Mayor Thomas M. Menino has spent the past 20 years steering Boston into the future. Now he is about to undergo a mission far more uncertain: steering his own car around the city’s famous streets.
Menino has his eye on a used Lexus, but it will not come with the cassette deck or high-beam pedal he had in his cars of yore. And the handle to roll down the window? That’s gone, too, replaced by a button.
“There was a button to turn on the engine!” Menino exclaimed of a car he recently drove. “A button to call somebody,” he added, working his way to a punch line. “I kept looking for the clutch!”
His favorite missing accessory will be the police officer who has driven him around, day and night, for two decades, subjected to Menino’s backseat driving.
Aides expected, even urged, the mayor to look into a car service once he left City Hall. But a few weekends ago, Menino went for an hourlong drive with his son. It felt good to be back behind the wheel, and he is not a car-service type of guy.
‘There was a button to turn on the engine! A button to call somebody. I kept looking for the clutch!’
Last Saturday, Menino arranged to buy a Lexus sport utility vehicle. He and his wife own a Ford sedan, but Menino wanted a vehicle higher off the ground that will be easier to get in and out of. He is eager to drive to his new job at Boston University, where he will help launch an Institute on Cities.
So as Menino leaves office in three weeks at age 71, he will be serving as his own chauffeur, one of many changes as he adjusts to life after City Hall. He may have to learn again what it is like to stand in line, fight for a dinner reservation, and hunt for a parking spot.
Check that. He actually has a short-term plan for the parking. No, it does not involve a bright orange cone or other South Boston-style space saver. Menino recently purchased a year’s worth of valet parking at a charity auction, which should help him downtown.
He used to drive to church on Sunday, he said, but he stopped last year when he got sick. He has a valid driver’s license, according to the Registry of Motor vehicles. He has not received a ticket since 1989, when he was cited for speeding in Hatfield, the day after his 47th birthday, records show.
It was difficult to give up the wheel when he became mayor, Menino said. His police driver, who is part of a security detail, usually took his advice about whether to take Hyde Park Avenue or to cut through Franklin Park and opt for Columbia Road. Twenty years later, Menino remains the city’s most powerful backseat driver.
“Still today I tell them you gotta go there, you gotta go there,” Menino said, pointing. “I know all the shortcuts. I know ways around some issues. I drive them crazy. I drive them nuts. I always think I have a better idea. Most times they have a better idea.”
True to his word, Menino bickered with his driver last week on a trip to Downtown Crossing.
“It would have been quicker that way; that’s all I’m saying,” he said. “We’re going all round the world.”
Menino has put in his own time driving for someone else. In the 1970s, he was a top aide to state Senator Joseph F. Timilty, and he occasionally chauffeured the boss around town.
“He was a fine driver,” Timilty said. “He knew the city very well. And he followed the letter of the law.”
When Mayor Kevin H. White left City Hall, he had a driver provided by BU, where he taught. The school will not be giving the same perk to Menino, said the mayor and BU officials.
Raymond L. Flynn, a former Boston mayor, suggested that Menino could seek an alternative form of transportation that Flynn and his wife embraced after they left City Hall.
“I’d try to walk,” Flynn said. “I’m sure Tom Menino will get around very well without a driver; we did. There’s not a person in South Boston who hasn’t seen me wheeling my grandchildren up Broadway or Castle Island.”
Menino has had trouble with both knees and relies on a cane, so walking may be unrealistic. He also lives in Readville, a suburban neighborhood in Hyde Park in the farthest corner of the city.
“Driving to town in the morning is the worst thing in the whole world,” Menino said, noting that can take him more than 50 minutes to get to City Hall. “People come in from New Hampshire faster than I come in from Hyde Park.’’
Soon, he will be braving the morning traffic in a car without a siren or flashing lights.
Menino has been contemplating another amenity. He has been talking about buying an iPhone and could listen to music or audio books while stuck in traffic. Menino could learn how to send an e-mail or text message, which would be a first.
But not while he is driving, of course.