Food & Drinks

I Was a Holiday Zoom Party Toastmaster | PUNCH

Folks, the last 10 (or was it 1,000?) months of creating community in the virtual workplace have not been easy. And as a professional toastmaster who thrives on the holiday office party circuit with bottomless rum punch and all-you-can-eat shrimp cocktail, I know a Zoom celebration is not the same. But in spite of everything, there are still reasons to take a shower, put on your ugly Christmas sweater (sweatpants still permissible) and raise a glass with your screen-bound colleagues. Here’s a glimpse of how I toasted this holiday season.

Applause titters from my iPad as the Zoom feed comes to life. A complicated and eerie Bach fugue trills softly. I spot my DRAMA contact Marsha in the upper right-hand corner, identifiable only by her screen name, because Marsha is wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask and tuxedo, and hammers on what appears to be an actual pipe organ. Marsha is a very good organist, laying down magnificent fanfare and cackling against a digital “subterranean labyrinth” background.

Taking in the rest of the party, I count eight turtlenecks, two capes, one drag queen and a woman named Pearl, who holds brass opera glasses in one satin-gloved hand and swirls a snifter holding a generous pour of brandy with the other. One of the caped attendees agitates a cocktail shaker; one of the turtlenecked pops a Champagne cork, feeding his cat the errant suds; Pearl lifts her snifter in toast.

The email booking requested a “comic soliloquy” toast, and I’ve prepared by reaching back into my high school musical theater repertoire. I’m wearing a three-piece suit, à la Julian Marsh from 42nd Street, and have written a spoof of the titular song: “Lift a glass… from your box seat/ It’s the work we love: criticism of… 42nd Street.” I shuffle my index cards when, suddenly, my cue arrives: Marsha, over wide open organ baffles bellowing, “TOAST! TOAST TO US, MY ANGEL OF TOASTING!!”

Before I can open my mouth, everyone begins scribbling furiously into notebooks, with the exception of one young man in a beret (the youngest audience member by at least 20 years) who is hammering away at a typewriter. I have more butterflies than a botanical garden, but I charge ahead. Damen und Herrenmadames et monsieurs… ladies and gentlemen!” Immediately, a message appears in the chat box: “PROJECT! SPEAK TO THE BACK ROW!” I don’t have to look twice to know it is from Pearl, who is now very much frowning, her snifter drained of its contents. I glance up at Marsha, who has changed her background to a chandelier swinging ominously. A man with a poster on his wall that reads “King Lear makes me yawn. I’m… bard!” seems to have nodded off. Tough crowd.

The startup Sidewalk Party™ is a new service that designs, builds and decorates virus-safe outdoor seating for restaurants and cafés. Jamal, the company founder, greets me on-screen, and is wearing a mask that says “Out Of Office.” “Welcome to our latest build,” he says, low-slung man bun peeking out of a knit beanie. Behind him, couples are huddled in extravagant, plexiglass-enclosed vestibules erected on the street outside a traditional-chic steakhouse. Each box contains a wood-paneled wall, a black-and-white checkered tile floor, a space heater, a Dyson air purifier, USB-C charging ports and a red tufted leather banquette situated around a rough-hewn table piled with a bounty of burgers and Porterhouse steaks.

“So here’s the crew stuffing their faces, LOL,” Jamal says, panning the laptop around to the boxes marketed as “half-fresco dining kiosks.” It’s a sea of Canada Goose parkas, buffalo check flannels and faux-fur dusters. Snow has begun to fall and LED candles illuminate the kiosks’ stern daguerreotype portraits. Dozens of mittened hands grip glasses of bubbly, poised for my toast.

It seems, however, that only Jamal can see or hear me, and a Salvation Army bell from somewhere off-screen obscures even his droning Zuckerberg-in-a-Senate-hearing monotone. He bobs on and off camera before coming to rest in front of a conveyor belt teeming with cloche-covered plates. “Just go ahead and I’ll tell everyone what you’re saying,” Jamal encourages. I parry with, “In that case, I guess I should’t flirt with anyone—too much.” Looking slightly confused, Jamal freezes, and my quip seems to have been garbled by a bad connection. Jamal appears a few seconds later, and pans up to reveal a second story replete with Juliet balconies, a spiral staircase and several more plexiglass suites populated with expectant faces.

Jamal beckons for me to begin again. “Hello, Sidewalk Party! I guess it’s true what they say: ‘If you build it, they’ll come—unless outdoor dining is banned.” Thankfully, Jamal freezes again, this time with a look of light disgust on his face, but then he blinks and I understand the video feed is working just fine.

It’s 2 p.m. on a Thursday when I dial the Pittsburgh Paperclip Factory. Owners Ralph and Edith Anderson answer, hefting Martini glasses to the screen. The size of one of those humongous stuffed bears from Costco, Ralph is wearing a red flannel shirt with green suspenders, candy canes tucked into his pocket protector. Edith is dressed like an ornament: a metallic emerald wind suit circa the first Bush administration, and a blonde beehive wig studded with sprigs of fresh holly.

Befitting the season, they are both rosy-cheeked and delightfully loose-lipped. “Gin tastes like Christmas trees!” Edith exclaims between large swigs of her cocktail. “And you look like Ed Sullivan.” I do not know if this is a compliment, but before I can answer she wanders over to a conference table to pick at a half-eaten Santa-shaped sheet cake. “Eggnog for me,” says Ralph with a wink, before turning the lens to face an expansive factory floor below.

As my eyes adjust, it appears that every worker wears a hazmat suit topped off with a pointy elf hat and punctuated with oversized, curly-toed red and green shoes. Strung from rafter to rafter are dozens of glittering paperclip chains, while paperclip “icicles” hang from every beam and ledge. A 12-foot paperclip tree glitters with multicolored paperclip garlands. The factory twinkles and sparkles with the luster of so much precisely bent ductile steel.

Off-screen, Ralph chimes in. “They’ve been working overtime to keep up with demand! My little helpers could use some good cheer.” Ralph slides an ancient PA microphone into frame, and I fortify myself with a gulp of whiskey. Before me, each hazmatted, elf-shoed employee holds up a paperclip twisted into a miniature Champagne flute in toast. “What a year,” I begin, holding up a paperclip flute of my own. “If it weren’t for you, how would we hold it all together?”

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