I fell into a Zoom portal on a bright, post-rain Sunday afternoon in Toronto and found myself at a dimly lit, pre-screening drinks reception in London with a group of UK hipsters. There were Mason jar cocktails and couples seated together for a quick evening supper before the show. As one person started to pour himself a glass of red wine, another peered over and began to sigh. She missed having wine; she wouldn’t be able to go out to the liquor store for another few days and didn’t want to ask neighbors to drop off a bottle, at the risk of seeming uncouth.
I’d crashed a gathering of 15 or so friends who had congregated to watch a documentary made about the life of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a new age musician whose albums from the 1980s had been rediscovered in the past decade. With film festivals canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the filmmakers had decided to host a friends and family pre-screening cocktail hour; I seemed to have missed this intimate detail on the Instagram flyer. But there I sat, watching strangers half a world away, discussing disastrous forays into virtual yoga and the tumbleweed streets of the city. “It was like Zombieland, just buses, empty buses circling around,” one said. Another woman, self-isolating in a village on the outskirts of town, perked up. “I just got excited,” she said. “I feel like I’m in the city.”
A WhatsApp notification dinged, and everyone looked down simultaneously to check their phones. The habits we’ve formed, the microlanguages we share and the cultural throughlines that bind us on- and offline may never be so apparent as when we arrange ourselves into Grid View, our images and lives lined up in tandem.
Embedded within the dread spiral of this social, political, economic and public health catastrophe is the relatively buoyant age of the virtual happy hour. Around the world, tools of the workplace (and corporate surveillance) like Zoom and Google Hangouts have been redirected as a necessary means of face-to-face connection in times of self-imposed and mandated isolation. According to mobile market data researching company App Annie, video conferencing apps reached a record-breaking 62 million downloads worldwide in the week after March 14 alone. The idea that in-person communication is inherently superior to and more intimate than a virtual mode has been warped in the face of our interim social contract, one that measures love and concern for your fellow person by the distance you keep from them. The in-person happy hour was more often than not a ritual or gesture of convenience. The virtual happy hour is a moral imperative; it’s an understanding that, in these times, the mere experience of seeing a face, and seeing how one’s presence can affect another in real time, is life-affirming.
It’s no wonder that it’s become par for the course for everyone from numbed law associates at civil litigation firms to anxious teachers on district school boards, from technicians in research labs to a Gatorade-addled Joe Biden. Of course, video conferencing in these times is not simply a means of control and distraction by an employer (or a potential presidential nominee). In granting everyone the power to rekindle social connection on their own terms, it’s become its own form of at-home agency. There is a subversive quality about using a professional product for intimately personal use. (Anticipating when Zoom’s 40-minute free trial video conference will self-destruct has become its own parlor game, in addition to the actual games people are playing.) Bar trivia night doesn’t have to be postponed, nor does a sip-and-paint date. Social rituals in the physical realm have been transposed to a screen, one Brady Bunch formation at a time.
These virtual meetups aren’t bound to early evenings, but “happy hour” will be the nomenclature adopted by history, and appropriately so. Back in the 1910s, “happy hour” referred to the time that sailors in the U.S. Navy were allowed to bask in entertainment—dancing, watching films or wrestling—while at sea. Its modern transformation to a code for discount drinks and snacks dovetailed with the end of the grueling workday. The term may be undergoing a shift, but the spirit of the moment remains; the human desire for relief and connection is forever.
And it’s a spirit that can move us in an instant. Minneapolis’ Indeed Brewing Company, like every small business in the hospitality industry, had to adjust (and make devastating cuts in payroll) as soon as they received the state mandate to lock their doors. Perhaps it was just a reprieve from all the accounting he’d have to do of the livelihoods within the company suddenly at stake, but within hours of receiving the news, owner Tom Whisenand rented a camera and microphone setup, grabbed some shop lights from the brewery basement, and coordinated with five other employees. The company already had a culture of giving to those in need; net proceeds from their Wednesday night taproom sales have gone to local nonprofit organizations chosen by the staff. Who Needs a Beer?, a live virtual variety hour with a tip jar in support of the taproom staff, was just its latest iteration. The show offers exactly the kind of uplifting nonsense that bars so often alchemize, complete with a cathartic segment wherein Whisenand smashes things: a pint glass, a 64-ounce growler and a vanity mirror. “Maybe it’s a little bit of gallows humor, but we’re just trying to find something to share with the community who we miss seeing in person,” says Whisenand. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bars across the country have begun beaming themselves into customers’ living rooms and kitchens, to simulate what’s begun to feel like a quaint pastime.
Life in Zoom windows is different, but I’m taking the delights as they come. Back in the pre-screening cocktail hour, I listened as one woman recounted her day. “I just pretended to be an animal and sat on the slabs in the sun. Didn’t speak or do anything. Zen.” We all smiled, finding joy in her retelling. It’s a common, inescapable gesture we all display in these virtual interactions—in spite of everything, there’s a great deal of smiling. It’s a natural reaction, a genuine expression of self that is as pressing and important as the worst news of the day.
These are unusual times, but a new sense of normalcy, thin as it may be, enrobes our day-to-day amid the pandemic. As civic responsibility in these times calls for physical isolation, the context and environment for happy hour has shifted once again, carrying multitudes. It’s a reprieve from work; it’s a prosthetic device, reimagining and rearranging deeply familiar rhythms; and in a time when social connection is among the world’s most precious commodities, it’s a lifeline. Yes, there is dread and fear and distance, but out of necessity, biological and otherwise, there are also windows of joy. And of all the truths that have been embraced in this time, one in particular gleams in its self-evidence: Happy hour is a state of mind.