The beginning of 1999 was a smash and grab affair. On Valentine’s Day I left Tasmania to study at the University of Canberra. Eight days before I left I met a girl called Jacci at a party. Sometime after dawn we kissed. It was three days after I had unofficially broken up with my girlfriend of six months, Jade. Jacci was the same starsign as me, Gemini. We were born a year and one week apart. She barracked for the same football team as me, Carlton. She had the same colour eyes as me, bluish, and the same coloured hair, dyed blonde with dark brown roots. And her stepfather was my music teacher. On top of all this she had the same initials as me. JMH. Jaclyn Maree Holness. Justin Marcus Heazlewood. We sat on the front step and smoked her rollies under the moon, reminiscing about year twelve, impersonating ‘shazza’ and ‘simmo’ the bogans, and losing the plot with laughter.

What’s in a name? Jade had the same initials as me. JEH. But with Jacci I had hit three cherries on the same reel. JMH. I was a believer in signs and this was as intense as Mother Mary winking from the bottom of my teacup.

My name was Justin. But you never called me that. The only people allowed to call me Justin were Mum, Nan and Pop. Anyone else using the word obviously didn’t know me or the rules. This person would be ‘reprogrammed,’ or face immediate prosecution from the Nickname Police – my friends. If you were my friend then you used my nickname and only my nickname to address me. If you were to hear my real name then you would act surprised, as if you had forgotten that I had a real name. The only time it would be permissible to use my real name would be for the purposes of ironic humour, or to gain my attention. In any case, these devices had to be used sparingly. The Nickname Police were vigilant. They enforced the laws that stated:

1.1.1        Persons with a nickname shall be addressed by that nickname at all times.

1.1.2        Persons with a nickname shall address themselves by that nickname at all times.

If either of these laws was broken then it was the role of the Nickname Police to make sure the persons involved were brought to justice.

By the middle of 1999, I was a permanent resident of the ACT and a wanted criminal back in Tasmania. I faced charges for repeated offences. These included:

  • Intentional misuse of a Christian name.

‘G’day, I’m Justin. How’s it going?’

  • Providing false or misleading information to a member of the NP.

‘Do they call you Phonze over there?’

‘Sort of.’

‘What do you mean? Do you introduce yourself as Phonze?’

‘Um. Sometimes. Once. How’s the weather been?’

The NP wore black and white glasses. They could not compute the uncertainty in my voice. I contained a foreign and deconstructive weakness.

But they were not here. They were at home sipping coffees in front of familiar televisions murmuring safe news about quiet local towns. They rested their feet on sagging armchairs and picked fluff off fresh socks with wrinkly bath hands. They scratched their cheeks and delighted in the hypothetical.

‘You should say your name is Phonze.’

Canberra was their hypothetical world. I was an ideal. A comic book character. Able to swing into conversations like Tarzan, peel off my name with a grin, and exit with a Danny Duko strut. I was an expectation. A sultry caricature in the Planet Hollywood of their memories. Forever blowing smoke next to Richie Cunningham in a cheesy ‘legends’ painting. I was an enigma. A culmination of all the classic scenes. Memories of me ran like a showreel. A highlights package. A seamless collection of timeless one liners, finger snapping entrances and burning rubber exits.

I was: The Phonze

Here, I was tripping up stairs. I was a sidekick. Comic relief. Phonze seemed a clumsy title, not a cool one. I felt like one of the muppets. And worst of all, every single person would now want to ask ‘the question.’ Back home ‘the question’ was to be avoided at all costs. Asking it was as bad as calling me Justin, and indicated a clear naivety to our social codes.

‘So why are you called Phonze?’


I begin with a raw stream of unprocessed disappointment. ‘The question’ which I have been asked many times before has once again reminded me of how disappointing the answer is.


This is used to buy myself some time while I consider whether or not to make up a more exciting story. I never do.

‘Well I was on the school bus in grade eight. And I was sitting next to a kid called Elvis.’

Surprise. Mirth. Elvis?

‘And then this other kid, for no apparent reason, goes ‘hey look, there’s Elvis and Phonze.’

Confusion. Bemusement. Is that it?

I pause for a moment to see if the other person appears satisfied by the story. They never do.

‘I think it was something to do with how I had my hair that day. It was all slicked back.’

Oh. Of course. Now I get it.

‘And it just stuck.’

Sometimes I add a twist.

‘Only I spell it P-H-O-N-Z-E. I’m disassociating myself from the traditional Fonz character.’

Oh that’s cute.

I now mumble something about wishing I had a better story.

Once, and only once, I found the courage to make up a story. I said I was on a school trip to Movie World and I was watching a ‘happy days’ stunt show. Henry Winkler, who was playing the Fonz had to jump over a house on a stunt bike. While he was doing the jump his hat blew off and landed right next to me. I picked up the hat and put it on. After the jump Henry rode up to me and said I could keep it. I was in a wheelchair at the time. So naturally, Phonze stuck.

They believed every word of it.

In Tasmania I got away with my nickname. The NP knew that deep down I loved it and were happy to keep fuelling the fire. To anyone new I acted nonchalant, as if Phonze was something I ‘tolerated.’ There’s an Australian modesty that requires you to at least pretend you hate your nickname a little bit. It was my understanding that the negative energy directed towards one’s own nickname was the fuel for its survival. This is where I believe Phonze transcended culture. This was more than a nickname. On that day in grade eight I had been baptised all over again, with a christian name chosen by the people for the people.

Now it was over. Canberra had not heard of Phonze. There were no NP assigned to this region. I was alone to fend for myself. I had always had someone around to speak for me. Now I was my own ambassador. This was my undiscovered country.

One day in the bar I told Toby, the President of the theatre society about the Phonze institution. He grew quiet. He was searching for the right words. The polite way to say:

‘No, I wouldn’t call yourself that.’

Jacci too, knew nothing of Phonze. She had encountered the NP but had grown defiant. She didn’t like Phonze. Did I mind if she called me Justin? No I didn’t. Canberra would not accept Phonze and neither would my girlfriend, who was now my central link with home.

It was official. Phonze was dead. The NP had lost their man.

A month later Toby started calling me ‘Spankees.’

Don’t ask.