By Seth Daniel
Michael Cain – known more appropriately the neighborhood as Smokey – frequently jokes that in turning around his life from drugs and addiction, he made a move from the back of this newspaper where the police log is located, to the front of this newspaper, where the positive community news is featured.
“I tell everyone that I’ve moved from the back of the Patriot to the front of the Patriot,” he said with a laugh. “That’s not a bad thing at all for someone who started out at Boston Latin and ended up at Boston State Pre-Release.”
Smokey has been the Town’s go-to DJ for the past 16 years, yet many of the local gigs her performs – whether for Little League, Pop Warner or Halloween – he does for free as a way to give back to a community that he said tolerated the ups and downs he had for so many years – a roller coaster of highs and lows that were fueled by addiction and substance abuse.
Now, he’s carved out a new life in his hometown, and said he gets the chills when thinking that he has now become part of the solution to the problems; that the all-stars in the community like the late Peter Looney or the current Billy Boyle who extended a hand to help Smokey in the darker days would now partner with him in helping others.
“I never had an opportunity because I came from a single-parent home and got exposed to drugs and grew up on the corner and wanted to be cool,” he said. “Being cool cost me 10 years in prison…There was a time in my life when I had to bury my head in shame. Being an addict, I had to hang my head in the community. My friends had gone on to lead happy lives. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me; I went to Latin and did well in school. I would get sober for a year or two and start coaching Pop Warner or my son’s sports. I never understood you could get a high by watching your son run up and down the football sidelines. When it was happening for me, I was numb to it. Once I was sober and got involved in the organizations, I found myself rubbing elbows with the angels in this Town, and they were reaching out to me for help, and I am honored by it; that they would make me a part of what they’re doing. Given the epidemic going on now, why wouldn’t we all want to do whatever we can? I am a firm believer that when you give, you receive.”
His friend of more than 35 years, Elaine Donovan – who is also very involved in Recovery organizations around the Town – said Smokey has made the community proud.
“He’s really part of the solution now, and not part of the problem,” she said. “He’s so strong and we know he won’t fall back. He’s made us so proud.”
Said friend Shannon Lundin of CSAC, “Giving back has been part of his recovery. The past four years since his last episode, he’s put in a lot of work. The difference was here’s someone that’s paying it forward.”
Smokey is a face that is well known all over the Town.
Young people recognize him from his involvement in virtually every organization, and they often confide in him when trouble comes their way. It’s one reason he has become a certified Recovery Coach with CSAC and wants to help others who are going through what he went through.
“I’m their token addict,” he said with a laugh. “It’s alright with me to say that because I have been there. I’m the foot soldier and I provide that experience. I was a union roofer for many years, but I don’t want to fix roofs anymore. I want to fix people.”
But a little over five years ago, Smokey hit a rough patch and relapsed. Living in an apartment that he called a real life ‘Three’s Company’ type of situation in a home near the Monument, he said he made poor decisions. During those times, he said he started using with his son, Michael.
Michael had been an all-star athlete in football at Northeast Vocational School in Wakefield – helping to lead the team to multiple state Super Bowl championships. He was on the right path by all definitions, until he suffered a debilitating back injury during a football game.
To help ease the pain, doctors prescribed the young man some pain pills, and he became dependent upon them after he had healed from the injury. It was the beginning of a cycle for Smokey’s son that the older Cain had seen so much himself. It was a circle that would take the younger Michael Cain’s life earlier this summer – as he died from an overdose just like so many other young people in Charlestown and across the state.
“At one point in my life, I’m not proud of it, but I was using with my son,” said Smokey. “That changed when I sobered up, and we thought Michael was doing better too. Apparently, he started injecting heroin recently and was doing so for about nine months. Once we understood was was happening, we had him put in rehab. Shortly after he got out, we don’t know what happened, but he overdosed and it killed him. He had never overdosed before.”
Two weeks ago, Smokey spoke at the State House during a Recovery Rally, which he said was an incredible experience. Last Saturday, at the Charlestown Vigil in Hayes Square, he said that losing his son this summer to addiction has made him want to focus even harder on helping other young people struggling with the same issues.
“The fact that he’s continued stronger this year, despite losing his son, and giving back to the community and others who might be struggling with addiction shows the work he’s done,” said Lundin.
Said Donovan, “I am fortunate that substance abuse hasn’t touched my life, but it has touched so many around me. My sister and I, when we were younger, often thought we would be burying our friends. As it turns out, we’re burying their kids. That’s the power of the disease. It’s overwhelming.”
Smokey said it would have been easy to have internalized and been quiet about his recovery and all the tragedy that has visited his life this year, but he said he has chosen to speak out to spread awareness.
As a life-long Townie, he said speaking up isn’t such a natural thing.
“This isn’t normal or easy in Charlestown,
” he said. “We grew up here with the Code of Silence. We were known for car theft, bank robbers and keeping quiet. Many families here are still silent about this problem, even thought it’s well known. I want my life to be an example, and I want to use it to spread awareness. Our goal is to really, really come together – the Townie Association, the Mother’s Association and all the Friend’s groups – to all be part of this solution to a problem that’s in the entire community.