Reader Response to A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, By Hemingway
Length: 1127 words (3.2 double-spaced pages)
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In 1933, Ernest Hemmingway wrote A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. It's a story of two waiters working late one night in a cafe. Their last customer, a lonely old man getting drunk, is their last customer. The younger waiter wishes the customer would leave while the other waiter is indifferent because he isn't in so much of a hurry. I had a definite, differentiated response to this piece of literature because in my occupation I can relate to both cafe workers.
Hemmingway's somber tale is about conquering late night loneliness in a bright cafe. The customer drinking brandy suffers from it and so does the older waiter. However, the younger waiter cannot understand loneliness because he probably hasn't been very lonely in his life. He mentions a couple times throughout the story that he wished to be able to go home to his wife, yet the old man and old waiter have no wives to go home to like he does. This story have a deeper meaning to me because I often am in a similar situation at work.
For a little over three years, I've been a weekend bartender at an American Legion Club. I almost always work the entire weekends, open to close, which proves to be a tortorous schedule at times. Like the cafe in Hemmingway's tale, the Legion is a civilized place, often well lit, and quieter than most clubs. Because members have to either have served in the military during wartime or have a relative that did, the patronage is often older and more respectful than an average barroom. And because most members are older, they may not have a family to go home to, or they may be just a little more dismal because their lives have been longer and harder than most. In many ways, they are very much like the old man sipping brandy while hiding in the shadows of the leaves in Hemmingway's cafe. And in many ways, I am like the young waiter, anxious to leave.
The young waiter seems selfish and inconsiderate of anyone else. In the beginning of the story, he's confused why the old man tried to kill himself. "He has plenty of money," he says, as if that's the only thing anyone needs for happiness. When the old man orders another drink, the younger waiter warns him that he'll get drunk, as if to waver his own responsibility rather than to warn the old man for his sake.
At work, I often feel the same, that people get what they deserve and that it's no one's fault but their own. When the hours get late and my eyelids get heavy, I catagorize my customers and make their lives seem trivial. Because I'm selfish, I want my customers to leave so that I can then leave and go to bed. If I stick around too long at work, I'll catch a second wind and be wide awake by the time I finally do get home. Then I'll have trouble sleeping and staying awake the following day behind the bar. One late night can wreck the entire weekend.
In Hemmingway's story the younger waiter tells the old man (who probably can't hear him because he's deaf) that he should've killed himself. This is a terribly cruel thing to say but I would guess that he really didn't mean it. He only wants him to go home because he can't understand his need of staying. In the young waiter's eyes he isn't selfish for wanting to go home, but the old man is selfish for staying. This is a common thought of mine when I'm working. Why must people come so early and stay so late? It seems eternities pass while they're there. Though I'd never vocalize a death threat to any of my customers I do sometimes wish them some gruesome fates. And I get so despreate sometimes that I ponder pouring out some of their beer as they go to the bathroom, just so they'd leave quicker. This is the same sort of anxiety that the young waiter has. He doesn't understand the importance of a place where other lonely souls may linger. He can only think of himself, and when you're young, it's hard to think of anyone else.
The other waiter in Hemmingway's tale begins seeming indifferent to the old customer. But as the story progresses, he defends him because he can relate to his despair. He calls him clean and like himself, lacking of confidence and a place to exist that reminds him he's still alive. Drinking at home just isn't the same, he tells his younger co-worker, and they both agree to this. The old man sits looking out the window, as if life was a movie to him, and he was living it by observing. Near the end of the story, he admits his reluctance to close up the cafe because he knows that there may be someone who needs a "clean, well-lighted place." However anxious I am behind the bar to go home some nights, I feel this way too. Besides the obvious advantage of a larger paycheck, late nights behind the bar can be rewarding in many ways. As the day dies and night is born, the moods lighten. Customers, touched by a few drinks, mellow out, and become a lot more entertaining. That's not to say they all get drunk and funny, even though that happens too. But they get more friendly, and as thirsty for each other's company as they are for another beer. If I don't have any plans for the following day, I don't mind keeping the bar open for this mellow crowd numbing their despair with the drink. Oftentimes I enjoy their company too, and I understand their need for my consideration in serving them a few more drinks. My impatience can and usually does wait.
On any given night I may seem more one way than the other. It depends on the particular day and how long and hard I've worked. Since reading A Clean, Well-Lighted Place I've become more aware of my reactions behind the bar. I try to balance the two viewpoints out, often disguising my anxiety by pretending I don't mind at all staying open later. The truth is I do, but not as much as I may think I do sometimes. I think I owe my customers a little common courtesy in taking their side into consideration. After all, when I'm their age, the tables might be turned. I may be hanging around in a bar, in need of a clean, well-lighted place, urging the bartender not to close the lights on me.