When I was in college, one of my assignments was to read Earnest Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean Well Lighted Place.” There are many interpretations as to its meaning. Some think it contrasts youth and age, for example. Others think the three central figures represent a progression through life.
The plot is simple enough. An old man, who is deaf and suicidal, drinks himself into a stupor each night at a café. The waiter and the barman watch his debauchery and wonder why he does it. The younger of the two is always impatient. He resents the dotard who keeps him at his post until the lights go out. But the barman, being older, counsels patience. “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs a café,” he explains.
The line has always struck me as one of the most compassionate in western literature, stated without ornament…a Biblical simplicity that led James Joyce to praise the tale as one of the best ever written.
As I was in my twenties when I was obliged to read it, the story about an old man drinking himself into oblivion to ease his suffering held little significance for me… except for that line…. that one line which tore at my heart leaving a pain which would take me years to understand. The wound has never healed nor do I want it to.
I have tried to practice kindness in my life. I have tried to help my fellow man. Each of us can say that of ourselves: that we have tried. But when I drive home on a cold winter evening as I did yesterday and see some homeless person shuffling through the rain sodden streets with his possession piled high into a shopping cart, I know I have not done enough… not nearly enough. Everyone deserves a clean, well lighted place.