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Author Archive: "Amor Towles"

Excuse Me, Don’t I Know Your Name?

She was workin' in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer,
I just kept lookin' at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear.
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I's just about to do the same,
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, don't I know your name?
I muttered somethin' underneath my breath,
She studied the lines on my face.
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,
Tangled up in blue.

Leading off Bob Dylan's great album Blood on the Tracks (1975), "Tangled Up in Blue" is an extended narrative of disrupted romance set in a restless crisscrossing of the country reminiscent of Kerouac's On the Road. Over the course of seven 13-line stanzas (each capped off with the song's one line refrain), the narrator sets out from an unnamed starting point for the East Coast; he travels West with his love; he takes a job in the Great North Woods after they split; he then heads to ...

Don’t Ever Tell Anyone Anything

The bar was closing up for the night, so I got them all two drinks apiece quick before it closed, and I ordered two more Cokes for myself. The goddam table was lousy with glasses...

In J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the young hero Holden Caulfield heads for Manhattan in the middle of the night, having been expelled from boarding school. In avoidance of his parents, he steers clear of home and scrambles through the city over the course of a few days, making failed attempts to connect with strangers, old acquaintances, and friends, while shifting impatiently from one locale to the next.

On two consecutive nights, he ends up closing down bars. The first night (referenced in the quote above), he insinuates himself into the company of three young female tourists, who basically let him linger because he's willing to buy them drinks. As they interact, Holden is at turns charming and condescending, eager and dismissive. But what is painfully clear is that he's buying them drinks because he can't bear to be ...

You Must Remember This


The customers have all gone. The house lights are out. Rick sits alone at a table. There is a glass of bourbon on the table directly in front of him, and another empty glass on the table before an empty chair. Near at hand is a bottle.

But I am getting ahead of myself...

An hour before this scene unfolds in Michael Curtiz's 1942 classic Casablanca, the customers were still at Rick's Café Americain, the house lights were up, a jazz band was playing, and every seat in the house was occupied. Among aristocrats mingled smugglers, soldiers, and refugees from every corner and social caste of Europe who have come in search of one thing: a way out of Casablanca. Much of this and more is surveyed by a man in a white dinner jacket. Sought by all, available to few, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the personification of aloof confidence. In the course of 20 minutes, he indifferently accepts the confidences of a thief, shuns a bank president, brushes off a beautiful suitor, casually jests with the chief of ...

A Clean, Well-lighted Place

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference...

So begins "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the five-page Ernest Hemingway short story from 1926, which offers a brief glimpse of a Spanish café and the waiters who oversee its closing.

As the last customer sits on the terrace drinking one brandy after another, two waiters — one older, one younger — sit inside the empty café and discuss the old man's failed suicide attempt the week before. When shortly after two, the old man asks for another drink, the younger waiter (who is tired and has a wife waiting in bed) decides enough is enough: He refuses to serve the old man and sends him on his way.

"Why didn't you let him stay and drink?" the unhurried waiter


One for My Baby

It's quarter to three
There's no one in the place except you and me
So set em up Joe
I got a little story, you oughtta know...

Around 1947, Frank Sinatra first performed his doleful wonder "One for My Baby", a 28-line, one-way conversation between a man and his bartender when everyone else has left the bar.

This brief interaction in the nether-hour of Closing Time is not simply a setup for a well-crafted song; it is an archetypal American scene. It is a motif that has persisted over a century of our cultural history — appearing as a central image in important works of fiction, music, and film, and serving as a touchstone for a variety of artistic movements spanning from the Lost Generation to beyond the Beats through torch songs, film noir, jazz, the Rat Pack, and rock 'n' roll. Over the next five days, I will take a tour through Closing Time and explore why I think it has persisted as such an intriguing psychological way station. But let's start with this: Closing time is interesting because, by definition, it is a brief window ...

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