What are the characteristics of the two waiters and the old man in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place"?
The young waiter is impatient, selfish, arrogant, and judgmental; he also is hateful in his treatment of the old man who drinks alone on the terrace. He wants only to close early so that he can go home to his wife, and he sees the old man as an impediment to his wishes. He has no understanding of loneliness and despair. He is also quick to anger. When the older waiter makes a reference to the young man's wife, the young waiter becomes offended and argumentative.
The older waiter, in contrast, is patient, unselfish, nonjudgmental, and kind in his treatment of the old man. He wants to remain open so long as the old man might "need" the light of the cafe. He does understand loneliness and despair, since he often feels lonely and desperate himself. When he does finally close the cafe, the older waiter does not go home; he goes, instead, to yet another public place of light--a bodega--where he drinks alone. The emptiness of the older waiter's life is expressed poignantly in the Our nada prayer found in the conclusion of the story.
The old man on the terrace is deaf, one of apparently other factors which have served to isolate him in life. We can infer his life seems meaningless to him since he had recently attempted suicide. The young waiter says the old man has "plenty of money," but money cannot make up for what is missing in the old man's life. Alone, he drinks each night at the cafe until he becomes drunk. Despite the young waiter's rude behavior to him and despite his own intoxication, the old man is polite and well behaved: He says "thank you" to the rude young man (who does not deserve such courtesy), pays for his drinks, leaves a tip, and walks away "unsteadily but with dignity."