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Starbucks Homeless, Flying Tumblers, and Underwear Models
Harmony House: Episode 3
“Harmony House” is a serial novel with episodes released every Tuesday morning. You can read the setup for the story or start from the beginning. Each episode comes with high-quality audio narration for you to enjoy on the go with the Substack mobile app.
This novel is free to read for all subscribers. Paid subscribers get access to my other serial novel, “The Memory of My Shadow” and to my entire archive of work.
In the last episode, we met Riley and watched him perform his video audition to be a contestant in Houze. He’s a serious-minded bio-engineering graduate student who’s struggled to overcome the prejudice of the small Tennessee town he grew up in as a trans kid. We also listen in on a conversation between brothers and Future Abode founders Chris and Scott Jenson as they discuss how planning for the Houze competition is going with the help of the agency BangOn! Media now that the pool of candidates has been narrowed to twelve.
“Elise, can you please put him on the phone? Please, let me talk to Michael.”
“I’m really sorry Cam, but he’s instructed me not to put your calls through. He’s also asked you to stop waiting outside the building. I know you’re hurting, but he’s serious sweetie. He’s threatened to get a restraining order.”
“Jesus. You know what he’s done, right? Have you heard the whole story?”
“I’m just trying to do my job here. Please let me just do my job. I’m not a marriage counselor, I don’t want to be in the middle.”
“I know you’re not a marriage counselor, but I thought you were a friend.”
“I am your friend Cam, but I can’t lose my job.”
“No, I get it. Well, at least all he can do is fire you. He can’t take away your entire life like me. He fires me, kicks me out of my own home, takes my car, and gives all of my clothes to Goodwill. Did you know he did that Elise? Did you?”
There’s a long pause and Cam can hear the bustle of the busy office in the background.
“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry Cam. Listen, I have to hang up. I have to get back to work.”
The line went dead. Cameron looked down accusingly at the device. The battery was rapidly dying on the phone and there was nowhere to charge it -- no bedside charger, no car charger. There had to be a Starbucks in this neighborhood somewhere. Cam shouldered the backpack and picked up the duffle containing the only clothes that remained, the only ones that could be recovered from Goodwill last week. If the supervisor there had not mercifully decided to bend the rules Cam would have nothing left to wear.
The heat was relentless. There was a Starbucks on Montana and 7th, four blocks away. After a few paces, Cam’s nostrils flared in displeasure. That homeless person stench didn’t belong to someone else. Cam began to sing. It always helped. It was one of the few things no one could take away from you. Deep fatigue was setting in. Sleep had been fleeting and elusive for the past ten days. Cam hadn’t realized how many of their friends were actually Michael’s friends. No one picked up the phone. No one except Sharon. Thank god for her.
The two of them had moved out here together the summer after graduation to become stars. Their little duo was a big deal in Greenville, South Carolina, but had amounted to less than nothing in L.A. They drifted apart as disillusioned people do. But after almost twelve years of not talking, Sharon had taken the call and allowed Cam to sleep on her couch, much to the obvious displeasure of her husband.
The Starbucks sign was visible now. The promise of air conditioning was inspiring, and Cam picked up the pace. Waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change, a text notification popped up on Cam’s phone, but it was only possible to read the first two lines before the phone battery died.
Hi Cameron, this is Eve from FutureAbode. I’m pleased to tell you…
More spam, Cam thought, pocketing the phone and crossing the street. Inside the coffee shop, it was deliciously cool and familiar. Cam had never fully appreciated the value of a franchise until this past week of being unmoored, adrift. A Starbucks with its consistent, toasty smell, mellow soundtrack, clean restroom, and ample supply of power outlets was an oasis to a person with no home.
Cam ordered a small black coffee, and a cup of water then found a spot in the corner by the window. With laptop open and plugged into the wall and phone tethered to the laptop to charge, Cam took a sip of coffee, logged onto the Wi-Fi, pulled up a browser, and then just sat there staring at the blinking cursor in the search box. There was nowhere to begin when you were at the bottom. Search for a job? Search for a lawyer? Search for a place to live? It was an overwhelming decision tree for someone completely broken. The phone, coming back to life buzzed twice on the tabletop. Cam picked it up and thumbed over the text message from before, intending to delete it but then decided instead to tap and read the full message.
Hi Cameron, this is Eve from FutureAbode. I’m pleased to tell you that you’ve been selected as one of the contestants to live in Houze! Pack your bags, you’re about to go on a big adventure in a very small place. Are you in?
There was a link. Something about the name was vaguely familiar but maybe it was in some ad. When the web page loaded with that iconic photograph of the little spaceship-looking tiny house in the middle of the open desert, everything came flooding back. That miserable drunken evening last week when Sharon and Cam had stayed up talking and watching trashy TV, a promo had come on during one of the commercial breaks. It was a contest to win this funky little sustainable home.
“There’s your answer!” Sharon had said, jumping off the couch and pointing at the screen. “You should totally enter the contest. How could anyone deny you?”
Had they actually applied that night? Cam vaguely remembers sitting in a chair in the kitchen and Sharon asking questions like she was conducting an interview. The events of that night, like much of the past few days, were a film strip with many missing frames.
Cam took a screenshot of the text and fired it off to Sharon with a simple: “WTF?”
Less than a minute later Sharon wrote back. “OMG!!! Are you fucking serious?! You won! I knew you would.”
Cam’s phone rang immediately. “What did you do?”
“I may have sent in an application for you after you passed out the other night.”
“What do you mean how? Don’t you remember me videoing you? Asking you about your life?”
“Vaguely. You may recall I was not in top form,” Cam said.
“Here, one sec. I’m sending it to you. Oh shit, I’ve got to go. Watch the video! Text them back and say you’ll do it! Yea! Bye, I love you.”
Cam sat the phone down and took another sip of coffee. There was something about getting some good news in the middle of a shitstorm that made it not seem plausible. But this good news seemed not just improbable, but random as well, like a couch falling out of the sky. Cam picked up the phone, and tapped on the link Sharon sent. The video started playing and Cam’s voice blasted out of the tiny speakers, disrupting the chill vibe of the afternoon Starbucks patrons who glared over the clamshells of their laptops like disapproving librarians. Cam stopped it quickly, then rummaged in the backpack for some headphones and jammed them into the phone before restarting the video.
“Hi, my name’s Cameron Thaddeus Counts. I’m a 36-year-old black man… gay black man… recently jilted, gay, black man living… no homeless in Santa Monica. I saw your tiny house thing tonight and I thought, ‘I could live in a tiny house, I can be tiny.’ I’ve tried to be tiny my whole life, so I’ve got practice, hehe.”
Cameron in the video sways in the chair ever so slightly, making small, languid orbits around an invisible pole. His eyes close and tears are visible on his cheeks, shining off of his dark skin beneath the harsh light of the overhead in the small kitchen. His eyes open and he stares right into the lens of the camera.
“I thought I was a good man, but I was wrong. I hurt the man I love, the man who gave me everything, the one person who really saw me. But that’s not what you want to hear, right? That won’t get me no golden ticket. Okay, okay, so here it is. Here’s who I am. I’m a musician, a singer, a writer, a designer – an artist. I know how to make things that are not there. I know how to pull them out of thin air.”
He sings these last two lines, his voice trembles on the last word, low and delicate, almost invisible like the word he’s singing. He takes a long drink of water and sets the cup down carefully.
“I’m not a drunk even though I am horribly drunk right now. I’m not a bad guy, even though I did a bad thing. I’m not a famous singer even though I sing like one. I’ve held a steady job as a designer. I learned to make things beautiful because isn’t that what we all need, a little more beauty in this burnt down, tore up world?”
“But you should pick me because I love people, I do. I believe in people. I believe we’re all better than the worst thing we ever did. I believe we’re all basically good and mostly misunderstood. I believe something’s gotta change and I wanna be part of that change. Maybe this all happened right now for a reason. Maybe I’m here in this hell right now for some bigger purpose. Either way, I definitely need a place to live. Okay, that’s all I got to say.”
Cameron sat the phone down and jerked the headphones out of his ears. He swallowed hard, his eyes wide, staring out into the middle distance of the coffee shop. He was mortified. He remembered why he stopped drinking years ago. He becomes someone else entirely. Who was that motherfucker? Crazy and arrogant and vulnerable and open.
The audition he didn’t know he’d done, playing a man he decidedly was not had won him a ticket to participate in a thing he really didn’t want but absolutely needed. Cam drank the rest of his coffee in one gulp then drank the entire cup of water.
He picked up his phone and navigated back to the text message from Evangeline Baron at FutureAbode. He paused only for a few seconds, his thumbs hovering over the keypad. He smiled shook his head and typed: “I’m in. What do I need me to do?”
A few minutes later as Cam was furiously researching Houze to figure out exactly what the hell he’d signed himself up for, he got a reply.
That’s great news! Everyone is excited to meet you. We will be emailing you an itinerary shortly. The location of Houze will not be made public but don’t you worry, it’s going to be a beautiful spot!
Cam sat the phone back down. He smiled for the first time in a long time, a feeling of relief flooding through his body. He had a purpose now at least. Someone wanted him.
The final planning meeting was underway, and things were not going well.
Scott Jenson was pacing back and forth at the back of the conference room. He was not happy with the process of how the final pool of candidates had been selected. He was not happy with how the new brand and marketing efforts around this contest were contradicting their mission and degrading their purpose. He was not happy with the fact that they were planning to have twenty-four-hour surveillance on the people in his harmony house. He was not happy with the fact that they wanted to put the house in a mall parking lot. He was mostly not happy with his brother who was supposed to be managing all of this – looking out for the integrity of their vision.
The BangOn! Media team with their thick, black-framed glasses, chunky-tread combat boots, and black-on-black uniforms sat along one side of the large mahogany conference room table grimacing behind their Macbooks. Their leader, Schultz cleared his throat, breaking what had grown into an ominous silence following Scott’s declaration that he would not move forward, would not sacrifice his vision to this gameshow circle jerk.
“Scott, if I may, we’re all on the same team here. We…” Schultz gestured like a dancer to his left and right, “are all inspired by what you and Chris have built. It’s a visionary leap into the future. Like Vulcan, the god of fire you have forged with your own two hands a vessel that could save humanity but it’s all for not if humanity cannot receive it, if it does not meet them in a way in which they might understand it’s true value.”
Scott snorted in amusement and walked over to the large flat screen where a video clip of the latest advertisement was paused on a frame showing Houze’s large picture window from the outside. Inside, pressed up against the glass were what appeared to be a tangle of well-tanned body parts from underwear models. Moments earlier, before Scott had groaned and burst out of his chair, they had been watching a montage of these models pretending to cook, sleep, and wrestle in the tiny shower.
“So this, this is how people will understand the value of sustainability and harmony with the environment? This looks like a claustrophobic fuckfest! Chris, for god’s sake, am I the only one here who sees how cheap this makes us look?”
“Scott, you had months to weigh in here,” Chris said. “How many meetings did I invite you to? The horse is out of the damned barn now. You can’t just change everything that’s in motion.”
“Yeah, I fucking can, because you’re not going to. Last time I checked, I was still a partner in this enterprise and let’s not forget, the partner who knows the most about this thing we actually built.”
Scott looked around at the pale faces and saucer eyes of the BangOn! people in the room and seemed to realize this was probably not the appropriate place to have this conversation.
“Look, no offense to the work you guys have done. I know you’re just doing the job that she hired you to do,” Scott said pointing at Eve whose knuckles were white, gripping her phone. “But we can’t go through with this, not without some major changes.”
Schultz exchanged an eye roll with Eve, sighed, pulled his large glasses from his face, and began to polish the lenses with the front of his black tee shirt. He looked to his four disciples, pooched his lips thoughtfully, and gave a subtle nod of dismissal at which point four laptops closed quickly, four chairs squeaked on the marble floor and the four junior members of the BangOn team disappeared from the room leaving nothing in their wake, but a hint of designer cologne and stress sweat.
Schultz returned his glasses to his face, took a sip of water, and leveled a withering gaze at Scott.
“Do I look like a fool to you, sir? Do I look like someone who’s just having a go at this for the first time? I respect your business and your expertise. I would ask that you extend the same courtesy to me and my team. They’ve worked very hard on this program and the numbers are looking very good.”
“I don’t care man. Don’t you get it? None of this was my idea, our idea,” Scott said, gesturing to his brother. We had a perfectly good plan to take our product to market. I went along with this up to a point because my brother said we had no choice but to concede to Daddy’s girl here. Well, that’s over. We do have a choice, and this is going to go a different way now.”
It was quite a throw, and the heavy crystal tumbler would have hit Scott squarely in the forehead had its delivery not been telegraphed by a primal shriek. The glass shattered on the wall behind him. Eve was up out of her chair and moving quickly, the sound of her heels on the marble floor accelerating like automatic weapon fire. Chris moved in front of Scott before she could get to him.
“Jesus Christ! You could have killed him,” Chris said, putting up his hands to slow her down.
Scott backed away looking stunned and at a loss for words. The heels of his boots crunched on the broken crystal and he jumped in surprise. Eve’s face was the same shocking color as her lipstick, her nostrils flaring as she looked from Scott to Chris.
“You. Men. With your big ideals and your vision. You’re just like my daddy. Cold, stubborn, smug, thinking you’ve got a lock on everything. You may have made this little house, but I have a seat at this table, and you can’t just take it away from me. We’re gonna do this contest or your little cum-bi-ya dream is gonna die right here, buried in lawsuits. You decide what you wanna do.”
The room fell silent except for Eve’s panting breath. Chris looked at Scott. Scott looked at Eve. Eve looked out the window and used the heel of her hand to wipe her tears without smearing her mascara.
“Perhaps some tea?” Schultz asked. “And then we’ll get back to it?”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s have some tea,” Chris said.
In less than an hour the four of them were huddled around a whiteboard working through the changes Scott required to move forward. In a surprising turn of events, Scott had apologized to Eve, and even more surprising, she had accepted his apology and said she was sorry for nearly braining him.
Schultz proved his worth as a masterful consultant by mapping out the work in front of them on the board and guiding the group through each contentious point of the campaign and contest that could still conceivably be changed.
“Of course, it’s too late to change the branding and we must move forward with some manner of contest. The damage to your reputation for pulling back on either of these would be devastating I’m afraid. But we can change some things. We can pull the videos and collateral with the “underwear models” as you put it. They’ve only rolled out to a couple of test markets. Because the contest date is set, there’s no time to shoot more footage, but we can likely do something simple. I’m imagining something with some inspiring copy fading in on a black screen – music swells to a crescendo as the message unfolds and at the end, we see a glorious panning birds-eye shot of the house, alone in the… that’s the next bit right? Where do you want this to live?”
“Somewhere remote,” Chris said. “We want it to be in the wilderness somewhere, truly off the grid, right Scott?”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s the whole point of this thing we made, to show that we can live in harmony with the natural world, untethered from the grid, leaving no trace,” Scott said, staring at some point only he could see as he sipped the last of his Darjeeling.
Eve scrunched her nose and offered, “I like it, but how will this be the kind of spectacle that we need if nobody can see it except for some birds and goats are whatever?”
Schultz straightened from his task at the whiteboard and pointed the marker at Scott. “What would you say to the housemates voluntarily broadcasting themselves only at times of their choosing?”
Scott thought about it and exchanged looks with Chris who nodded. “Yeah, I guess that would be okay as long as there’s no hidden cameras or anything creepy like that.”
“Splendid!” Schultz said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Okay, so we have a few action items and a couple of points left on our agenda before we can close today. Scott, you and your brother will pick the venue. Please provide your top three choices so we have some fallback options in case permits, etc. should prove to be a challenge.”
“Got it,” Scott said.
“Right, that brings us to the candidates themselves. I understand you take umbrage with the selection process and some of the finalists?”
“I’m not sure I know what umbrage means, but I’d like to understand who we left on the cutting room floor and I’d like to understand your reasoning for these archetypes.”
“Okay, but you must understand that we’re talking about upwards of five thousand submissions here. I don’t think we have time to go back and review them all,” Schultz said, pinching the bridge of his nose and leaving behind a smudge of black marker that somehow made Scott like him a bit more.
“I don’t need to see all of them. Do you have a database or something I can just poke around in?”
“Jemma! Could you step in her please?” Schultz called in the direction of the door.
A few seconds later a young woman poked her head around the door. Schultz motioned for her to come in, and she loped across the room, a small hitch in her gait. She carried with her a large, laptop that was the antithesis of the slim machines of her colleagues.
“Can you show Scott here the program you created for candidate selection? He’d like to poke around for himself and understand the voodoo we used.”
“Yes, Schultz,” she said.
Jemma sat down at the conference table and cracked open her computer. Scott moved into the chair beside her.
“While Jemma is pulling that up, perhaps I can provide a bit of context around the approach at a high level. What we seek to achieve here, is a cohort of players in our drama who will make for some interesting content. Believe it or not, it’s more complicated than just drawing names out of a hat. Not all people are… how should we say… interesting to watch. While we don’t need underwear models, we do need people who have something that makes you want to watch them and makes you wonder what they’ll do next. Does that make sense?”
Scott and Chris both nodded.
“But there’s interesting and then there’s too interesting. We don’t want anyone prone to violence or grossly immoral behavior—behavior that deviates too far from the baseline for most church-going Americans.”
“Yeah, Chris told me you filtered out the nutjobs and the sick ones, the ones too old and the ones too young,” Scott said, his leg twitching impatiently.
“That’s a crass way of putting it, but ultimately not incorrect. That cut the candidate list down considerably. With this smaller pool, we instructed our screeners to watch all of the videos in their entirety and then choose the people they could imagine wanting to see more of, the ones they might want to have a pint with.”
Schultz was in his element now, pacing slightly, gesticulating as he orated.
“Which brings us to the archetypes. Are you familiar with the work of Carl Jung? No, I suppose not in your line of work. Well, of course you know he was a famous psychologist. He came up with these twelve classifications for personalities, the twelve archetypes. I can’t remember them all but there’s the ruler, the artist, the sage, the hero… oh well, you get the point. We didn’t use these, but we borrowed the idea. Our goal was to ensure that we came away with six distinct personalities to represent the diversity of thought.”
“And also, to stir up some shit no doubt,” Chris said, unable to help himself.
“Well, a little friction is good in all things, right?” Schultz said. “Anyway, that’s the gist of our approach. It looks as if Jemma has everything pulled up for you to take a look now.”
While the others took a restroom break, Scott sat next to Jemma and listened as she instructed him how to browse, filter, and search through the entire applicant pool. It was engrossing to page through hundreds of faces that belonged to people sitting in kitchens and bathrooms and offices all across America who had so little to lose in their current situation that they would go out of their way to opt into this crazy contest.
But maybe some of these people were actually running towards something. Maybe some of them saw this home and were inspired by either what it represented or by the thing itself. Scott suddenly felt grateful and a bit ashamed of himself for acting like such a petulant shit. It was safe to assume that at least half of these people were fans of their creation. That was pretty cool.
He started applying some of the filters available: only women, aged 24 to 36, college graduates, urban dwellers. It was fascinating. He opened a couple of profiles and watched snippets of their videos. It was incredibly uncomfortable to watch some of them. He could have sat there the rest of the afternoon, but he could feel Jemma getting restless and ready to have her machine back.
“Okay, I’ll just be another minute. Can you show me all the ones who made the cut for the scientist,” he asked.
“Sure, here’s a way you can segment on the six types,” she said and then felt compelled to add, “I made the algorithms to classify people by taking the transcriptions of their auditions and then putting them through a machine learning model I developed that searched for types of phrases and keywords and also scored their passion level based of facial expression and tone of voice.”
“Wow, that’s really clever. Must have been fun to do,” Scott said.
He clicked on “the scientist” tab. 87 results. The first two on the list were the finalist, a distinguished-looking, middle-aged Asian man and a very pretty young woman with dark curls and expertly applied make-up. He scanned the rest of the page then skipped to the next page and the next one after that until he reached the end of the collection. There was only one face on the last page of results. It was not an underwear model face. It was a serious, studious face with small, wire-rimmed glasses, a tidy haircut, and a furrowed brow. He clicked on the profile.
Twenty-six years old, trans male, MIT doctoral candidate in bioengineering. Scott played the video. Two minutes in, tears welled up in his eyes. Jesus, were they all like this? How could he say no to this kid? He knew he had to stop there. It would make him crazy. This is why he worked better with mechanical things.
“Him, I want him to be in my house,” he said turning around to face the others who had come back into the room. “Okay? You can pick the rest of them, but I want him.”
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Who’s Who in Harmony House?
Having trouble keeping track of who’s who from one week to the next? It’s tough when you only get to visit once a week. I made a little cheat sheet just for you: