The heavens, now and then, shine down on a common man.
Meet Bill Cooke, a veteran free-lance photographer who makes his living one frame at a time. He is 40ish, potbellied, single and drives a Toyota full of newspapers and crumpled hamburger sacks.
Most of the time he shoots for wire services, but there are days when the phone doesn't ring, when his wallet is flat as Kansas and the car dealership leaves friendly reminders on his answering machine about payments long, loooong overdue.
Then there are the days he rides by the garden of a Miami mansion and sees Madonna half-naked on a bicycle.
Cooke snapped eight frames last week of a topless woman he swears is pop star Madonna, and dozens of tabloids are lining up with their pocketbooks opened wide. Cooke won't say how much money he is making, but one tabloid has already forked out enough to pay off his Tercel and keep him in cheeseburgers and Budweiser through April.
"It's like barracuda sniffing blood in the ocean," Cooke said.
These are not just photos of a bare-breasted woman out for a little exercise. These are almost surreal . . . and sexy, for men who like their women dressed like a cross between a Vegas stripper and the Easter Bunny.
The pictures show a woman in black spike heels, black opera gloves and a G-string, with a white bunny tail.
She is trying, with some trouble, to get back on the bicycle she was riding when Cooke saw her from his car window. "I guess it must be hard to get on the thing in those heels," he said.
Madonna's publicist did not return calls to confirm or deny that Madonna, who was in Miami last week, is the bike-riding woman. It won't matter to Cooke. "I know what she looks like, and I know her voice. This woman is Madonna."
Cooke is one of many paparazzi in paradise, those men and women who stalk the rich and famous, freeze their faces in Kodachrome and sell them for $100, $200 . . .
For a paparazzo, this is the Holy Grail, the Perfect Game. "It's the paparazzo's equivalent to being in the basement when Jack Ruby walks out to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald," Cooke said.
"I know I will probably never get to photograph anything as important as that. . . . Maybe this is the next best thing."
It's not as if the world hasn't already seen what she's got _ Penthouse ran photos of a buck-naked Madonna _ but it is a big deal to a public hungry for more. The tabloids already are running his photos, under headlines like this one, from the Sun in London:
"Madonna Acts Out Sexy Fantasies In Nude Photo Shoot."
"What I want to see," Cooke said, "is one that says, "Madonna's Saucy Romp in Coconut Grove.' Wouldn't that be great?"
Trade magazines recently reported that Madonna is working on a project, possibly a book, about her sexual fantasies. Cooke thinks he might have stumbled upon a shooting session for that project in Coconut Grove.
Cooke mostly shoots serious news, staking out courthouses, rushing to the scene when a plane crashes or general mayhem breaks out. In the same 24-hour period that Madonna was in Miami, a Brazilian visitor on a tour bus was wounded by gunshots from a Florida Turnpike overpass and a Hialeah man was abducted in Little Havana, doused with gasoline and set on fire.
But plenty of tourists get shot, and one man already has been set on fire this year. Those incidents didn't come close to ranking with Madonna. Cooke joined the pack of paparazzi on Miami Beach, hoping to get a shot of Madonna jogging, Madonna speaking, Madonna breathing.
"We knew she was doing this book based on her sexual fantasies, being shot by a prominent New York fashion photographer," Cooke said.
Cooke knows his town. He figured it would be either Miami Beach, Coconut Grove or Key Biscayne, which offer scenic backdrops. He was driving through the Grove when he saw a cardboard sign with the word CREW written on it, pointing to Brickell Avenue.
"It's the way photographers tell their local people how to find the shoot," Cooke said.
He followed the avenue through the tree-shaded neighborhood looking for the telltale signs of a photo shoot: light poles, screens to reflect light, that kind of stuff. What he saw, through the bars of a mansion gate, was a near-naked blond woman on a bicycle.
He didn't think it was Madonna right away. It's not every day you see a bare-breasted woman on a bicycle, but this was in The Grove, where the prevailing attitude is: "If it don't leave bullet holes in my Lexus, I'll let it slide."
He got out of his car and hid behind the hedges.
"I thought, "Damn, that's Madonna,' " he said. "I saw a bunch of chi-chi New York people. You know, dressed all in black, in black shoes, with weird haircuts. Hair stylists, makeup artists, bodyguards . . .
"I was worried they would see me. I made some frames as fast as I could, because I didn't know if these guys were going to come out, beat me to a pulp and take my film."
Cooke has been fleetingly famous before. Three years before Gary Hart challenged reporters to follow him, Cooke photographed a young model named Donna Rice cavorting in a bathing suit. After the scandal broke, he sold those photographs to Paris Match and all over the world.
"They say people have 15 minutes of fame," he said. "I guess I've had my 30 minutes now."