A Haunting Melody, A Phantom Trumpeter:
The Gift of the Glyph in ‘Godfather Waltz’

July 24, 2018 – This month I was thrilled to see a piece published in The New York Times ‘Metropolitan Diary’ that I had held onto tightly for six years while I submitted other work. Headlined ‘Godfather Waltz’, it appeared online the evening of Monday, July 2, and in print (without the headline) the morning of Monday, July 9.

I had been haunted by a moment I experienced in 2012. I knew the moment was worthy of a Diary piece, and I could not risk dashing off a trifle that would get lost, dismissed, or brushed aside. I set myself to my usual task: Crafting it into a composition that surpassed anything I had yet written, to such a level of quality that I was personally convinced an editor could not ignore it. It sounds lofty, even self-aggrandizing, but sometimes you must trust what you know is true and strive to see it become real.

This writing experience taught me a great deal. One was to be extremely selective about who I share my unpublished work with, and then listen to them when I do. My friend, the writer Lou Craft, recognized its qualities instantly. Even though I already knew the moment was worthy, and the final draft worked, Lou’s approbation set me on fire, gently singeing me into an elevated awareness of my own talent that forced me to own up to it in a slightly more serious way.

Another lesson learned is to trust my instincts and practice the disciplines I’ve developed as a writer. One such discipline is to not let go of a piece when even one tiny thing nags or bugs me. I must fix it, or let it simmer and stew for a few months, or longer, until I melt it away I can see no flaws.

Another is to not give up trying to convey a moment of beauty (or humor) perfectly, even when stumped. It took me six years kicking this story around, trying to discover a way to put what I heard into words before choosing the moment I disclose it outright to the reader (though the headline writer spoiled that in the online version).

In May I found a graphic I created in 2012 as I began the challenge of telling this story. I had written out the melody in musical staves. I abandoned the graphic approach and reached for words, the only thing the column publishes. Well, words, plus a sprinkling of punctuation.

Putting bar lines into the phonetic melody was, I don’t mind saying, a ‘stroke’ of genius, but it was also an enormous risk. The symbol known as the vertical bar, or pipe ( | ) is rarely used by The New York Times (or any publisher or writer of non-fiction) in any format, Web or print. By employing this glyph I risked having one of my most treasured stories, one I absolutely believed in, getting rejected (though I prefer “passed over” or “not selected”). Even after hearing from the editor that it was accepted, silly me, I considered for a moment telling him he could substitute a slash ( / ). I came to my senses. He had accepted the piece! Why was I second guessing myself, and him?!

Still, when I saw the pipe “ | ” in the online version, it only barely sunk in that there was my melody, complete with bar lines. In print, I finally accepted it was real, and strange as it sounds, I am almost as proud of getting an arcane and specialized math, physics and computing symbol into a piece of breezy, creative non-fiction as I am of the piece itself. (Yes, even more than the parenthetical exclamation point (!) in ‘A Practice Nook in the Subway.’)

In the end, however, after all the personal pride and joy, the satisfaction of getting published, and the ecstatic reception by readers, the only thing that matters is that a moment of exquisite beauty was now set to words perfectly and shared with the world, for its beauty alone. That is the only thing I really ever wanted, and judging by the thoughtful online comments, I “nailed it.”

Dear Lord, how grateful I am that in Your tender and forgiving and eternal love, You have comforted me with a moment I couldn’t forget, blessed me with the gift to put it into words, encouraged me through a friend, and given me the honor of seeing it published.

I pray that when readers enter my story and hear these silvery tones ring through through my block, they get the shivers and sense in it something in their hearts they have yearned for — the presence of the loving, beautiful, mysterious Holy Spirit of the God of this world, floating across the bricks, up the fire escapes, through their open windows and into their hearts.

Let those who have ears, let them hear.

– Paul Klenk