Barnaby Zack looks like anybody else you might meet at a party in the Hamptons. Late 40s, tall, black hair, torn jeans. But make no mistake, Zack is something special. He has gotten approval from the Southampton Town Board to build pop-up McMansions.
Last week he took me on a drive in his Tesla from my home in East Hampton to Water Mill to show me the first of what he says will be hundreds of these homes. Along the way I asked him how he came upon this idea.
“It was easy,” he said. “I looked at one of the popup stores on Jobs Lane. Then I went to Mecox and sized up a new McMansion. And it just came to me. Boinng.”
“Build a McMansion in a farm field that pops up when you need to use it on a weekend, then lowers below the ground when not in use so it can be a farm field.”
“That would be amazing.”
“Yup. It’s good for the environment. It doesn’t spoil the view. And you grow potatoes. Then you can have fundraisers and parties over the weekend. And I’m going to show you one. You use the remote.”
Zack leaned way over to pop open the glove compartment. We were going 50 miles an hour.
“You’ve taken your eyes off the road.”
“Here’s the remote,” he said holding it up. “And driving’s no problem. Right?”
“That’s correct, sir,” a female voice said.
“Who was that?”
“This is an experimental fully self-driving Tesla. We should have it in production next year, Elon Musk and I.”
“Elon Musk is good,” the female voice said.
From here on in for the rest of the drive, Zack was talking with me and looking at me at the same time. It was amazing. He was leaving the driving to her. He put the remote back in the glove compartment.
“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” I said.
“Not much to tell. Dad a New York City fireman. Child prodigy. Harvard. Then inventions.”
He pressed a button and the sunroof opened. The cold from outside blew in but was then instantly warmed.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You’re welcome sir,” she said.
He pointed up and off to one side of the sky. We were in Wainscott.
“That’s one of my inventions up there,” he said.
“You can’t see it. Amazon is delivering a package by drone. It’s a stealth drone.”
“Amazon doesn’t deliver by drones,” I ventured.
“Oh yes they do. Right to everybody’s front porch. Been that way for six months. You’ve seen the stuff on the porches, right?”
“Well, there you are. I invented the stealth drone. Sold 630,000 to Jeff.”
“I don’t see any package.”
“What my stealth drone holds gets stealthed, too. Until delivery. Drone sets it down, flies away.”
“And you can see it do that?”
We were in Bridgehampton.
“Any other things I should know about?”
“You know that high-speed transport system Elon is working on that will get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 45 minutes?”
“Well, that’s my idea, too. Currently, that’s what I’m working on. Should have it by the end of the year. Also will be here in the Hamptons. Penn Station to Southampton in four minutes and eight seconds. We have it in testing right now.”
“Right down the center median of the Long Island Expressway.”
“I haven’t seen it there.”
“Have you ever had a failure?”
“Of course. Failures are just like successes. You learn from them. I learned from mine. But my failure did get me into Harvard.”
“It was a long time ago. I was 11. My dad bought me a chemistry set. I invented New Coke.”
“What was New Coke?”
“It tasted great. I sold it to Coca-Cola. They pulled all the old Coca-Cola off the shelves and replaced it with my formula, New Coke. That’s what got me into Harvard.”
“You must have been the youngest person ever to get into Harvard.”
“Well, I didn’t care one way or another about that. What I did care about was that after a few months the whole country wanted the old Coca-Cola formula back. The whole country, they just didn’t get it.”
“That must have been a big disappointment for you.”
“It was. Finally, after a year, Coca-Cola brought back the original Coca-Cola. Everybody loved it. They kept New Coke on for a while, but then after a year, sales plummeted, so they took it off the market entirely.”
“What a blow.”
“That’s why you see the word original on Coca Cola cans. Or classic. Still that way.”
“But I learned from it.”
“What did you learn?”
“If they knock you down, get up. Failures are what bring out success to come. The sun still rises in the morning. If you get lemons, turn it into lemonade. I thought up that last phrase. Every time someone says ‘If you get lemons, turn it into lemonade,’ I get a penny.”
“It adds up.”
“So you finished at Harvard?”
“Of course not. Harvard wasn’t for me. I didn’t get it. Did a lot of pranks and so forth, then they threw me out. Another blow.”
“Lots of geniuses get thrown out of Harvard.”
“I did meet Jeff and Elon there. But they went their way and I went mine. Also Mark.”
“You doing anything with him?”
“Yup. But I can’t yet tell you.”
“We are at your destination, sir,” the female voice said.
We’d pulled over next to a large farm field. Maybe 10 acres. The doors opened and we got out.
“So here we are,” Zack said, waving his arm at the big, empty field.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
“Well, yes you do. You see the farm field. The owners are not here. So you don’t see the mansion.”
“Can you make it rise up using the remote?”
“Of course not. The owners have a different remote. Also the password. Only they can make that happen. And they’re not here now.”
“Who are the owners?”
“Well, that’s private.”
“At least tell me what happens.”
“So whenever they get here, they take out their programmed remote and click McMansion. The potato fields unzip and peel back slowly—it takes about two minutes—and they just stop when they get to the OPEN position. Then, automatically, the McMansion, which is on a beautiful landscaped lawn, slowly rises from below. This takes another two minutes. The lawn with the house on it clicks into place. And there you are.”
“And tennis courts. The usual.”
“How do you keep the lawn beautiful while it’s underground?”
“Stupid question. There’s a sprinkler system.”
“What about the rolled-up potato field on each side?”
“That was the hardest thing to program. It’s a toggle on the remote. You toggle and it turns into hedgerows. Toggle back and it becomes the rolled-up potato fields with the dirt and roots sticking out. Your choice.”
“Can I walk out there and see where the potato field seams come together?”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“I really want to look,” I said. And so I commenced walking out across the field between the potato plant rows. Zack followed me, carrying the remote.
“Well…” he said. And at that moment, a farmer with a pitchfork appeared and started toward me. He looked very angry.
“This is private property!” the farmer said.
“Hold on,” Zack said behind me. I turned just in time to see Zack raise the remote and point it at the farmer, who went Eeeeek! and disappeared into a puff of smoke.
“We have to get back to the car,” Zack said. He put an arm around me and turned me back toward the car.
And so, we got back to East Hampton, not talking anymore. When we got to my house, the female voice said “Here we are,” and I thanked her and Zack.
“Learned a lot,” I said. “Farmer okay?”
“He’s a hired hand. A sharecropper for the potatoes. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Well, thanks for the tour and the interview. This is a great story,” I said. I held out my arm and we shook hands.
And with that, Zack and his lady friend drove off.