A Clean, Well Lighted Place

Snow is falling through the cold Vermont air. The wind is sharp enough to slice through a person and with it carries crystals that blind. Many are home, holing themselves in with blankets, movies and tea. For some this isn’t a possibility. They brave the weather, driving or stumbling though the snow, and come to a cafe. Some need the coffee to pull the all-nighter to finish a lab report. Some need caffeine because they’re only now, in the blanketing dusk, heading into work. Some need an escape. Some are there every day, whether the sun is pouring its radiance upon us or the snow is carving its way through us. They sit in the corner sipping on cup after cup of tea, coffee, latte. They just need somewhere where comfort is achievable, that is familiar, that they can rest for hours if need be.

One of my favorite short stories is Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” for the way it perfectly describes this scene. In the short story two waiters (one old and one young) are watching a deaf, old man drink drink after drink in their cafe bar. He is a regular. They know to watch him because if he drinks too much he may not pay. They know about his attempted suicide but not why he did it. They know who this man is. He comes every night. The story, although only three pages long, embodies the need for some to have a space that is not their home to go. While Hemingway, in general, focuses on the consumption of alcohol in his writing the environment he sets up in this story applicable to more than just bars serving alcohol. It perfectly describes the human desire to seek a sanctuary which is something that I see when I work in my coffee shop.

At one point in the story the two waiters are looking at the man questioning why he is the cafe all night. The younger wants to kick him out to go home and sleep, saying an “hour is more to me than him.” The older waiter disagrees, saying that because the waiter is young and full of confidence he has yet to experience events in his life to lead him to the necessity of a place to go. The older remarks that the man requires “a clean, well lighted place” in order to escape from the things in his head other environments may foster. This is the same for many people seeking solace in cafes. Cafes differ greatly. Some are noisy with live music. You can sit and escape in the crowd and sound and experience what’s in front of you. Others are homey with couches and chairs that you can find comfort in. Some are basic, lit in amber lighting with small tables and wooden chairs. People find cafes which adhere to their needs. They find their own version of “a clean, well lighted place” and will escape what they need to escape in them. Will find the comfort they desire from the people and environment in them.

The only true difference I find between the text and my experience and idea of what a cafe should be for someone is the way in which the waiters interact with the man. They serve and discuss him but do no more. They talk of how he had tried to hang himself recently and how his “niece had to cut him down.” They don’t make an attempt to communicate in any way with him. This is the the largest difference that I find between the scene in Hemingway’s mind and what I’ve experienced.

I have had regulars come in so often they take a step in the door and I have their order being made. I know what their tastes are. I know by their body language what kind of day they are having and adjust accordingly, as do a majority of my coworkers. I allow them to vent to me if they need to. I don’t know enough about their personal lives that my opinion will matter to them. I’ve had one customer vent to me about how he wished that he could have had kids. He comes in every night with hid wife and talks about how how he works with elementary school children as he sips his too large black iced tea, no sweeter. I’ll refill it over and over after hours of the pair being there. He told me he works with children and wishes he could have had some, that his empty house is depressing. The couple love each other greatly but there’s something there that they can’t fulfill and they can’t bear the rooms of their housing containing only them.

These people need a wall to talk to. Sometimes we all do. If they choose me to be the wall I do it not because I’m stuck behind the bar making them coffee but because they are faces I see every day and there is something bonding with that. If one of my regulars were to suffer tragedy (and some have) I would hope that I could at least give them their drink on the house to show that someone is there.  Because of my own personal experiences I find it strange that the waiters do not attempt to comfort the man in Hemingway’s story, especially when he is a man who may need it.

Sure, plenty of people come into a cafe just to have a quiet place to crank out an essay just as some go to a bar to get drunk for the night and stumble home to be hungover in the morning. But those people that we see day to day. Those people, like the deaf man in the story and the childless man in my cafe, whose order we know as soon as we see their face, they are the ones that matter. They are the ones that seek not only the room to escape in but the faces to confess to. The faces of bartenders and barista who will listen, express sympathy,give them the comfort of a regular place. That’s a huge part of the job that Hemingway misses.

Overall Hemingway remarks on how people need a place to go. How, for various reasons, we seek these places. We can all identify with the man sitting in his usual spot with his usual drink. I see this every time that I work. I see it with every familiar face and order. Cafes adhere to something human.