Nine years ago I was once like the deaf old man in Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." I was married -- I still am -- but my husband was away. I was childless then. I had this feeling that going home to an empty house was always an ordeal. In this short story by Hemingway, the old man frequents the café and stays there until the wee hours of the morning. His presence every night leads to an engaging banter between the two main characters, the older waiter and the younger waiter.
It seems like when people are in a situation where they feel alone because their families are not there, they seek the company of friends. If no one can give it to them because their friends are busy with their own lives, finding a place of temporary solace (the café for the old man; the campus beach for me) is a rewarding experience because it is there where one can organize his/her thoughts and in the process ponder about life.
The contrasts between the two main characters of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," depict two types of people -- the compassionate and the unsympathetic. The younger waiter, is always in a hurry to go home to his wife after work. At some point, he becomes rude to the old man and refuses the latter's request for another brandy. Apparently, his priorities are different because he is young.
The older waiter, on the other hand, is understanding and sympathetic to the customer and to people in general. This is probably because he is alone in life and has reached that phase where he is already settled and does not have to compete with anyone in order to achieve a goal. No loved one is waiting for him at home. He has nothing except his job. "Nada," according to him.
Only when people have gone through something do they become sympathetic with other people's needs. Hence, the older waiter's statement: "Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café." He works diligently to make the place clean and pleasant so that it will provide comfort to whoever will need it.
Oh how painful it is to go home to an empty house! Our homes remind us about the persons we miss. We can see the same furnishings and the same arrangement of things around the house but the person we love is no longer there. What stands out is the person's absence.
Probably this is one reason why some people want to be away from their homes and to stay in some clean, well-lighted place at night. They are surely not looking for some fun where they will lose their dignity as a person. Instead, they are there to temporarily forget some pain and to tire themselves out so that sleep will not be elusive as they lie on their wide beds.