This is a piece I wrote for a journalism class at Boston University.
Jack Kelly perches on a stool in a dimly lit corner of McFadden’s, a popular downtown bar. The dance floor remains barren, but Kelly looks at ease from his seat in the DJ booth – the clock has yet to strike 10 and the night has only just begun.
Bracing himself for the hours ahead, Kelly has supplied his desolate corner with Red Bull and enough water to last until closing. He stares blankly at the deserted dance floor before him as he sits motionless while the latest track sequence plays. Alone with only his laptop and the pulsing beat from the speakers to keep him company, Kelly says he sometimes capitalizes on his alone time.
“I’ve written papers back here before,” he says.
On top of his weekly DJ gig at McFadden’s, Kelly is also a student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where he is working on completing a degree in political science by next summer. His duties don’t just stop at student and DJ. He also writes a weekly column for the Charlestown section of Patch.com. His editor, Krisiti Ceccarossi, 31, says the column is consistently the highest rated work on the neighborhood’s hyperlocal news site.
But Kelly is perhaps best known for his role as Charlestown’s neighborhood coordinator in Boston’s City Hall. There, he works closely with Mayor Thomas Menino, addressing concerns and keeping close contact with residents from the one-square-mile neighborhood just north of City Hall. At only 29, Kelly fills his work life with politics, music, fashion and writing and has formed most of this repertoire within the last seven years since he overcame drug and alcohol addictions.
Spinning tracks at a bar every week despite his past addictions doesn’t seem to faze Kelly.
“I stopped drinking because I didn’t need it anymore,” he says.
Seven years ago, Kelly gave up alcohol and drugs – he had previously been addicted to oxycontin and heroin, which he had started using in high school. While Kelly cannot pinpoint an exact reason why he gave up his substance abuse habits, he says it could have been a result of circumstance or what he describes as a miracle. While using drugs and alcohol, Kelly says his relationships with friends and family suffered.
“I felt like a disgrace; no one trusted me,” he says. Heroin is widely used in the neighborhood where Kelly lives, says Jennifer Kelly (no relation to Jack Kelly) at the Charlestown Substance Abuse Coalition. She says heroin can create “a tight hold on people.” Today, she says heroin is the most popular drug in Charlestown and the use of oxycontin has subsided in popularity since the early 2000s. Though she admits substance abuse can happen anywhere, Jennifer Kelly says an attitude of acceptance in Charlestown has fueled drug use in the neighborhood.
She says, in Charlestown, there was – and in some instances still is – a community attitude of acceptance concerning drugs. This acceptance translates as individuals thinking nothing can be done to change the substance abuse problems in the neighborhood, so they accept it as a way of life.
According to Jennifer Kelly, Charlestown’s heavy Irish background included a lot of drinking. She says the high presence of alcohol “played into the acceptance” of other substances, like heroin and oxycontin, but adds that these attitudes are improving today.
Though Jennifer Kelly argues an environment can potentially play a role in substance addictions, Jack Kelly doesn’t see it that way.
“I could be sitting on Mars and have a drug problem,” he says, who although born and raised in Charlestown spent much of his high school years in Cambridge where he attended a private school. Now, Kelly celebrates Oct. 12 every year to mark another year sober. The process of withdrawal may have been grueling, but Kelly says he is happy to have turned his life around.
Matt Pritchard was Kelly’s case manager at Boston Rescue Mission, an emergency homeless shelter where Kelly sought treatment and eventually quit drugs and alcohol. Pritchard says it was Kelly’s endearing personality that got him through the withdrawal and into complete sobriety.
“You don’t have the quality of his sobriety without his humility and character,” Pritchard, 35, says.
Pritchard says though the statistics of making it through detoxification and rehabilitation were stacked against him, Kelly managed to defeat the odds.
“The sort of person Jackie is now is the same person I knew years ago,” says Pritchard, adding that Kelly’s humility allowed him to reach out to others for help.
Newly sober, Kelly decided to start his own clothing line, which he called JUNK – Just Unique Klothing. Kelly’s younger brother Mike Kelly, 27, says lots of people around Charlestown laughed at his brother’s dreams of a clothing line. But he says his older brother never fed into those negative opinions.
“He came from a tough place and made something out of nothing,” he says.
There is a stigma in the neighborhood regarding those who were addicted to drugs, says Alfred Hurley, the former president and current member of the Charlestown Historical Society.
“Everyone is skeptical of a person’s ability to come back from drugs,” he says.
But Jack Kelly says the neighborhood laughter and doubts just fueled him to succeed.
“I took an idea that was in my head and made it reality,” he says. “It was the first time since I turned my life around that I did that.”
When Kelly started searching for other work, he heard that the position of Charlestown neighborhood coordinator was opening up in the mayor’s office. Though the position is appointed, candidates for the job must win popular acceptance in the neighborhood before being selected. Kelly waged what he describes as a grassroots campaign for the job; he visited local businesses, families and groups asking for their support.
At the time Kelly campaigned, substance abuse was a widespread problem in Charlestown. Because Kelly had turned his life around and never kept his recovery secret, he says he was “in the perfect position for the job.”
Now four years into his stint as neighborhood coordinator, Kelly says he continues to “to give everyone a voice in City Hall.” This includes spending upwards of 40 to 50 hours a week working in the community, dealing with neighborhood concerns and attending events, he says.
Though he remains focused on his current job in City Hall, Kelly says he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of running for elected office.
He says one of the greatest honors he can imagine in politics would take him all the way to the nation’s capital. “Would I like to be a U.S. Senator? Of course I would, but to get to that point would take a lot of hard work and persistence,” he says.
Dan Iannello, the general manager at McFadden’s, is confident in Kelly’s political potential. Iannello, 37, refers to Kelly as “Senator” and says the two sometimes spend hours debating history and politics. Though Iannello, 37, says their political ideologies sometimes differ, he enjoys the healthy rivalry.
Iannello says they like to talk political theory, like “what were the founding fathers really like?” While some staff members sit in on the debates in the bar’s office, Iannello says most of them don’t know of Kelly’s role in City Hall.
“People coming here have no idea who he is,” he says.
As McFadden’s customers venture away from their huddle around the bartender, clusters of young bar-goers wander onto the dance floor, swaying gently with the beat and pausing in between songs. Kelly teases the crowd with a mix of Top 40 hits and a collection of his own favorite music. By 11 p.m., Kelly’s dance floor is shoulder-to-shoulder, full of men and women attempting to impress one another.
Kelly still has hours to go until the bar closes, but with a full work schedule during the day and DJ-ing at night, he says he wants to take some time to relax. This weekend, he says he’ll head up to New Hampshire to hike and read a good book, because he has four papers due for school and his work in City Hall is becoming more demanding as the holidays approach.
Two twentysomething women, hair coiffed to perfection and makeup meticulously applied, approach Kelly. With a nervous giggle, one woman asks, “Can you play Justin Bieber?” Kelly smiles and tells the girls he’ll try his best. The women walk away satisfied – confident the teenage heartthrob will blast through the speakers momentarily. Kelly watches as the women return to the dance floor and then laughs.
“That’s just not happening,” he says.