to steer the conversation around to safer and more inclusive subjects. Now that Miami's the winter White House for the famous, the fashionable, and the good looking, society is one long regret: You're either pissed if uninvited or bewildered when the social scramble does pay off. Only the celebrated needed to apply at Chris Blackwell's gathering at the Marlin Hotel, held in honor of U2's Bono and Adam Clayton, the protocol list encompassing Quincy Jones, Kate Moss, and Johnny Depp. And just for a smattering of sociosexual friction -- the mark of any good party -- Naomi Campbell materialized, maintaining a chilly distance from ex-boyfriend Clayton.

It's a small world after all: Jimmy Buffett (now working on a rock opera called Don't Stop the Carnival) and Bono running into some trouble -- the police mistakenly firing at their plane -- on the way down to Blackwell's Jamaican estate. That must have been an interesting vacation experience. As was, no doubt, Regine inviting Egon von Furstenberg and Diane Sawyer, of all people, to her Caribbean retreat. Up or down the status scale, a comp is a comp.

Unfortunately, my whining about other people's fame and fortune exhausted my date, who left early and missed all the action. In the mood for an after-dinner stroll and some research on a recent civic movement to tighten the noose around porn shops, I crossed Fifth Street and uncovered the Pleasure Emporium. Still vital at this point, it's a virtual Home Depot of pornography A gay, straight, what have you -- with a one-stop shopping approach. The usual dildos and such, along with some interesting fringe material: videos of big-stick wonders actually screwing themselves, plus a series of Virgin Lust movies, the virgins invariably sporting biker tattoos. For private screenings, there's the back room with handy paper towel dispensers. All of us can get behind the masturbation concept, but the little loverboy who subtly suggested that I join him in a booth was sadly mistaken. He wasn't even cute -- or, more important, famous.

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Tom Austin