by Steve Zisson
Max isn’t exactly hoping for a miracle because she doesn’t believe in such things, though she could still use some help as she and the other analysts crowd into the Miracle of Science bar on Mass Ave for her first Futures Party.
When she decided to take the job at the MIT Futures Lab, she couldn’t wait to participate in these raucous monthly pitch parties. They are simply legend.
Now that she’s here, she’s not so sure because she’s got nothing really ready to pitch.
Her informal mentor Eva sits with Max on stools at a replica lab bench. It’s possible they’re real surplus benches from a closed lab, but, either way, the restaurant and bar deliberately feel like an extension of the MIT campus and the Futures Lab.
“Relax. You’ll be just fine,” Eva tells her. “Just watch and learn today. There’ll be so many epic fails. They’re encouraged. You’ll be more comfortable the second time around.”
A server plunks two beers in beakers in front of them. “It’s not mine,” Max says, even though she notices the familiar brewery label as he places the half-empty cans next to the beakers.
“I got us a couple,” Eva says.
“Thanks.” She knows Max’s favorite beer, Notch’s Infinite Jest, from a couple months ago when they first met during the orientation bash at the Sinclair rock club. Eva was there to help for the orientation as a seasoned second-year analyst at the Futures Lab.
As Max picks up the beaker, Eva points across her arm toward the bar, preventing Max from having that satisfying first sip of beer. “Look it. There. That’s one of them. From Future Corps. I saw this guy fund the stupidest shit ever last year. You could pitch that idiot anything.”
Max sneaks the beer under Eva’s arm, takes a gulp and follows Eva’s pointing to the Corpsman. He looks like any other MIT duder, wearing grad student chic. He’s probably just trying to fit in, almost undercover. Is that what she wants, too? To fit in?
“Why are they allowed in here?” Max asks. “I thought we shut down this place just for us. It’s too damn cozy, academia and corporations in it together. He’s the exit strategy? What if I don’t want that?”
Eva sighs. “Why are you even here then, Max?”
“To change everything.”
Eva laughs and says, “You were changing things back in Normal, Illinois, or wherever the fuck you were doing your affordable housing work. It was the thing that got you here, got you noticed. Building your nano-houses or what—”
“French Lick, Indiana.”
“Whatever. Wherever. Flyover, Iowa. Doesn’t matter.”
Max decides not to go into her own rant about the benefits of living in the middle of the country; she knows she can’t convince Eva, a dedicated Bostonian. “I came here because I wanted to scale, tap into something,” Max says.
“Yep, it’s all about the scale and sales. You got that right. You’ve picked up a lot in a short time. You’ll never go back to Normal now.”
Eva’s wrong about that. Her work is back in French Lick, so is Suzi. Eva really doesn’t know Max, even though she’s closest to a friend Max’s made since coming here. But she’s right that Max has indeed learned a lot, the things she’s picked up.
“Hey,” Max says, shifting the subject slightly away from herself. “I keep hearing whispers about some tech out there for self-replicating houses. You hear anything?”
Eva raises her lab beaker toward the bar, motioning for another beer. “Yeah, I heard something. Just a hint. Future Corps will want none of it though. It’ll wreck the existing housing markets, the thinking is. Might takedown the financial system faster than collateralized debt obligations. They’ve got too big a stake in propping all that shit up. It’s a nonstarter.”
Fuck Future Corps, Eva thinks. And their markets. Product. Product. Product. Everything, everyone’s a product.
Three beers in, the first analyst gets up for a presentation. These pitches aren’t expected to be formal, they’re intentionally informal but some of the best ideas in the history of the Futures Lab have come out of them when all the shit is flung up against the walls. Like email, e-ink, spreadsheets. Or the entire biotech industry. Probably the internet too.
At the pitch parties, scientists and analysts are pushed out of their research silos and start talking to each other. No Powerpoints, spreadsheets or props allowed. That’s the rules.
This presenter climbs up on a lab bench, like he’s some hand-waving politician jumping up on an Iowa diner lunch counter. He’s pretty drunk, so Max fears he’ll fall off the bench.
“This’ll be fun,” Eva says, rubbing her hands together. “He’s a newb.”
He’s got a thin red beard, way too long for its wispiness. Even though it’s winter, he’s wearing cargo shorts and sandals with black socks. They call the shorts, with all their pockets, “sciencing” pants here. It’s pretty much the uniform at the Futures Lab and she looks back to Future Corps guy and confirms that he’s wearing the same color, khaki. Blending in. Max and Eva refuse to wear the shorts; they prefer jeans with more than enough pockets.
Drunk presenter can barely stand so she can’t see how he can get any words out, but he barrels ahead somehow.
“You’ve seen the ads for Snuggies?” he asks and looks around at the faces below him and sees many blank stares. He goes silent, too, for almost a minute, looking as if he’s thinking or just very drunk.
“You know,” he finally continues, “a Snuggie. The blanket thingy with sleeves. That you wear on the couch when you’re bingeing shows? Keeps you warm? The infomercials were everywhere.”
He elicits a couple of soft-spoken “oh yeahs,” from the assembled.
Buoyed by that recognition, he says, “I want to make something like it but better. Big time. It’ll also replace all those flimsy crinkly blankets they use to cover marathon runners at the end of a race. The ones they use got no sleeves!”
Some other analysts shrug. So what?
“It… it can also be used in natural disasters to keep people warm.”
More quiet, and he starts to teeter. As he leans and goes over, he recovers just enough to leap over the heads of analysts seated around the lab bench and crashes to the floor. “I’m all right,” he says, scrambling to his feet. “How about this? I turn it into an invisibility cloak. That would really be something, wouldn’t it?”
That’s when the laughing starts, and it seems as if most of it is for his pratfall and the rest for his presentation.
A senior analyst breaks up the reverie by asking, “Do you have the material science down for this invisibility cloak thingy?”
Snuggie dude can only weakly shake his head ‘no,’ but he still gets a round of applause, most likely for his jump off the lab bench.
Eva grabs Max’s arm. “Damn, your ideas can’t be worse than that. Future Corps will probably still buy his see-through Snuggie though.”
Back in her drafty studio apartment, Max settles into the corner of the couch under a couple of pillows for warmth and wishes she had one of those Snuggie things, invisible or not. She’s shaking as she calls home.
“How are things going there?” Suzi asks.
“They’re going. I’m not sure this is right for me.”
“Oh Max, you keep saying that. You always get this way with a new thing, a new job. You need to stick it out. Just see if you can attract funding.”
Max pulls the pillows closer to her chest but they’re still not providing much warmth. “I like working for myself, us. I don’t want a job here. With me here, not as many homes are being built there. I’m not doing any good.”
“Not to worry. I’ve got it covered. I’m training enough volunteers to keep up the pace. Trust me. You’ll be back soon enough. There’s a reason they recruited you and we thought it was the best move.”
“But I didn’t even graduate college. I’m a carpenter. I don’t fit—”
“Max, what would your mother think?”
Her mother, long passed, who was once a squatter in New York in the late 70s.
Max cringes before saying, “I can’t wait to go home. You can’t believe how corporate it is here. It’s not for me. You know the pitch parties? What a joke.”
“Max, I’m heading out for a training session. I know you’ll figure it out.”
Max is not really seeing much as she thinks hard about the future. She’s wandering down Mass Avenue late on a Thursday afternoon and comes out of her thoughts for a moment as she focuses on the homeless man in the top hat squatting by the Cantab’s entrance.
She’s never really noticed this lounge, this dive since she’s only been in Cambridge for a few months. Top hat guy gives the place a sudden presence, a dignity. He’s cradling a sign on his lap that indicates he is indeed unhoused, and he’s cleared a spot on the slushy sidewalk where she imagines he sleeps at night, guarding the bar after it closes.
She bends down and asks his name.
“That so.” She digs in her pocket and hands him a fiver. She always has some cash on hand for donations and the like.
He thanks her and smiles.
She stands and considers the bar. It has the warm feel of an Irish pub and it’s covered with banners that proclaim it to be “Legendary” and “World-Famous” and “Best Dive Bar” with the “Best Burger.” Can it be all those things at once?
The entertainment lineup for the month of February is posted outside on the door and seems all over the place, too. Bluegrass, rock and roll, jazz, country, folk, rap, poetry slams. Tonight’s 9 p.m. show doesn’t name a headliner band; its placeholder simply declares, “Rock!”
“There’s something for everyone,” Bennie says before tipping his hat.
“Maybe there is.”
With a nod from the informal doorman, she decides to go in, to take her mind off the future.
The bar is so dark compared even to the late afternoon winter grey light outside and it’s hard to see anything at first. She finally makes out a tall, heavy guy with a mustache. He’s serving drinks to a couple of old men huddled at the end of the bar. In the corner on a small stage is a young woman with a partially shaved head, tuning up her guitar for a set.
The singer won’t be playing for too many fans in this near empty lounge.
Max slides into a seat at the bar. She should have only one because she might go back to the Futures party at work where there’ll be too much to drink from five until whenever as they boisterously pitch great products and services for the future. For fucking Future Corps.
Right now, she’s got nothing for the future. That’s why she’s sitting alone at the Cantab on Mass Ave.
It’ll be her second pitch party, if she goes. The first one was just an introductory, and no one expected a junior analyst like her to speak up.
There’ll be a higher bar this time. Maybe she should pitch something fun for her inaugural effort at the Futures Party, save the serious stuff for the next month. Soften them up.
She needs an idea, something to say. Anything.
She keeps wondering whether she even fits in at the MIT Futures Lab. Whether she belongs there at all.
She certainly doesn’t belong here this afternoon at the Cantab, slumming like a Harvard sophomore. Not with the old local guys at the end of the bar or this bartender. But the singer, twanging her acoustic guitar, maybe they fit together. They kind of look alike, heads buzzed in the back, not so much make-up, and smallish. Black sweaters and jeans.
The singer is hunching over her guitar, straining to hear if she’s getting it in tune. Her nose is closer than her ears to the strings, but smell can’t possibly help her here. The dominant aroma in this bar is of skunky beer, sprayed throughout even to the darkest corners.
What about a perpetually tuned instrument? A self-tuner. Is that a Future product winner?
The bartender finally comes over.
“I’ll have a draft,” she says, pointing to the blackboard above the rows of liquor bottles.
Max looks back to the singer, who’s now walking her way. Max turns to face the bartender again.
“I can start my set anytime you want,” the singer announces to the bartender.
He pushes a beer glass in front of Max; it doesn’t slide but stutters across the sticky dark wood, spilling some of its suds. He’s not paying attention to her, so she’ll get the bartender’s name when she pays her tab. She makes a point of always getting a person’s name.
“Half hour or so,” he says to the singer. “Let a few more regulars shuffle in. They’ll all be getting off work soon.”
“Okay, I can wait a bit,” she says and sits near Max with one seat between them.
Still looking at the bartender, Max asks, “What kind of music do you play?”
They turn to each other. “For this crowd? Mostly covers. Whatever you like. No corporate crap though. I’ll tack on a few originals at the end once I warm them up with comfortable songs they know.”
“Songs you wrote?”
“Yep. For my band. I’ve got a punk band.”
“A punk band? I didn’t see anything on the sign outside about punk,” Max says, pointing over her shoulder to the door. “Punk’s still a thing around here?”
The singer swivels away from her and looks to the entrance as a half-dozen workers scramble in and take a straight shot to their table before some wayward college kids make a big mistake and sit there. The server beats them to the table, sliding their usual shots in front of them before they settle down.
“Punk’ll always be a thing,” the singer says over her shoulder.
Max sees that she’s annoyed, so she offers, “I’ll bet you’re good.”
“Find out for yourself. We’ll be on with some other bands Monday night at the Sinclair.”
“Really? I will. See for myself. I’ve been there, the Sinclair. I think one of the bands was punk. Maybe.”
“Good for you,” the singer says, distracted and eyeing a group of four heading to the bar. “What brings you in here?”
Max sighs, having blissfully forgotten all about work for however long she’s been in the bar. “Oh, I don’t know. The future, I guess.”
“That’s as good a reason as any. You from the future?” The smiling singer hops down from her stool and starts toward the stage.
Max wants to bound right after her, doesn’t want to let her go, wants to ask her name. She just wants to hang out a little longer. Finally, she blurts out, “I wish I was from the future. What’s the name of your band?” That’s safer than asking her name.
The singer hesitates and barely edges back her way. “Clicky Clicky.”
Then she’s gone.
Clicky Clicky’s singer jumps on stage, rechecks her guitar and gear, and before long is greeting the crowd that really seems to know her. She doesn’t bother to introduce herself. She talks about their hard day at work, they hoot appreciatively, and then she dedicates the first song to them, breaking into a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Max always liked Bowie, but not exclusively. Was Bowie punk? She smiles and is surely going to go on a Bowie binge.
The singer and her guitar are very much in tune. No sour notes.
While it’s a soulful cover and there’s a hint of punk scream in Clicky Clicky singer’s voice, Max can’t wait for the end of the set to hear what originals she’ll play. And after listening to those songs, she’ll go back to the Futures Lab, inspired with an original idea for the future of her own, maybe something about community, or punk, or both. But most likely about Bennie, finding him a home, and for all of the unhoused. Whether Future Corps wants to hear that pitch or not.
There’s certainly no need for a self-tuning instrument, a good musician like Clicky Clicky can handle that job. Just another product.
But how about that self-replicating house? The whispers at the Futures Lab intimate that most of the tech is out there for building this ultimate market-disrupting product but it’s scattered among rival countries and corporations, and all bogged down in patent disputes. Maybe this idea isn’t totally original, but it is so far from becoming reality that it probably is. Combining it with her housing initiative and a lot of DIY elbow grease just might work.
The singer breaks into a cover of the Ramones’ “Don’t Come Close” and Max can’t help but think of her mom and Suzi with the opening lines about having everything at home. No matter how far away home is, she thinks.
Then the crowd, which she sees has filled the club, is hooting and singing along with a cover of the godfather of Boston punk Willie “Loco” Alexander’s “Mass Ave.” Max doesn’t know the song but finds herself on her feet and singing out “on Mass Ave” with the others. She’s on Mass Ave and screaming and it feels right.
And Max knows now she’s going to have to get loud at the next Futures party and maybe even scream some if she wants to be really heard over all of the other irrelevant pitches. From. So. Many. Blustering. Dudes.
She believes she’s up to the task now but she’s going to have to project manage the shit out of this thing. She sees her idea as so much more original than something like the iPhone was to the cell phone market, not so derivative. This is real revolution.
As she weaves between tables heading to an open spot at the front of the stage, she’s confident that she’ll figure out her pitch for a radical housing proposal after the set and take her idea back to the Futures party where she doesn’t really care if she fits in anymore.
She’ll go armed with an idea, the singer’s name, and Bennie’s too. She’ll want to share the credit with them, even if Future Corps never funds it.
Steve Zisson is a biotech journalist whose fiction has appeared in Nature’s Future, Daily Science Fiction, Selene Quarterly and Little Blue Marble, among other places. He edited an anthology, A Punk Rock Future. He lives north of Boston.