There are only four characters in the short story: two waiters, the old man, and the bartender at the bodega. The first three are equally important for the plot development. Still, the older waiter is the protagonist. He brings the reader to understand the story’s subtext and lives through all the feelings that the author depicts.
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The older waiter is the protagonist of the short story. His name is unknown, just as his background, education, or well-being. But we know that the older waiter is single (he lacks “everything but work”). He has a place to live (although he avoids going there in fear of his own helpless thoughts). He also has a job to support himself and to feel needed. Besides, he is not too old to suffer from the infirmities of age or anxiety in the face of upcoming death.
At first glance, this character has everything to live a decent life. Why does he lack “everything but work?” Many people would prefer to live alone and enjoy themselves rather than tolerate a grumpy partner. But loneliness is not precisely what consumes him. Like many other single people, he fools himself with the idea that a partner would give him a purpose in life. That is what he lacks the most.
The older waiter has found himself in a spot where religion is too weak to refill the emptiness inside him. He may have never been married, or his wife has died, and he does not look for a new partner. The man has given up all efforts to do something with his despair, and the clean, well-lighted café is his only refuge.