"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" first appeared in the March 1933 issue of Scribner's Magazine. Although 1933 was a year of external turmoil with Adolf Hitler's accession to power and Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations, this sparse, lyrically written story focuses on an existential crisis, the search for meaning that confronts modern human beings.
It opens with an old man sitting on the terrace of a Spanish café late at night. Two waiters, one older and one younger, keep an eye on him to ensure he does not get too drunk and leave without paying. They discuss how the old man attempted suicide the week before, with one claiming that it must have been over nothing since the man has "plenty of money." As one waiter expresses concern that a guard will get the old man for staying out on the street, the old man orders another brandy. The younger waiter, who wants to go home, grudgingly pours the deaf old fellow another glass, suggesting aloud that the man should have killed himself. He talks with the other waiter about how the old man tried to hang himself and was cut down in time by his niece. The two agree that he must be eighty years old. The younger waiter argues that a wife would be no use to a man that age, while the older waiter is not so certain and expresses admiration for how neatly the old man drinks even while intoxicated.
When the old man tries to order yet another brandy, the younger waiter refuses, talking down to him. The old man pays for his drinks, leaves a tip and walks out of the café with all the dignity he can muster. The older waiter says that it is not that late and that they could have let him drink longer. The waiters argue about the value of time, and the older one compares their situations in life. He claims that his younger co-worker benefits from youth and confidence. But as an older man, he prefers to stay late at the café because someone may need to be there.