Johnny Masiulewicz identifies with tapirs and urban possums. In college, he drove a Dodge Aspen beater with “Porsche” emblazoned on the side. Yet just when you’re waiting for the next laugh or odd metaphor in his writing, Masiulewicz says something about his father’s work shirts and, with poignant understatement, moves you profoundly.
Masiulewicz’s newest endeavor is the zine series Happy Tapir; the inaugural installment tells the story of his first apartment in Chicago.
Remember zines? When your friends wrote poems and record reviews and Xeroxed and stapled them in the early ’90s? Zines aren’t dead. The main branch of the Jacksonville Public Library has one of the largest zine collections in the Southeast, with around 1,000 titles, and the collection’s still growing.
I first wrote about Masiulewicz in late 1997, just after the publication of his poetry collection Professional Cemetery. He’d been in town for six months. I published his poem “Some Turtle Vibe” a decade later in my electronic literary magazine deadpaper, which ran from 2002 to 2012.
In HT-1, as Masiulewicz calls Happy Tapir, you’ll find failed gallantry, the hemostat he fished from his hospital room trashcan when his appendix nearly burst, and far more mentions of his father — with whom he hasn’t spoken in decades — than he’d realized.
One of the best attributes of Masiulewicz’s writing is his use of understatement. It’s ironic, because he seems to personify Carl Sandburg’s 1914 poem “Chicago” — “Stormy, husky brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders.” Still, he shares this understatement with another Chicago-area native, Ernest Hemingway.
In the section of HT-1 called “Milk Crates,” which is a single paragraph long, Masiulewicz writes of the Country’s Delight milk crates he’s used for shelving and plant stands since his Lakeview, Chicago apartment days in the late 1980s. The crates came from the dairy company for which his father worked. “I have a picture of me in the apartment wearing one of his work shirts. It has his name stitched on a patch over the right breast,” he writes. “I have very few of my dad’s things anymore.”
We’re sitting in a Barnes & Noble café in Mandarin. Beside us, a soccer mom has just held hands with her two small children to ask God’s blessing over their lunch. Such Deep South occurrences still jar him, like the recent refusal of a postal clerk to say aloud the cost of shipping his sister a package: $6.66.
I ask Masiulewicz about HT-1’s recurring mentions of his distance from his father.
“I’d rather not talk about that,” he says.
It’s the same answer he gives when I ask him about the role alcohol plays in his writing. In part, this vocal reticence goes back to his original desire to be a writer.
“In writing, I could say whatever I needed and it would be the work saying it, not me.”
Momentary and unrealized gallantries inform HT-1. He writes of a “safety-pinned, leather-jacketed” girl with “limited funds” in a small urban grocery. She wants to buy a single stick of butter instead of a four-pack. The cashier keeps repeating, “There’s no bar code on the individual sticks.”
Almost 30 years later, Masiulewicz writes, “I would have bought the four-pack for her and split the sticks,” whether “one/three, two/two, three/one.” Would have, but didn’t.
A blind woman who constantly gets lost in the apartment building winds her way through HT-1, and I tell Masiulewicz she’s Beatrice to his Dante.
In “police tow,” he writes of having his car impounded after failing to pay parking tickets, and asks, “if I cannot / even get my car out / of stir, can I be / expected to afford / a rocketship?”
Alcohol features prominently in Masiulewicz’s writing, from his working as bouncer in Chicago’s Tijuana Yacht Club to his distaste for beer, which he used mostly as a chaser for whiskey.
At the climax of HT-1, Masiulewicz wakes with his face “glued to the pillow with blood” to find someone had broken into his apartment. The door’s open, the jamb busted to splinters. Downstairs, the building’s front door window lies in shards across the foyer. When he can’t find his keys, he understands. Drunk and blacked-out the night before, he’d broken into the building, then into his own apartment.
“That’s a frightening story,” I say, idiotically, and Masiulewicz looks at me like I’m stating the obvious, and says, “Alcohol’s a frightening substance.”
It’s been nearly 15 years since he’s had a drink, but he’s not self-righteous about it. He doesn’t want to say more, however, hinting that the story will continue in future issues of Happy Tapir.
“So why tapirs?” I ask.
“Because if you stand by the tapirs at the zoo and listen to what parents tell their children, you’ll hear the tapir called everything but what it is” — a pig, an anteater, some weird dog or deer. He relates.
In “the citygate,” an urban possum laments, “the trash bins are exquisite, but how / damn hard it is to look like a giant / rat in a city with a rat problem.”