By Seth Daniel
A year ago, when Charlestown’s Brian O’Neil came down the street, people did their best to get away from him.
Living on the streets and rarely sober, it’s why he took on the nickname “Oh no,” with locals.
“They called me ‘Oh No’ because it was like, ‘Oh no, he’s drunk again,’ or more likely, ‘Oh no, here he comes,’” said O’Neil last week.
Now, he walks down Main Street with a purpose, every Friday coming back as part of the Public Works Department’s (PWD) summer crew to clean the very street, and see the very same people, that he used to terrorize.
It’s been a complete turnaround for him, and when people call him ‘Oh no,’ now, it’s with a laugh and a bit of joy to see him contributing and giving back to his hometown.
“Mayor (Martin) Walsh and his administration gave me a second chance to prove myself and that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “I work every day and I haven’t missed a day. I’m sober and trying to get full-time work and get noticed. I’m going above and beyond to do that. When I come over here to clean Main Street, I see people I know. Kids who used to see me here look at me and say, ‘What’s O’Neil doing on Public Works?’ They are told I’m sober and good things happen to you when you’re sober and you’re patient. I want everyone to see me now.”
O’Neil is a seasonal worker for the PWD and cleans up the North End and Charlestown with a crew. It’s part of an unofficial program that the administration tries to use to help those who need a leg up, and also need to prove that they can work and show up every day.
Sober for about a year now, O’Neil is set to put his recent past behind him for good.
“I was a street bum right here,” he said. “I was bumming money here and sleeping anywhere I could. I slept in back of Whole Foods for five years. I would steal people’s BBQ grill covers in the winter and sleep under that to keep warm. I slept in ATM machines when I had a card to get in. It wasn’t sleep; it was passing out. People here all saw me like that. I realized one day I had become exactly what I didn’t want to become when I was a kid – how I felt disgusted when I used to see bums growing up…Having grown up here, it was so embarrassing.”
But O’Neil’s story isn’t one that dwells on the lows like that – though he said he can’t forget it. Rather, his story is about the good direction he’s going in.
With the help of the recovery community in Charlestown, including Shannon Lundin, Katie O’Leary and Smokey Cain, O’Neil, 49, was able to get medical attention and get support as well to stay sober.
It is hard, though, he said to shake the past. He grew up in Charlestown to a father that was an alcoholic and rarely available. His mother worked her fingers to the bone in a factory, and his sisters raised him, he said. He was introduced to drinking by taking beers from his older brothers, and soon after that taking Angel Dust (or PCP). That spiraled into a drinking problem that landed him in jail a few times and in detox programs as well.
He was well known around Charlestown as ‘The Walker’ in those days because he would be let out of jail or a program and walk back home. He said he walked from Worcester, Danvers and Tewksbury back to Charlestown.
But this time, he said he’s ready for permanent change. He’s mending fences with his kids and he’s relishing the opportunity that the mayor has given him.
“Because I’m sober, I’m getting chances,” he said, saying he sometimes still fights the thought of drinking, but hasn’t relapsed. “The biggest thing for me is a chance. Now I have to be present. I want everything yesterday and think I deserve things because I’m sober. That’s the alcoholic in me. I don’t want that. Now I’m being patient and things are happening. I have housing, and I have a job and I’m trying to make the most out of it.”
Now, people see O’Neil hard at work on Main Street, talking to people like a “regular person,” and getting a lot of encouragement from folks who remember him when he was down.
“I’m just a sick person trying to get better,” he said resolutely.