A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

by Ernest Hemingway

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In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," why does the older waiter like to keep the café open late?

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The old waiter likes to keep the cafe open until late at night because it provides a refuge or safe haven for people against the nothingness and darkness of the outer world. It is quiet, without music, and customers can sit at a table, not have to stand at a bar. It is clean, well lit, and orderly; a cut above a bodega. As the older waiter puts it:

"Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café."

"Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long."

"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves." 

The old waiter shows he has empathy for others who are lonely. When the younger waiter says that the deaf old man who is preventing them from closing the cafe can drink at home, the old waiter says it is not the same to be at home. The younger waiter agrees but he has his own life to live, he wants to get to his wife, and he cannot relate to the deaf man drinking brandy by himself. The young waiter says:

"I'm sleepy now. I never get into bed before three o'clock. He should have killed himself last week." 

But the old waiter has a deep well of humanity that understands the human need for a little warmth and light in a meaningless world.

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The older waiter distinguishes himself from the younger waiter because of the way that he prefers to stay late in the cafe, whereas the younger waiter wants to go home and get to bed. Note the reason that the older waiter gives to the younger waiter to justify his strange behaviour:

"I am one of those who like to stay late at the cafe," the older waiter said. "With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night."

The older waiter goes on to say that not only does he prefer himself to stay late, but that he does it so that other people like him can stay up late because they "need" the "clean and well-lighted place" that the cafe gives them to take their minds of the reason for their existence and their monotonous lives. The existentialist despair that is captured so perfectly in the Spanish phrase, "nade y pues nada y nada y pues nada," which means "nothing and then nothing and nothing and then nothing," is temporarily banished in this cafe as people like the older waiter go there to escape the despair that characterises their lives.

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