The whirring of helicopters woke me before the alarm at 7:45 Thursday morning -- my last hours in South Beach, Miami, the end of a two-week time out from real life. I'd built in enough time to take a long walk and soak up as much sun as I could before returning to the polar vortexes gripping New York.
Any minute the chopper would fly off, taking with it the insistent drilling at close range.
But it didn't go away -- the rattling noise bore down on every moment. When I finally stepped out onto 8th Street, heading four blocks to the ocean, I saw three helicopters in a triangle formation, each twirling in place. I zigzagged toward them, while moving in the direction of the ocean.
All seemed normal on Ocean Drive, but still the choppers chopped without moving anywhere. I stopped a young maitre d' at an outdoor restaurant.
"What's going on. Is President Obama here?"
"Justin Bieber's in jail."
I couldn't say that I could pick Justin Bieber out of a line-up, but I knew he was on the young side, and had something to do with singing. I'd sighted a few celebrities in my day: John, Oko, and baby Shaun in a bookstore in the '70s on Columbus Avenue. More recently, I'd followed Philip Roth to what I assumed was his apartment building, carrying bags from a bedding store.
But this was different. Bieber was not the draw. I was interested in the spectacle mushrooming around him, and I trundled over to the Miami Beach Police Department on the corner of 10th and Washington St., a building I had passed many times.
Indeed, the circus was in town. A row of white TV vans with satellites, the lawn readied with standing microphones for the police, and a lot of activity around a driveway and a locked garage door on the side of the building. Bieber was supposed to exit there any minute. The charges? A passerby explained: Drag racing, drunkenness, drugs and friends blocked off a street with SUVs so Bieber could race the Lamborghini he'd rented. There were the big guys hauling TV cameras on their shoulders, the beautiful guys with sharp haircuts and sharp suits, about to go on the air, and the gawkers.
A few dozen gawkers and some newsies had mashed themselves against the garage door, a metal contraption that was solid and impossible to see through up to about six feet. Then it turned into a mesh of metal bars, which made the gawkers hold their cell phones and cameras aloft, so that the cameras would see Bieber coming out of the police station before he could otherwise be seen.
"He'll be in a van," one of the newscasters said. "You won't see a thing."
I had a plane to catch and couldn't wait around for this non-event, but I stayed long enough to hear a pretty boy newscaster deliver a hard-hitting piece: "It started out as a quiet morning in Miami Beach. The weather was the story. Now, Justin Bieber busted, live in Miami Beach."
Packing back at the apartment, the local news was wall to wall Bieber. A helicopter was finally moving -- following the police van as it shepherded the prisoner to the detention center. The pretty women on air were talking breathlessly -- teen idol, heart throb and the social media angle on this story. As soon as it broke, fans posted Instagram photos and tweets, and everyone wanted a piece of the action.
"This is something we just haven't seen before," one chirped gaily.
By the time I landed in New York, Justin was -- surprise! -- out of jail and $2500 bail was all it took, but the rest of us were as inside as we'd ever been. Now that Justin is on my radar, I know that, according to Wikipedia, when he was 13 a promoter found him by accident, singing on YouTube. His Christian mother was distraught that the promoter was Jewish.
"God, I gave him to you. You could send me a Christian man, a Christian label!" After praying with her church elders, she permitted him to do a demo. In 2012, at 18, Forbes anointed him the third-most powerful celebrity in the world.
He's out of jail, but count on more Lohan-style encounters with the law, which, like labor contractions, will probably come more frequently the closer he gets to Full Meltdown. In the meantime, we might reflect on the prison where the rest of us dwell, a place that worships not just fame and money but instant fame and obscene amounts of money, and -- most disturbing -- the purposeful, methodical exploitation of children that defines the music and entertainment business. Justin's mother's failing was not her anti-Semitism, which is bad enough, but that she sent her 13-year-old into the polar entertainment vortex. What might she be praying for now?
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including the bestselling Almost, and editor of the New York Times bestselling anthology, What My Mother Gave Me: 31 Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. She works with those applying to college and graduate school through her company, Don't Sweat The Essay.
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