Thursday, September 30, 2010

What's in a Title?

I don’t remember the details about the night when I first uttered the words that would eventually become the title of my first book. I know I had been upset about the way the guys in the kitchen had been treated by management. We were down to a skeleton crew to save money and they were stretched thin and utterly exhausted.  

We all clocked out after the kitchen had been cleaned. I exited through the front door. The guys in the kitchen walked out the back, lit up their cigarettes and shuffled meekly into their cars. The line cooks and dishwashers and busboys would return to roach infested apartments in neighborhoods crawling with rats. They entered their home overcrowded with extended family and maybe a dog or two and would perhaps find sanctuary in one small area of the apartment.

I walked home through my beautiful neighborhood and into the home where I grew up. I entered my one thousand square foot apartment with no roommates, no crying babies, and no barking dog waiting for a walk. I sat on my sofa that I didn’t share with anyone else, ate my dinner and later, retired to my comfortable bed across from my desk with my Apple computer glowed peacefully.  

I walked home that night thinking how life was for them and how life was for me. They put up with so much daily abuse. And then, those seven words just fell out of my mouth: It’s a miracle they ain’t dead yet.

A lot of people ask me why I decided to write a book. Before my mom moved to Manhattan, our routine consisted of my nightly tales of restaurant horror stories as we sat on our shared sofa. What did she miss most after moving? Those stories.

So I began to email them. Each night, before I sat down on the sofa that I now shared with no one, I went into my room, opened my computer and wrote to mom. That night, I probably wrote about how upset I had been over the way my colleagues—immigrants (most of them legal)—had been treated. They were second-class citizens. Yet they worked as hard as our model ones.

My access to good role models has been limited, perhaps because I chose not to go to college and diminished my opportunity to meet good thinkers in good workplaces. I’ve worked for almost thirty managers in my seven years in the workforce. With the exception of a handful, all have been lousy and useless in every sense of the word: verbally abusive, alcoholic, petty, anti-Semitic, and robotic. What have I learned? How to not manage, how to not treat people. Yes, that’s valuable, but I’ve sadly concluded I’ll never learn useful information from a good manager because in the fields open to me, good managers seldom exist.

From whom have I learned the most? Who has taught me about compassion, respect and trust? Who has taught me to be persistent and hardworking? Who has taught me that there is a time and a place to speak up and defend one’s self? Immigrants. My colleagues who currently withstand nasty and disdainful attacks from American citizens and politicians.

I chose the title of my book with all this bubbling in my mind. As I wrote, I realized that my title offered different interpretations. I loved that Dead Yet symbolized the mistreatment of the men in the kitchen, but it also spoke to the health hazards found in many kitchens. The title seemed to reflect the one chapter discussing health hazards and so that became the title chapter.

People read the title, heard that it was about the restaurant industry and decided they’d rather not read it. Not if it’s going to scare me about eating out, they’d say.

Recently, a new friend asked how I chose the title. After hearing the explanation, she responded that the title is misleading. I suppose so.

Should I have chosen a different name? Maybe. But it’s too late now. I’m married to It’s a Miracle They Ain’t Dead Yet.

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