It's been a week of limited social engagement, removed from the hoopla and horror, the spirits soaring amid a host of quiet rewards and epiphanies in the oddest places. For instance, dinner at Curry's Restaurant on upper Collins Avenue, the place that time forgot. For some unfathomable reason, the interior is a surreal homage to the vintage glories of Hawaii, festooned with faded murals and equipped with a soundtrack from 1955, Perry Como's and Don Ho's greatest hits wafting over an odd collection of discount-minded tourists. And a waitress who was a pure delight, a recent refugee from modern Hawaii who took the first available job she came across in Miami, hustling sizzling platters of steak in a demented luau-motifed eatery. Like all of us, she was counting the blessings of employment, while reaching for the big philosophical picture: "I'd be happy if I were in my right mind."

Actually, that's pretty much my take on life. The taste for psycho-Beach milieus whetted, it seemed appropriate to take in the Jekyll & Hyde cast party at Cheetah Club. Throughout, the place worked as a time warp to Forties glamour, the building having once housed the legendary Chandler's Steak House; before that, Fan & Bill's restaurant occupied the space, hyping Harry S Truman as a client. Since that heyday, the nostalgia-suffused ambiance A over-the-top and thoroughly wonderful A hasn't changed much; it's still dominated by whorehouse-red accents and an orgiastic, vulgar opulence. These days the decor has become a kind of permanent talisman. In between inhalations of French chef Bernard Marcel Goupy's excellent hors d'oeuvres A no onion rings or kreplach at the Cheetah Club A the place's regulars applauded the arrival of Jekyll & Hyde stars Robert Cuccioli and Linda Eder. Only sort of famous but very nice, and, God knows, nightlife people of any epoch can identify with Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal story, the study of good and evil.

In the purely good category, a dinner engagement with old friends (always ready with an item or a kind word) dictated a jaunt down to South Miami for economy sushi. One of the guests, who teaches kids in Overtown, brought along a handwritten dictionary of cutting-edge slang compiled by a female student. The language is rich stuff, perfect for an "up there" book deal with "green-cheez" potential. In the meantime, the juicier material will serve as fodder for some H.L. Mencken-inspired reportage, notes on the way we talk now. Yet again black culture serves as the wellspring for American popular culture, the vital creative impetus that eventually will make its way to white-bread malls everywhere.

The aging suburbanites in attendance immediately determined that they were "pimps" and "suckers" -- meaning "soft boys" -- and maybe a tad "chizad" (crazy as all get-out). Across the board we were "O.B.," played out and definitely missing out on the more lurid aspects of romance, the subject of some particularly vibrant terminology. "Ridin' on my dick," "sweatin'," and "jokin'" apply to both sexes, all of them defined as "someone all up on you because they like how you look, the way you act, or what you got." The term "deeze nuts" is affectionate shorthand for one's member, also applied to both genders. To lure in the opposite sex, one's words and style ("mack," "games," "tech") are important but do not guarantee success. A reluctant woman might be considered "crooked," some "fucked-up bitch ass" who may not be "strickly dickly" (wholeheartedly heterosexual). The word splak refers both to having sex and stealing a car. The promiscuous are "hoochies"; for them a "jimmy" or a "cage" -- a condom -- might be in order, or else they'll fall prey to the double-entendre inherent in engaging in carefree intercourse ("RIP").

In other strains of interpersonal relations, the critical issue of fighting for respect -- everyone's greatest challenge -- is thoroughly represented. To "size" is to try someone's patience, and if a friend is "willin'" -- acting stupid -- one either "eases" (rolls the eyes heavenward) or tells the fool in question to "recognize" A understand who they're dealing with. In some cases it's better to "flex," i.e., walk away. In extreme instances one can "smoke 'em" with a "gak" A shoot to kill. Conversely, if someone "breaks you off," they're giving you something big, from money on down. The world of recreation-meets-profit entails "cessed" (being stoned) and "slangin'" (dealing drugs). More innocently, one could go "jookin'" (dancing) or do a little "chillin'," a term that's already passed into cliche. The heartbreaker of mankind, "no love," means exactly what it does elsewhere -- no love.

Another night, another party -- the KVG Colour Spa and Salon debut in the Van Dyke Building -- and everyone's jokin' the joker, the social reporter without a grip. The salon, owned by acclaimed hair colorist Kelly Van Gogh, showed off its facial and massage capabilities, as well as displayed a talent for entertaining with a certain grandeur. An agitated rock combo played in one corner, and the place was packed with Brie-nibbling, martini-sipping guests of the I-want-to-be-beautiful-at-any-cost school. A floating covey of models A all brutal grace, like egrets with bad personal habits A rounded out the social nexus, fueling the eternal frisson of envy, loathing, and figure warfare among the less comely. I clung to an eddy in the whippet whirlpool and picked up a tale of a homegirl made good. Kerri Scharlin, the daughter of local banker/real estate tycoon Howard Scharlin and a faint acquaintance from my high school days, apparently has made something of an impression in New York City as a media-friendly neoconceptualist artist.

After a bit of research, Bob Ickes's clever New York magazine piece on Kerrimania from late last year was unearthed. At Jose Freire's gallery in SoHo, Scharlin put together the "Interview" show, a collection of make-believe magazine profiles of herself -- commissioned, edited, and paid for by Scharlin. Each bold new art piece was written, illustrated, and laid out in the exact style of various magazines A GQ, People, Vanity Fair, the Star, Mademoiselle, Premiere, Self, Psychology Today, Vogue, Interview A with Scharlin featured in a variety of artful poses: on a StairMaster, in bra and panties, drinking Evian. The works sold like hotcakes.

Writers who participated in her self-glorification included Jesse Kornbluth, Ron Rosenbaum, and Glenn O'Brien; photographers included Annie Liebovitz and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a Miami native. Scharlin hinted that each documentarian was paid according to a secret rate based on their desire to sell their name value. As a Miami girl, Scharlin didn't pay retail, either, and even gloated a bit over the cut-rate prices of the working press: "In some cases it was cookies." As a bold declaration of naked narcissism, it sounds as if the installation may have worked on a weird sound-bite-of-the-apocalypse level.

In the meantime, I'm professionally compelled to glorify celebrities and their haunts for a regular salary. Over the Thanksgiving holidays, Marcia Clark -- the prosecutor with the mostest -- stayed in Coconut Grove, dodging tabloid photographers and missing all the better parties. Oprah Winfrey, the woman I want to be, and Carolina Herrera, still cha-chaing after all these years, passed through town this past weekend. Johnny Depp, who may be shooting a movie here this winter, turned up at Bar None. In other breaking Depp news, Inside Edition followed him down to Miami, calling me -- always a pleasure -- to inquire about the exact location of Depp's childhood home, some trailer park in Medley. CBS News is also floating around, doing a feel-good show on Miami, but they must not have wanted my gloom-and-doom expertise.

The Miami Italian Film Festival wrapped up with an awards gala at the Hotel Inter-Continental, actors Giancarlo Giannini and Ben Gazzara making the Mama-mia-I'm-a-celebrity list. But the town has too many famous people as it is, even Italian ones, and things are getting sick in this clone of Los Angeles, this city without a clue. Like, say, the fax I got from one slap-happy restaurant, an itemized tab from two Charlotte Hornets basketball players who, shockingly enough, ordered cocktails the night before a big game. If you're going to hype a celeb clientele, start at the top, and at least comp the ones whose names you sell out to the press.

But then this is my week to let everything go, to serve my people as the Mother Teresa of gossip, to extend the olive branch of equanimity to one and all, to embrace a land of squalor with my hard-earned beatitude. A quarter-century in Miami, and this week marks four decades on earth. Fuck, I'm 40, but for some unfathomable reason happiness swells within this decaying flesh, and tender mercies are everywhere at once. It's my party and I'll cry if I want to, but for now life is but a dream.

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Tom Austin