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Letting go is hard for Menino as memories pour in

Everywhere he looks, through the window of his City Hall office or his ubiquitous SUV, Mayor Thomas Michael Menino sees the imprint of his 20-year mayoralty. He leaves with many points of pride and precious few regrets. He did it his way.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino paused after calling Martin J. Walsh after his victory in November’s mayoral election.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino paused after calling Martin J. Walsh after his victory in November’s mayoral election.

The silhouette is etched on the fifth-floor window. It traces a solitary figure, hunched slightly at the head of a 10-foot-long mahogany table bracketed by seven empty chairs.

The man is usually hidden by the tinted floor-to-ceiling windows. But in winter, evening comes early. The bright interior lights offer a glimpse from the sidewalk into City Hall’s corner office.

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Boston’s longest serving mayor is packing to leave. Every minute brings him closer to the end, at 10 a.m. Monday.

Boxes are labeled by year — 2012, 2011, 2010, back two decades. Bubble wrap enshrouds a framed Celtics jersey bearing the number 03, in honor of Thomas M. Menino’s third term. Here is a small plaster statue of Mayor James Michael Curley. There is a ceremonial key to Fenway Park. On and on it goes: an engraved silver chalice, a gift from President Clinton. An Olympic torch from Mitt Romney. A black Gibson electric guitar signed with a get-well note from Aerosmith, back when he was hospitalized a decade ago.

“I’ve got too much stuff here,” Menino says. “It was never mine. I’m just a custodian.”

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Some stuff he’s not ready to pack. A secretary boxed up a small statue of St. Patrick, long presiding over a corner of the desk. A priest bequeathed the statue to the mayor in his will. Menino asked about St. Patrick’s whereabouts, so the statue came back. The portrait of Harry S. Truman remained, too, on the wall behind the desk.

Menino does not often sit behind the desk. He almost never has, except that first moment —5 p.m. on July 12, 1993. After his predecessor, Raymond L. Flynn, left for the Vatican, Menino sat behind the desk and told aides, “They will need a crane to get me out of this chair.”

His true perch during his 7,484 days as mayor has been at the head of the mahogany table. He piles papers in front of him because he likes to “throw everything out and make a mess.” He has a phone, a glass of water, and stacks of coins sorted by denomination, change from aides who fetched coffee or sandwiches. On this day, he wears a starched blue shirt and designer tie, but no jacket. He has slipped off his shoes.

“I like sitting here,” Menino says. “It’s comfortable. I can see what’s going on.”

To the right, he watches the flow in and out of his office. Most days a line of aides waiting for an audience forms at 5 p.m. before the mayor leaves for evening events. To the left, he looks down on Faneuil Hall — the red brick “Cradle of Liberty” made famous by patriot Samuel Adams and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Menino used the hall to announce he would not seek a sixth term.

But it was at this table on City Hall’s fifth floor that he shared the news that March day with city department heads. Menino sat in his seat — a captain’s chair. He cried. They cried. And they stood to applaud while the 70-year-old sat and bowed his head.

This is where he did much of his governing. At least when he wasn’t on the roads and sidewalks of his city. He talks about impromptu coffee shop polls — not political polls — as the best way to gauge the pulse.

At the table in his office, he has taken calls from presidents and archbishops and worried mothers like Marie Duggan of Roslindale. He has brainstormed speeches and met big bankers and foreclosure victims. He has bargained with unions, cajoled corporate executives, and listened to North End parents pushing for a downtown school.

And this is where trophies have sat — hockey’s Stanley Cup; the NBA’s gold basketball; football’s Lombardi trophy; baseball’s World Series trophy. Eight championships in 20 years.

Then there were the bad times. One of the worst came on a Friday afternoon, March 1994. He took a call from Paul F. Evans, then the police commissioner, who told him, “When I get through talking to you, you’re not going to have a very good day at all.”

Police had raided a Dorchester apartment looking for a machine gun-toting drug gang. But when officers sledge-hammered through the door, guns drawn, they found a 75-year-old minister. He went into cardiac arrest and died.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to tell the truth,’ ” Menino recalls. “We’ve got to tell the public what happened and talk to the leadership in the minority community. He did some of that. I did some of that. It happened to be NAACP annual banquet that night, so I went to the banquet ... and talked to people.”

His mind drifts to the other tragedies, the children killed on his watch.

One of the first was Louis D. Brown, a 15-year-old who wanted to be the first black president. He was shot and killed on his way to a Christmas party, in December 1993. Menino went to meet the boy’s mother, Tina Chéry, at her house.

“I remember walking up the stairs, I was standing there and thinking, ‘What do I say?’ ” Menino recalls. “I rang the doorbell. And so Tina came down, and I said, ‘I’m trying to figure out what to say to you. I’m sorry. What else can I say?’ ”

He starts to talk about others — too many others. He mentions Kai Leigh Harriott, the 3-year-old paralyzed by a stray bullet. And Steven Odom, a 13-year-old shot and killed walking home from a basketball court.

Then he stops.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Menino says. “I did my job, that’s all I ever did. It goes on and on and on and on. Odoms. All those folks. But I just did what I was supposed to do. Not to be melodramatic, but if you’re mayor you should be there. You’ve got to be there helping people. People depend on you.”

* * *

He’s riding shotgun in a police-issued Chevy Tahoe hybrid, watching his city flow past the front passenger window. Back when he became mayor, he rode in a Ford Crown Victoria. Then he changed to sport utility vehicles. He got a hybrid to send a message, but the first one was cramped. It was a very uncomfortable message.

His suit coat hangs on the back of his seat. He flips through note cards, studying his remarks for a ground breaking. His press secretary, Dot Joyce, sits in the back seat, as always, offering conversation and a laugh track for his jokes.

Menino’s gaze drifts out the window toward the grand brick row houses of Beacon Hill. “Imagine living there,” he says. He likes the gleaming glass of Harvard’s new Tata Hall on Soldiers Field Road. Driving is how he sees his city, feeling the landscape as it changes.

His eye catches imperfections — one day a shattered bus stop shelter, another day graffiti or an overflowing trash bin. He has called the city’s complaint line so often operators recognize his call before answering. The view from the car is like the mayor’s own quality control program.

“You do your thinkin’ here. You do your phone calls here,” Menino says. “Just because you’re sitting in the front seat of the car doesn’t mean you’re not working.”

He gets the chills, he says, whenever he drives past the construction crane in Dudley Square that marks the new headquarters of the School Department, in the long-abandoned Ferdinand Building. A few blocks away, the fallow Bartlett Bus Yard “frustrates the blazes out of me,” he says. He has pushed developers to create a village of housing and shops.

From the car over the years, he has watched Bowdoin Street in Dorchester fight to fill empty spots in its business district. Those streets were rife with violence two decades ago when he became the accidental mayor, thrust into the job by the departure of Ray Flynn. There’s still trouble on Bowdoin, he allows — but nowhere near as much.

The SUV arrives at the groundbreaking in Brighton. An aide is there and opens the door. He helps the mayor put on his suit coat, hands him his cane, and rattles off names of people waiting for him at the event.

At that moment, a 23-year-old man in a puffy blue coat runs up.

The man, Anwar Ahmedi, saw the mayor’s SUV on Western Avenue and chased it into the parking lot. Ahmedi is breathing hard as he asks Menino if he has time for a cellphone picture.

The mayor glances at his aide. “OK,” Menino says. “Real quick.”

Back in second grade, Ahmedi was in a photograph with the mayor. He is taller than Menino now. He throws his arm around Menino and smiles. An aide counts to three and snaps the photograph.

“This is a memory right here,” Ahmedi says. “Mayor Menino, you served a very, very, very long term and you pleased us all.”

When Menino is on the road another day, he points out restaurants — places he eats with his grandchildren, the best pizza, good portions. There’s City Councilor John R. Connolly’s mayoral campaign headquarters. There’s the Westinghouse Electric building in Hyde Park, where he and his father worked a lifetime ago, before politics.

He points at a hat store on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. When the haberdashery opened, he cut the ribbon. Most businesses in the city, he says he cut the ribbon. He has his own oversized ceremonial scissors that are kept sharp.

“The only issue I haven’t done a real good job of is traffic,” Menino says. “This city is terrible. These are all old cow paths. We just enlarged them and made them roadways. We could still do more. We could still do a better job and be creative. It’s probably my fault. I haven’t forced the issue.”

Maybe the next mayor could make some roads one-way going out of the city at 5 p.m. Or ban deliveries downtown after 8 a.m.

“Try something different,” Menino says.

* * *

He is silent, glancing at the concrete walls of this office. He is only the third mayor to inhabit the space, and the building is nearly half a century old.

Wood shelves hold memories, like a diary of his middle years. There’s a photograph of Menino with his daughter at her wedding, New Year’s Eve 1994, just after he took office.

When he became mayor, he had no grandchildren; now, there are six. Babies crawled in diapers across the Oriental rug. These days, dust coats a yellow Tonka truck, Legos, Matchbox cars, and a baby doll clutching a pink and white bottle.

“All these toys I got in here for my grandkids. Now, they’re too old for them,” Menino says. “When I decided not to run, Sammy and Olivia called me and said, ‘Papa we’ll be all right.’ ”

He has four bow ties, gag gifts sent after he turned down a position at Harvard. He joked he doesn’t wear bow ties. Harvard President Drew Faust sent him one. So did others.

Another gag gift — the best of them— resides in a private sitting room next to his office. There is a comfortable blue leather chair, a small television, and a shoehorn sitting on an end table. Menino reaches behind the chair and grabs a furry stuffed animal by the head.

“See this thing here, this monkey,” Menino says. “That was given to me after I went over and did a press conference at the Franklin Park Zoo and the monkey threw [scat] at us. Somebody sent it to me and said you deserved it.”

Humor has helped these last days to blunt the emotion. A young city attorney who worked on the scuttled East Boston casino project asks the mayor about his day.

“I’m doing wonderful. How could I complain?” Menino announces. “I’m walking around with no shoes on. How’s my casino doing?” The mayor answers his own question with a laugh. “Not so good.”

He walks past a shelf that holds 13 trophies from bocce tournaments. He is Boston’s first Italian mayor. Another shelf has 65 clocks. More clocks are boxed. Others are at home. He doesn’t know why so many people gave him clocks. But he has always been a stickler for punctuality.

“My father taught me, being on time shows respect,” Menino says. “Being late shows no respect.” Now time is against him. The hard part came in March, when Menino told his city, “I will leave the job that I love.” Emotion has abated since the announcement.

The inevitability of the calendar took over. He’s a lame duck, he says. “Quack! Quack! Quack!”

* * *

A caravan of three trolleys lumbers forward, escorted by motorcycle police, lights flashing, to stop traffic. It’s the mayor’s 20th annual Christmas tree lighting tour which will take him to 16 neighborhoods. The media is there the first night.

“I enjoy this,” Menino tells a television reporter. “It’s bringing joy to my neighborhoods.”

The tour lasts three days, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Menino tells the reporter he does it to give kids a chance to sit on Santa’s lap and showcase local business districts. Standing off camera, Dot Joyce, the press secretary, offers another talking point, reminding the mayor to say, “It’s free.”

Menino doesn’t react. “And it’s free,” Joyce repeats “It’s free.”

“The tree,” Menino says. “I light the tree.”

The television reporter adds, “And it’s free. Thank you, Mr. Mayor.” Joyce laughs.

Menino missed the last two trolley tours because he was sick. He’s happy to be back, even if he now relies on a cane. His grandchildren are here and his wife, Angela, too. City officials shed their suits and ties for warm clothes and hats. Staffers bring their children. The trolley is filled with the aroma of hot cider and clam chowder.

The new police commissioner seems nervous. The mayor pressures him into eating an “uncrustable,” a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off. Menino teases his fire commissioner, Roderick Fraser, about his blue Christmas lights. Menino leads a cheer as the trolley passes Fraser’s house.

“I can’t hear what he’s saying,” Fraser says. “But I know I’m the butt of it.”

Menino sits in the front seat, blue lights from the police escort illuminating his smile. He talks quietly about the future and Boston University, where he will help launch an Institute for Cities.

“I’ve got a challenge, a real challenge,” Menino says. “In my business, a lot a guys don’t have anything when they’re done.”

In West Roxbury, a few hundred people crowd a sidewalk. A daughter sits on her father’s shoulders. Menino gets a microphone, tells a story, and asks, “Who’s missing?” Out comes Santa Claus. The mayor leads a countdown and flips the switch to light a tree. Cannons on top of a trolley blast confetti.

It’s the same happy shtick for the next three days. People have handwritten signs: “We’ll miss you, Mayor Menino,” in Jamaica Plain; “Thank you, Mayor Menino,” in Brigham Circle; and “Roxbury loves Mayor Menino,” in Dudley Square.

The tour ends Sunday in East Boston. Some aides have hardly missed a stop in 20 years. Eyes are moist.

* * *

There are wrenching moments. Election Day was one. And he chokes up at the end of many of his weekly Cabinet meetings, where familiar faces fade as, one by one, his closest aides leave city government. There is the dedication of a park for children with special needs, a joyful event, but then he withdraws into himself. He slumps in his chair, bows his head, and folds his hands as if he is in prayer.

“The toughest decision I made was not to run for mayor,” Menino says later. “I’m at peace with myself about it. Sometimes it gets very emotional.”

He prays, but he always has. He often worships at 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. John Chrysostom in West Roxbury. He contemplates his future. He asks for help.

“You need time to yourself with the almighty God,” Menino says. “That’s the time for no politics at all.”

* * *

Menino practices his last big speech. He is cloistered in Parkman House, a city-owned mansion so ornate there’s a fireplace in the bathroom. Speech prep is on the fourth floor, where the mayor says no one can hear him yell. But there is no yelling this time. There are no policy announcements to fight over. They quibble about how many Christmas trees he lit last weekend. It’s 17.

The mayor complains about the beginning. He’s supposed to thank the hosts and crack a joke about delivering his next speech as a professor in a lecture hall.

He stands at a podium. There are two teleprompters and an orange extension cord taped to gray carpet. Six of his top aides sit on dining room chairs, arranged in a horseshoe facing the podium. When he likes a speech, he says he “feels the music.” He likes this speech, just not the beginning.

Menino has had a complicated relationship with the spoken word. His first campaign, he warned he was no “fancy talker.” A tabloid dubbed him “Mumbles.”

He used to get nervous before speeches, but that stopped more than a decade ago. To the chagrin of staff, he often wanders off script. He starts most ad-libs with the phrase: “Let me tell you.” But he says it as one word: “Lemetellya.”

Practicing this last speech, he is loose. He shrugs when the teleprompter stalls.

They talk about life after City Hall. Joyce is going to Costa Rica. His chief of staff, Mitchell Weiss, is taking his kids to Disney World. Menino is flying to Florida. The teleprompter is working again.

“I still don’t like the beginning,” Menino says.

Joyce mutters, “Only 28 days left.”

“Who’s counting?” Menino asks.

Longtime aide Michael Kineavy replies: “We are.”

* * *

Menino stands on a stage in a hotel ballroom. He waits for the applause to quiet before he begins. He ignores the script.

“Lemetellya,” Menino says, voice starting to crack. He talks about his wife and the health scare last year that left him in the hospital for eight weeks and convalescing at Parkman House for three months.

After the speech, Menino sits on the edge of the stage, the ballroom emptying.

His closest aides — Joyce, Weiss, Kineavy — linger nearby, as if they don’t want to leave. People shake his hand and say thanks.

“I’m only just one person. The community did it. My team did it. That’s how it happened. Thank me? Thank all of them,” Menino says. “You can’t just be a bully as mayor. If people don’t trust and believe in you, you’re not going to get it done, if they don’t believe your heart is in the right place.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan-@globe.com.
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