As a writer and writing teacher, my life revolves around the importance of using words precisely. I didn’t learn this lesson in the classroom, though. I learned it at knife-point.

I was waiting tables in a burger and salad joint in Greenwich Village, frequented by NYU students and stoners from nearby Washington Square Park. If you wanted clean tables, thick sandwiches, and cold beer, you couldn’t beat the prices.

On busy nights, we had two cooks, serving twenty or so tables. They stood behind a counter, chopping and flipping, cracking wise to the customers seated there. The cooks were surly, far more street-tough than the wait staff. We learned early on how to stay on their good sides, because if we didn’t, our tables faced long waits.

I was doing fine with this, until one busy Saturday, when Jimmy handed me a tuna sandwich.

I need a tuna salad, I corrected him.

You wrote sandwich. He pointed at the ticket.

No, that says salad.

He stiffened, and I thought for a moment he would grind the sandwich in my face.

Instead, he lifted his left hand, which held a carving knife, and rested the sharp tip on my chest.

You think I can’t read?

It hadn’t occurred to me until then, but it was possible.

You wrote sandwich.

No, I wrote… And then I stopped. Yes, I’m an idiot. Totally.

Jimmy blinked twice, very slowly, pulled back the knife, smiled.

Good move, college boy. One damn salad, comin’ up.