CLOSING TIME

by

One for My Baby

It’s quarter to three
There’s no one in the place except you and me
So set em up Joe
I got a little story, you oughtta know…

Around 1947, Frank Sinatra first performed his doleful wonder One for My Baby, a 28 line one-way conversation between a man and his bartender when everyone else has left the bar.

This brief interaction in the nether-hour of Closing Time is not simply a setup for a well-crafted song; it is an archetypal American scene. It is a motif that has persisted over a century of our cultural history—appearing as a central image in important works of fiction, music, and film, and serving as a touchstone for a variety of artistic movements spanning from the Lost Generation to beyond the Beats through torch songs, film noir, jazz, the Rat Pack, and rock & roll. Over the next five days, I will take a tour through Closing Time and explore why I think it has persisted as such an intriguing psychological way station. But let’s start with this: Closing time is interesting because, by definitionit is a brief window of time that only occurs when “everyone else” has gone.

As the opening lines quoted above suggest, the song’s protagonist has waited for the place to empty because he’s got a little story that we oughtta know. In the course of the song, we don’t learn much more about this story other than that it’s “the end of a brief episode”; but that’s as much as we need to know. We can all fill in the particulars: the bliss of discovery, the sense of pre-destined compatibility, the immemorial tingle of the first touch, the shared fantasies of foreign travel, the first tangle, an exchange of words, perhaps an indiscretion… Whatever the details, they’ve dealt enough of a blow to our hero that he needs to “talk them away”—and, if only instinctively, he knows that talking away his problems would not have been possible three hours earlier when the world was in full swing.

At quarter to twelve, this bar was filled with the buoyant and unhesitant sounds of “nightlife.” In the air were fifty conversations, the clinking of glasses, music, the commotion of comings and goings, maybe even a fistfight or two. But worse, that hour presented our protagonist with the much more fundamental distraction of other people’s happiness highlighted incessantly through laughter, effortless conversation and the excited innuendo of a budding romance. How could anyone possibly be expected to make sense of what’s gone wrong in one’s life with all of that clamor in the background?

Instead, the jilted soul must wait for the rosy-eyed rabble to clear out. He must outlast them. He must bide his time, waiting for that hour when the few who remain share a weightier view of the world, and can offer a muted sympathy informed by disappointments of their own.

With this in mind, it is no wonder that Frank Sinatra is the man who made “One for My Baby” famous. The song was actually originally performed by Fred Astaire in the musical comedy Sky’s the Limit (1943). In his prime, Astaire successfully launched many of Cole Porter’s greatest numbers, which in retrospect makes a lot of sense. Because Porter and Astaire shared a certain blend of style, wit, erudition, and optimism. But Fred Astaire had no business singing “One for My Baby”. Listening to his performance with its perky styling and zinging delivery, you almost wonder if Astaire understands what the song is even about. But there’s no question that Sinatra understands the song. Almost from the first, you could tell that life would deal Sinatra his fair share of setbacks. That was part of his mystique—and the reason why so many men and women could relate to him. His persona suggested no aura of privilege, no aristocratic remove, no lofty presumption of success. In looking at Sinatra we sense that he knows through personal experience that money, art and romance are hard to obtain and harder to keep—a fact that makes him seem an everyman, even at the peak of his fame. When in “One for My Baby” Sinatra asks for a sad song to be played on the jukebox, orders a drink and begins to tell his mournful tale, we feel like we’re seated just a few stools down the bar.

You’d never know it but buddy I’m a kind of poet
And I’ve got a lot of things to say
And when I’m gloomy, you simply got to listen to me
Till it’s all talked away…

By eavesdropping on Frank in the course of this song, we learn two important aspects of the Closing Time ethos, which help set the hour apart from the rest of the day. The first is that when a man has waited-out the crowd because he has got a lot of things to say, then the bartender has simply got to listen to him. Well the bartender knows that at the height of the evening, nobody in full sail wants to hear another man’s sobs stories. So even though Joe is “getting pretty anxious to close;” when Sinatra asks for another round, Joe doesn’t’ throw him out. He pours him the drink, wipes down the bar, occasionally nods his head, and listens—providing our hero his first and only chance during the day to seek relief through the sharing of his trials.

The second aspect of the Closing Time ethos crystallized in the song is right there in the refrain: “Make it one for my baby/And one more for the road.” Another man faced with the collapse of a heady romance might leave the bar at twelve to go banging drunkenly on an apartment door, or wait in the shadows outside a cinema in the hopes of knocking a rival flat. Alternatively, he could have turned his charms on the woman at the next table and convinced her to go dancing while the night is still young, hoping to obliterate the loss of one romance with the attainment of another. But the sort of man you find at Closing Time will not pursue either of these remedies. For, however brief his connection had been, however painful its end, he would never degrade it or cast away its memory lightly. He is intent on living for a moment longer under its weight; and as he finishes sharing his grief, out of the utmost respect, our hero will have one for his baby, before he has one for the road.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, I find there is something a little Shakespearean about all this—a touch of Hamlet and King Lear. Because our Closing Time hero is situated somewhere in between the will to fight, and the willingness to be cavalier. He is occupying a lonelier, more rueful spot where loss will be grappled with and relived, regrets and second thoughts will be processed, and the spirit will slowly build up the strength to step into the future where another disappointment presumably lays in wait.

 

A Clean Well-Lighted Place

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference…

So begins “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the five-page Ernest Hemingway short story from 1926, which offers a brief glimpse of a Spanish café and the waiters who oversee its closing hour.

As the last customer sits on the terrace drinking one brandy after another, two waiters—one older, one younger—sit inside the empty café and discuss the old man’s failed suicide attempt the week before. When shortly after two, the old man asks for another drink, the younger waiter (who is tired and has a wife waiting in bed) decides enough is enough: he refuses to serve the old man and sends him on his way.

“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. “It’s not half past two.”
“I want to go home to bed.”
“What is an hour?”
“More to me than to him…He can buy a bottle and drink at home.”
“It’s not the same.”

The two colleagues continue their discussion as they close, but for Hemingway, the older waiter’s last remark is the crux of the whole matter: drinking after two in the morning alone in the empty café is essentially different from and preferable to drinking alone at home. What the older waiter understands (and the younger waiter does not) is that there are those who simply cannot bear to return to their apartments as the night draws to an end. They may have spent the afternoon in their apartments successfully whiling away the hours (completing crosswords, flipping to the end of mystery novels, frying ham in ungreased pans). But with the setting of the sun, they have set out into the commotion of the city looking for distractions, wary of the wee hours when they will have no choice but to return to their apartments and fend off their inner demons.

My father used to observe that on a sunny day, no summerhouse was too small; but on a rainy day, no summerhouse was large enough. As a corollary to his axiom, we could observe that no apartment is too small for the blissful; and no apartment large enough for the forlorn. Here in Manhattan, while for most of the 20th century the city had few cafés, there have always been spots that provided similar solace for the doleful—like the one depicted in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942).

On the surface, this painting of a nether-hour in a diner could be a textbook study of urban alienation. The four figures seem only modestly engaged with each other. A man with his back to us—his profile shadowed by a fedora—stares silently into his coffee. A woman in red gazes distractedly at her fingernails as her companion listens without expression to the counterman. Along the counter, six empty stools serve as ghostly reminders of those who are otherwise engaged. And, as in so many of Hopper’s Manhattan street scenes, the storefronts opposite the diner look abandoned, the apartments uninhabited. But for all its melancholy elements, the painting can’t really be categorized as depressing—because it so clearly depicts a respite. With Manhattan generally categorized by noise, crowds, and pace, this visit to a sparse, uncrowded, clean and well-lit counter provides for the weary a moment’s repose. And despite the hour, no one seems in a particular hurry to leave.

Meanwhile, back in Hemingway’s café where the old man lingers, we might ask what are the demons that keep him from heading home? We know as much about his demons as we know of Sinatra’s in “One for My Baby.” We know the man is an old, deaf widower with money; and we know that he has battled despair (given his attempt at suicide). But we are not given insights into the sources of his despair. It is left for us to accept that some loss or failed ambition now torments him like a nightshade. But the clean, well-lighted place provides a refuge from the torment, and for the older waiter (as for Hemingway), this is no small matter. Because the ability of this gentleman to linger in the café for a little while longer could quite literally be the difference between life and death.

In the course of the story, the younger and the older waiter engage in a sort of Platonic debate (with the younger waiter in the role of an impatient, self-interested youth and the older waiter in the role of Socrates). What was the old man in despair about when he tried to kill himself?

Younger Waiter: Nothing.
Older Waiter: How do you know it was nothing…?
Younger Waiter: A wife would be no good to him now.
Older Waiter: You can’t tell. He might be better with a wife…
Younger Waiter: An old man is nasty thing.
Older Waiter: Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling…
Younger Waiter: He can buy a bottle and drink at home.
Older Waiter: It’s not the same…

After each of the young waiter’s confident assertions, the older waiter offers a question, or a mild contradiction—basically encouraging his younger colleague to revisit his assumptions. Because the older waiter is also denizen of the later hours in cafés, as well as in life. Where the younger waiter, confronted with the inconvenience of the last customer expresses youthful, self-interested indifference, the older waiter represents a seasoned, empathetic compassion. And it is important for us to note that the older waiter’s compassion for the old customer is to some degree a byproduct of Closing Time. These feelings would not have surfaced or expressed themselves two hours before when everyone was gay, or dining after the theater, or calling out to friends passing by. These feelings only surface in those hours when the psychological state of the lone individual is on full display and the risks of his isolation are incontrovertible.

In the story, Hemingway notes with some care that the old brandy drinker is not a broken or slovenly spirit. When the young waiter begrudgingly pours another round, the old man thanks him and later leaves a tip. When he finally goes, the old waiter watches this “very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity” and then explains to the younger waiter: “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”

By turning a light on the noble behavior of the waiter before the dignified sorrow of the old man, Hemingway is revisiting, through an everyday moment, his interest in that manly psychology found occasionally in the bullring and battle: For while it is only a café, we have one man with his life at stake acting with dignity while another, without elaborate words or gestures, acknowledges both his plight and his fortitude. And it is the hour of Closing Time which has necessitated this unusual engagement of honorable men.

In a nice coda, Hemingway follows the older waiter after the café’s closing to a late night bar where he fends off his own demons with one more drink. Of course, the fact that this compassionate older waiter needs and finds solace at his own version of a Closing Time, opens the door to an infinite regression where the waiter is a customer of another waiter who is a customer of another waiter, and so on. At some point, every one of us is the lone individual seeking solace; and we are also the attendant with his finger on the switch who must decide whether to close the café or keep the lights on for a few minutes more.

 

You Must Remember This

CUT TO: INTERIOR RICK’S CAFÉ – MAIN ROOM – NIGHT

The customers have all gone. The house lights are out. Rick sits alone at a table. There is a glass of bourbon on the table directly in front of him, and another empty glass on the table before an empty chair. Near at hand is a bottle.

But I am getting ahead of myself…

An hour before this scene unfolds in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic Casablanca, the customers were still at Rick’s Café Americain, the house lights were up, a jazz band was playing, and every seat in the house was occupied. Among aristocrats mingled smugglers, soldiers and refugees from every corner and social caste of Europe who have come in search of one thing: a way out of Casablanca. Much of this and more is surveyed by a man in a white dinner jacket. Sought by all, available to few, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the personification of aloof confidence. In the course of twenty minutes, he indifferently accepts the confidences of a thief, shuns a bank president, brushes off a beautiful suitor, casually jests with the chief of police, offers dry responses to a Nazi commander, and generally shows himself to be intelligent, decisive, wry, successful, and unsentimental. When the thief (Peter Lorre) is seized by the police following a scuffle and pistol fire, Rick coolly signals the band to play having set right the toppled aperitif glass of one of his customers. And when, he suddenly encounters an old “acquaintance” named Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, he plays the perfect host: joining them for a drink, dispensing compliments, picking up the tab.

It is only later, when the neon light over the door has been turned off and the club is empty (or as Rick acerbically puts it: when they’re asleep in New York; when they’re asleep all over America…) that this charismatic figure seemingly undergoes a complete transformation. Rather than confident, witty and composed, he is suddenly world-weary, bruised and bitter having traded his self-assuredness for a cocktail of self-pity and self-loathing. With Sam, his piano player and only friend, he is suddenly rude and impatient. And in a perfect inversion of his otherworldly composure in primetime, he drunkenly topples his own glass spilling the remnants of his bourbon.

The appearance of Ilsa, or course, has served as catalyst. But as this morose scene unfolds, we begin to realize that her arrival has actually not brought about a changein Rick – rather, the forlorn persona on display in the emptiness of the nightclub is the real Rick, the one that has been just beneath the surface all night long (and presumably, ever since the fall of Paris). The terrific poise and enviable coolness were little more than a façade masking a jilted spirit.

If Closing Time allows us to see Rick as he is, this is in part because it is an hour when one naturally drops one’s guard; but it is also because it is the hour when one’s Past can assert itself. The early hours in the club are defined by the Present. Gambling, drinking, romance are all pleasures of the moment in the thrall of which we can lose sight of where we’ve come from or what consequences may follow—thus shoving the past and the future aside. Rick perfectly personifies the Now-ness of his Café when he meets up with a former dalliance:

YVONNE
Where were you last night?

RICK
That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.

YVONNE
Will I see you tonight?

RICK
(matter-of-factly)
I never make plans that far ahead.

But once the place has cleared out, the present recedes like a tide leaving the past to loom up and make a claim on Rick’s consciousness. Rick, masochistically insists that Sam play his and Ilsa’s song—the aptly named “As Time Goes By” at the sound of which, we all get to experience in Proustian fashion the rushing forward of bygone days (the lights of Paris, the shared champagne, the romantic implosion at the train station) made possible through the narrative magic of the flashback montage. Here’s looking at you, kid, indeed.

But the future too is asserting itself in this scene. Having lived in Casablanca indifferent to the passage of time and politics, Rick is suddenly waiting for a lady to come occupy the empty chair on the other side of the table; he is wrestling with his impulse to want her again even before she walks through door; and all the while, the transit papers that give one uncontestable exit from Casablanca are sitting right there, hidden in Sam’s piano.

As an aside, a terrific replay of the Casablanca closing time scene occurs in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but where the roles of man and woman have been reversed with Marion (Karen Allen) taking Rick’s place and Indiana (Harrison Ford) taking Ilsa’s. In Raiders the woman is the cool, apolitical character running a club in a frontier environment (with Nepal filling in for Casablanca), who has been jilted without explanation and has been bitter ever since. Whereas, it is the man, at odds with the Nazis, who shows up in her club when all the customers are gone in search of something valuable in her possession (a medallion instead of a visa) and thus brings all the old resentments to the surface.

But meanwhile, back in Casablanca, as Rick and Sam await Ilsa’s arrival, they perfectly exemplify the various nether aspects of Closing Time, which make it such a powerful motif. As noted above, the hour of Closing Time is not exactly the Present. After today and before tomorrow, it is an interstice in time, in which a visit may be paid by the future or the past (also known as hope and regret). Similarly, Closing Time exists in a realm that is between the private and the public. It provides us some relief from the confines of our apartment without exposing us to the distractions of the agora. And finally, Closing Time is a space which can never be crowded or empty. By definition it is in that nether environment when everyone is gone but for a few who either understand or shape us.

 

Don’t Tell Anybody Anything 

The bar was closing up for the night, so I got them all two drinks apiece quick before it closed, and I ordered two more Cokes for myself. The goddam table was lousy with glasses…

In J. D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the young hero, Holden Caulfield heads for Manhattan in the middle of the night having been expelled from boarding school. In avoidance of his parents, he steers clear of home and scrambles through the city over the course of a few days, making failed attempts to connect with strangers, old acquaintances and friends, while shifting impatiently from one locale to the next.

On two consecutive nights, he ends up closing down bars. The first night (referenced in the quote above), he insinuates himself into the company of three young female tourists, who basically let him linger because he’s willing to buy them drinks. As they interact, Holden is at turns charming and condescending, eager and dismissive. But what is painfully clear is that he’s buying them drinks because he can’t bear to be alone. So closely is he pursued by his ghosts, he would have bought a thousand drinks to fend off the end of the night a few hours more.

If the first night ends with failed connections with strangers, the second night entails failed connections with friends and ends worse. Having convinced an old friend to join him briefly at the Wicker Bar in the Seton Hotel, Holden ends up alone.

Boy, I sat at that goddam bar till around one o’clock or so, getting drunk as a bastard. I could hardly see straight… Finally what I felt like, I felt like giving old Jane a buzz… But when I got inside this phone booth, I wasn’t much in the mood any more to give old Jane a buzz. I was too drunk, I guess. So what I did, I gave old Sally Hayes a buzz.

I had to dial about twenty numbers before I got the right one. Boy, was I blind.

As most of us know through experience, dialing ex-girlfriends when the bars are closing is no antidote to your troubles.

In many respects, the Closing Time scenes in Catcher are reminiscent of the other Closing Times that I’ve described this week. On display are the recognizable demons of isolation, failed romance, old traumas and the brief comfort of chance company. But what I find particularly interesting about Closing Time in Catcher is that Salinger has revisited this American motif through the eyes of a teenager. In so doing, Salinger was letting a tiger out of a cage.

Where fiction and essays for hundreds of years had dealt with themes of alienation among adults, few had focused on those feelings in the lives of the young. Without a doubt, one reason the books remains so popular with American youth is that it gives voice to challenging aspects of the teenage experience that were universal, monumental (in the eyes of the teen), and yet largely ignored by adults.

This imbalance is one thing that fueled the success of rock & roll. Presumably, for centuries teenagers had felt some form of alienation; old enough to consider their situation, on the verge of responsibilities, but lacking independence and authority, teenagers naturally feel misunderstood, trapped, awkward and aspirational. But there was no real conduit for teenagers to share their feelings of alienation with each other. Then suddenly, through radio, young musicians could articulate these feelings and communicate them to their peers without the intermediation of adults.

If rock & roll became a wildfire in the 1960’s, spurring a youth movement, Catcher in the Rye may have lit the match.

 

Excuse Me, Don’t I Know Your Name?

She was working in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept looking at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on when the crowd thinned out
I was just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Saying “Scuse me, don’t I know your name?”
I muttered something underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

Leading off Bob Dylan’s great album Blood on the Tracks (1975), “Tangled up in Blue” is an extended narrative of disrupted romance set in a restless crisscrossing of the country reminiscent of Kerouac’s On the Road. Over the course of seven thirteen-line stanzas (each capped off with the song’s one line refrain), the narrator sets out from an unnamed starting point for the East Coast; he travels West with his love; he takes a job in the Great North Woods after they split; he then heads to New Orleans where he chances to meet her again. There, they rekindle their romance and finally end up moving to Montague Street (presumably in Brooklyn) where they separate once again.

The chance reunion in New Orleans occurs when the narrator recognizes her among the waitresses in a topless bar. In the stanza before, the narrator admits that “All the while I was alone/The past was close behind/I seen a lot of women/But she never escaped my mind…” And yet, having recognized her, he doesn’t approach. He sits at the bar and drinks. Finally, just as he’s about to follow the last customers out the door, it is she who approaches him. Whether he didn’t have the courage to approach her, or was captive of his pride, (and whether she recognized him earlier and was feeling regretful or awkward), seems of little importance. For whatever the causes of the initial hesitation, the willingness of one to approach the other has depended upon the thinned-out hour of closing. That’s the time where courage waxes, pride wanes and a possibly painful intimacy can be exchanged more safely in a public space.

As with Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, primetime in the crowded venue has provided chance the opportunity to bring the Dylan characters into proximity, but it is closing time that has allowed the deeper truth of a connection to brush aside the shallower impulses, the emotional obstacles and the inhibitions which have initially kept them from honestly acknowledging each other. Or perhaps, more simply, closing time is when there is no other avenue of escape available to these two who have been brought together once again by fate.

In the song’s final stanza, the narrator provides a quick accounting of his current state:

So now I’m going back again
I got to get her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives
But me I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

After all these years, the majority of those he’s known, having entered the mainstream, have become illusions to him. The only thing left that seems concrete, the only thing worth having or pursuing, is his relationship with her. To that end, he has remained on the road, constantly heading from one joint to another—be that a bar, or nightclub or café—in the slim hope that one night when the crowd has thinned out, there will be a familiar woman standing at the back of his chair.

§

Having reviewed these five seminal Closing Time images this week, it’s interesting to find at their center five decades of American cool: Hemingway (the 1920s into the 30s); Bogart (the 30s into the 40s); Sinatra (the 40s into the 50s); Holden Caulfield (the 50s into the 60s); and Dylan (the 60s and beyond). Each of these men can serve as an exemplar of cool in his day. Hemingway with his ex-pat, war correspondent style; Bogart with his cigarette-smoking film-noir allure; Sinatra with his cocktail glass in hand and tilted fedora; Caulfield with his fast-talking alienation; and Dylan with his sun-glassed, bushy-haired reluctant-idol aloofness. Many a young man adopted these stylish trappings of these five in pursuit of attaining the cool in their time.

But to varying degrees, all five of these icons also exemplified the more timeless attributes of cool. American male cool is comfortable with isolation. It is the man who is so at ease in his skin and private in his thoughts, that he clearly does not need our attention or confirmation. The American male cool is not glimmering and perfect. It is openly flawed, strengthened and seasoned by setbacks, occasionally moody, dark and dispirited. It is decidedly not muscle bound. It has a poetic sensibility that is rugged enough to be admired by men, but fragile and heartfelt enough to be magnetic for women.

And it is not a coincidence that these figures all appear in seminal expressions of Closing Time—because the core characteristics that define American male cool are all at the heart of what makes Closing Time such a lasting cultural touchstone. It is that space where the lone individual lingers with his thoughts and regrets, where both the roughness of his experiences and the poetry of his sensibility are hovering at the surface—for the moment accessible to whomever sits on the neighboring stool.

Amor Towles
New York
July, 2011

First appearing in print in 1926, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” was collected in Hemingway’s Winner Take Nothing (1933).

Lyrics quoted above in the first part are from “One for My Baby” (1943) — music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Performances by Sinatra date back to the late 1940s, but the best recording (and the one which most closely emulates the sound of a bar at closing time) is the 1958 piano rehearsal version found on Sinatra: The Capitol Years. The Fred Astaire performance can be found on the compilation Somewhere Over the Rainbow (The Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals). For the curious, there is an interesting version of the song performed by Marlene Dietrich in 1959 on her album Live in Rio with musical director Burt Bacharach.

All quotations from part three are from the screenplay of Casablanca by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch.

All quotations from part five are from “Tangled up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

This essay originally appeared as a five day blog at Powells.com in July, 2011.

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