My writing teacher
Most of us working the phones used a handle. An alias in case some cop or speed freak or infatuated client tried to track us down. A persona to match the online personality. Tom was Moodus. Harry was Speed. Women tended to choose literary names. Sharon went by Emily. Ginger—more radical by far—called herself George. “Eliot or Sand?” Speed asked her once. “If you bothered to read them,” George answered, “you’d know.” Sharp tongued among ourselves. Acid wit. Gallows humor.
It was 1969. Anything could happen at any time. And when we weren’t working the phones, we were on edge. We were Damien Switchboard, a crisis hotline and intervention center, located on the no-man’s land borderline separating San Mateo County, California, from San Francisco. Our goal was to buffer between counter culture freaks and The Man, to keep our people off the street and outside institutions as long as humanly possible. We provided drug counseling, draft counseling, pregnancy and abortion counseling, birth control information and sometimes basic sex ed. We did mental health referrals. We kept track of crash pads—places where a stranger could spend the night—and safe houses where runaways and victims of domestic violence could shelter. We maintained a rides board, hooking up people who had wheels with people needing transportation. We talked frightened mystics down from bad acid trips. But most often we just “rapped,” as we called it then. With the rusty percolator on overdrive, and KSAN humming in the background, we would talk to lonely, dispossessed, disheartened people all night long. A lot of our work was suicide prevention.
The youngest and most romantic of the group, I took risks. I did not use a handle. I was 16; it was the 60s; I believed in a kind of fate. And besides I’d already changed my name once. At the Switchboard I was Joan—plain Joan. The same name I used in my other life—not my real life, since things at Damien were always a little more intense and therefore a little more real—but my offline life, my student-poet-cashier-coffeehouse life. At Damien, I worked the Friday night shift, the second-worst shift of the week. When the phone wasn’t ringing, I wrote dark poetry and long, complicated journal entries. “Write what you know,” my high school Creative Writing teacher used to scrawl on my papers. But I was writing what I knew. Transcribing really. The horror stories I heard on Friday nights. My writing teacher meant well, but he didn’t have a fucking clue.
Bio: Joan Hawkins is a writer and spoken word performer, who focuses mainly on
creative memoir. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Avalanches of Poetry, Fevers of the Mind, the Performing Arts Journal, Plath Profiles, and Sand.
Two poems are forthcoming in a special poetry issue of The Ryder Magazine. She and Kalynn Brower have co-edited an anthology called Trigger Warnings,
which contains one of Joan’s stories; it’s currently under consideration by Indiana University Press. “My Writing Teacher” comes from a manuscript in progress– School and Suicide.
Joan lives in Bloomington, IN with her cat Izzy Isou. She is currently the Chair of the Writers Guild at Bloomington.