Another New Year's Eve looms on the horizon, the great white whale of hope and horror in the nightlife game. At this stage of the journey, respectably debauched after weathering some 40,000 years of nocturnal frolics, I have -- like so many other good degenerates -- turned to self-improvement. After eons of grotesque indulgence, my liver is a radioactive-waste dump site. And yet there's still a thrill or two, and endurance enough to outpace the snot noses who frequent nightclubs these days. No matter how hip they are, kids eventually make a tellingly lame move: On countless occasions, bored little club urchins have interrupted their what's-over-now pontifications by throwing up on my shoes.

That said, recovering from the nightly revels has become more problematic, and the brain -- possibly as a result of my own wild-child days -- has become a shaky, impenetrable maze, riddled with flashbacks and synapse freak shows. What with jail, drag racing, suicide, and other travails, too many friends checked out back then. Worse, some were rendered null and void for eternity, the kamikaze runs to PCP-or-bust oblivion having taken a serious toll. It was goodbye to all that after high school for me, and now, as a carnival barker for corruption, my mission inadvertently entails propping up other people's drug habits.

Now, on top of everything else, guilt has suddenly raised its ugly head, not that there's any reason to lose sleep over misplaced sympathies. A good nightlife professional -- shameless, pitiless, pointless in the big picture -- is normally not fit for anything else. However, overstaying the after-hours life is infinitely better than some of the alternatives, like the big sleep. And yet the ailing and truly pickled 75-year-old Timothy Leary, still proselytizing in the New York Times, does offer a glimmer of possibility: "Designer dying is a hip, chic, vogue thing to do. Even if you've lived your life like a complete slob, you can die with terrific style."

With or without stylistic validation, everything somehow seems more interesting at night. Still, I've made a staunch resolution to skip New Year's Eve entirely this time around A unless, of course, something dramatic comes up. And God knows the seasonal rush of Christmas has brought enough interesting morsels across the transom. Body Tech, gym of the fab, hosted a Christmas party at Groove Jet, with Florida aerobics champions Orlando Garcia, Minna Lessig, and Kevin Cregan looking healthy as all get-out. Irene Marie Inc. held its annual holiday fest at Bash, and gee, it's suddenly a lot like Christmas: free drinks, notables such as renowned fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, and the siren song of the district, wall-to-wall models.

With an eye toward model-free environments, I made a cameo-as-coverage appearance at the new Best Buddies Art Company, located off Lincoln Road. The store, which aids the retarded, was full of donated designer T-shirts and artworks. And the upstanding crowd was everywhere at once, from founder Anthony Shriver to an berchic noblewoman of my acquaintance, who bubbled, "I'm just off the plane from Europe, happy in Miami and ready for fun." A truly nice woman from the Best Buddies organization making my visit complete, as she rhapsodized about how my documentation of last year's Best Buddies affair at Gianni Versace's house struck the right balance of truth, artifice, and public relations. Always a pleasure to serve the philanthropic and the fabulous. Gianni's an old sort-of-friend, and a little bit of journalism goes a long way in the fashionable world.

In the spirit of continuing my uplifting education, I also took a refresher course in wholesomeness -- something of a perverse pleasure in my case. The Miami City Ballet's rendition of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker proved once again that almost any kind of theater is better than real life. And the opulence of white tulle, special effects, and little nutcrackers (the children who attend the company's dance center) served as a brief reprieve from clubland. This would be a better world if everyone were compelled to remain on-stage, dress prettily, and do something useful for a living.

Within the illegitimate theater of nightlife, the floating vaudeville, we're all reaching for the main chance. It's not pretty sometimes, but it sure is fun, and you pick up some friends along the way. As the rite of Christmas passes into sappy sentiment, a kind of love and happiness is everywhere at once: Le Bistro on Lincoln Road, with Glenn Albin, the new editor in chief of Ocean Drive magazine, looking forward to a new era; farther up the road, a Cole Porter musicale at the Foundlings Club, Albin's managing editor, Eric Newill, singing along on the standards; at Books & Books on Lincoln Road, Jack Nicholson A who I keep missing at clubs A stumbling in with an entourage on some kind of loopy cultural search. The store is pretty much my home away from home, but I missed him there as well.

In a quest for other fame images, I went out with another culturally amiable sort, Brian Antoni, author of the novel Paradise Overdose; Antoni doing a parody of my work in his upcoming Naked Came the Manatee installment, the Tropic magazine serial set to become a lucrative fundraising novel. A personal honor, and, really, what else are friends for? At one cheap glitz joint or another, we encountered a third stooge of the first rank, ripe for an audition. Some game old warhorse with a toupee and a polyester shirt emblazoned with "South Beach -- the Last Resort" was dancing the hustle and trying to pick up strippers. In this city no one ever goes gently into the good dark night.

Given that moment of epiphany and grace, it suddenly seemed like a good idea to catch up on all my reading. Among its other charms, Ann Armbruster's The Life and Times of Miami Beach documents the golden age of Beach nightlife. Rumba madness and nude floor shows at Papa Bouche's La Boheme nightclub circa 1946. Drag shows at the Circus Club and the Jewel Box. Jimmy Durante, the Ritz Brothers, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor adorning establishments such as the Five O'Clock Club and the Copa. No doubt the regulars of those days, like people now, complained about the scene as well, whining about the same old haunts. Of course, what that era's veterans term "uninhibited paganism" and a "certain homicidal glamour" appear to be, from a contemporary vantage point, impossibly glamourous.

Even then Miami was the unconscionable reprobate of American cities, and received an extraordinary -- perhaps undue -- share of media and literary attention. In her book, Armbruster quotes from Edmund Wilson, the master critic, who took the town to task in Red, Black, Blond and Olive: "Miami is a rude revelation; I am astounded and appalled by this place." Social critic Agnes Rogers dismissed the cafe society of the time with a recipe that still holds true, more or less: "One part wealth, one part fashion, two parts celebrity, two parts nightclub press-agentry and gossip-column exploitation." On a more upbeat note, there's the perfect publicist, Charlie Cinnamon, reminiscing about his stint in the early Fifties as social director of the Empress Hotel: "It was all marvelous. Those were beautiful and sunny days." And Heywood Broun, from a 1936 Vanity Fair piece: "Miami is vulgar, noisy, ugly, and frantic, and you and I can certainly have more fun there than in any spot in all the world." Something tells me his trip down from New York City might have been comped.

A little television as an intermezzo course -- talk show host Carnie Wilson having a gleefully bad night -- before tucking in with one of my more cheering fan notes: "Your last column was so brilliant, the only thing left to do now to top it is to die." Actually that particular effort wasn't that good, and, regardless, death is out of the question -- I've got to keep making a living. And then it's a sleep filled with social-climbing dreams for New Year's Eve, the ghost of Jacob Marley -- or was it Gianni? A disturbing Scrooge in his slumbers. In the end gossip never rests, and lessons are never really learned.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Austin