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 asked. They were putting up the shutters. "It's not half past two."
"I want to go home to bed."
"What is an hour?"
"More to me than to him...He can buy a bottle and drink at home."
"It's not the same."
The two colleagues continue their discussion as they close, but for Hemingway, the older waiter's last remark is the crux of the whole matter: Drinking after two in the morning alone in the empty café is essentially different from and preferable to drinking alone at home. What the older waiter understands (and the younger waiter does not) is that there are those who simply cannot bear to return to their apartments as the night draws to an end. They may have spent the afternoon in their apartments successfully whiling away the hours (completing crosswords, flipping to the end of mystery novels, frying ham in ungreased pans). But with the setting of the sun, they have set out into the commotion of the city looking for distractions, wary of the wee hours when they will have no choice but to return to their apartments and fend off their inner demons.
My father used to observe that on a sunny day no summerhouse was too small; but on a rainy day no summerhouse was large enough. As a corollary to his axiom, we could observe that no apartment is too small for the blissful; and no apartment large enough for the forlorn. Here in Manhattan, while for most of the 20th century the city had few cafés, there have always been spots that provided similar solace for the doleful — like the one depicted in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (1942).
On the surface, this painting of a nether-hour in a diner could be a textbook study of urban alienation. The four figures seem only modestly engaged with each other. A man with his back to us — his profile shadowed by a fedora — stares silently into his coffee. A woman in red gazes distractedly at her fingernails as her companion listens without expression to the counterman. Along the counter, six empty stools serve as ghostly reminders of those who are otherwise engaged. And, as in so many of Hopper's Manhattan street scenes, the storefronts opposite the diner look abandoned, the apartments uninhabited. But for all its melancholy elements, the painting can't really be categorized as depressing — because it so clearly depicts a respite. With Manhattan generally categorized by noise, crowds, and pace, this visit to a sparse, uncrowded, clean and well-lit counter provides for the weary a moment's repose. And despite the hour, no one seems in a particular hurry to leave.
Meanwhile, back in Hemingway's café where the old man lingers, we might ask what are the demons that keep him from heading home? We know as much about his demons as we know of Sinatra's in "One for My Baby." We know the man is an old, deaf widower with money, and we know that he has battled despair (given his attempt at suicide). But we are not given insights into the sources of his despair. It is left for us to accept that some loss or failed ambition now torments him like a nightshade. But the clean, well-lighted place provides a refuge from the torment, and for the older waiter (as for Hemingway), this is no small matter. Because the ability of this gentleman to linger in the café for a little while longer could quite literally be the difference between life and death.
In the course of the story, the younger and the older waiter engage in a sort of Platonic debate (with the younger waiter in the role of an impatient, self-interested youth and the older waiter in the role of Socrates). What was the old man in despair about when he tried to kill himself?
Younger Waiter: Nothing.
Older Waiter: How do you know it was nothing...?
Younger Waiter: A wife would be no good to him now.
Older Waiter: You can't tell. He might be better with a wife...
Younger Waiter: An old man is nasty thing.
Older Waiter: Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling...
Younger Waiter: He can buy a bottle and drink at home.
Older Waiter: It's not the same...
After each of the young waiter's confident assertions, the older waiter offers a question, or a mild contradiction — basically encouraging his younger colleague to revisit his assumptions ? because the older waiter is also denizen of the later hours in cafés, as well as in life. Where the younger waiter, confronted with the inconvenience of the last customer, expresses youthful, self-interested indifference, the older waiter represents a seasoned, empathetic compassion. And it is important for us to note that the older waiter's compassion for the old customer is to some degree a byproduct of Closing Time. These feelings would not have surfaced or expressed themselves two hours before when everyone was gay, or dining after the theater, or calling out to friends passing by. These feelings only surface in those hours when the psychological state of the lone individual is on full display, and the risks of his isolation are incontrovertible.
In the story, Hemingway notes with some care that the old brandy drinker is not a broken or slovenly spirit. When the young waiter begrudgingly pours another round, the old man thanks him and later leaves a tip. When he finally goes, the old waiter watches this "very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity" and then explains to the younger waiter: "Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café."
By turning a light on the noble behavior of the waiter before the dignified sorrow of the old man, Hemingway is revisiting, through an everyday moment, his interest in that manly psychology found occasionally in the bullring and battle: For while it is only a café, we have one man with his life at stake acting with dignity while another, without elaborate words or gestures, acknowledges both his plight and his fortitude. And it is the hour of Closing Time which has necessitated this unusual engagement of honorable men.
In a nice coda, Hemingway follows the older waiter after the café's closing to a late night bar where he fends off his own demons with one more drink. Of course, the fact that this compassionate older waiter needs and finds solace at his own version of a Closing Time opens the door to an infinite regression where the waiter is a customer of another waiter who is a customer of another waiter, and so on. At some point, every one of us is the lone individual seeking solace, and we are also the attendant with his finger on the switch who must decide whether to close the café or keep the lights on for a few minutes more.
Tomorrow, please join me for a look at the most famous Closing Time of all — at Rick's in Casablanca.
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First appearing in print in 1926, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" was collected in Hemingway's Winner Take Nothing