Diners at Ashley’s Breakfast Shoppe on Bowdoin Street stared Thursday at his photograph on the wall as they reminisced about the irrepressible man they still call “the mayor.”
People downtown shouted the news to strangers. Sadness flooded an East Boston coin laundry as his image flickered across a television.
“God bless him,” laundromat owner Alvaro Garcia said in Spanish as he folded a pair of sweat pants. “The good ones don’t last.”
The death of former mayor Thomas M. Menino Thursday hit Boston like a punch. People winced in pain as news ricocheted from barber shops to boardrooms, dry cleaners to pizza parlors.
“I just closed my door and sat there and cried,’’ said Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative who later served in Menino’s Cabinet.
He died just 297 days after walking out of City Hall. It has been more than a century since a Boston mayor passed so soon after leaving office. None served longer than his 20 years.
“When people think of Boston, they think of Mayor Menino,” said Maryanne Snow, who clutched her chest outside Faneuil Hall when she heard he was gone.
To many Bostonians, Menino had seemed invincible, a fighter who repeatedly survived serious illnesses. As his health failed, Menino pushed to keep up his relentless pace. He began walking with a cane but not without panache: His walking stick was a baseball bat outfitted with a curved maple handle.
His death brought politics to a standstill. Days from the Nov. 4 election, gubernatorial candidates canceled public appearances. President Obama described him as “bold, big-hearted . . . the embodiment of the city he loved.”
His successor, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, held a somber press conference on the steps at City Hall, where behind Walsh stood scores of stone-faced lawmakers, city officials, and government workers who got their start on “Team Menino.”
Governor Deval Patrick recalled his last bedside visit with the mayor Sunday, when Menino could barely speak. Days earlier, the mayor gave the governor memorable advice.
“Don’t let the knuckleheads get you down,” Menino told him, according to Patrick.
People all over the city knew Menino, who famously and prodigiously made a point of meeting ordinary residents.
They knew him best in his native Hyde Park. Judy Pais has lived across from the Meninos for more than 35 years. After Pais’s father died, the Meninos sent over two turkeys with all the trimmings and cut a trip short to return for the funeral.
Pais recalled the mayor rising early after storms with a snow blower to clear the sidewalks up and down Chesterfield Street.
“What other mayor gets out there with a snow blower?” Pais said. “He was a regular guy. He really, really was.”
They knew him at the DryDock Cafe, an unassuming restaurant in the Seaport District that his presence helped make into a place for power lunches. Owner Cathy Spiropoulos sometimes saw him three times a week because, she said, “he liked to help out the small person.”
In the North End, his longtime barbers — Gino Colafella and Johnny Cammarata — recounted a story that has become barbershop legend. Cammarata gave Menino his first mayoral haircut circa 1994, and Colafella last took scissors to his thinning hair on Oct. 4.
“When he started with us, he had a full head of hair. He’d say, ‘Can you thin it out?’ ” Colafella said. “Then later, he’d say, ‘Don’t cut too much.’ ”
The hulking edifice of Boston City Hall seemed almost to sag as red-eyed secretaries, janitors, and parking clerks whispered the news. Sitting at a parking ticket payments counter, Menino’s former scheduler, Joanne Wallace — her eyes the same color as her red sweater — could barely get the words out.
“He was an unbelievable guy,’’ said Wallace, who juggled Menino’s nonstop schedule from 1993 to 2011. “He was like a father. He was amazing.”
Janitor Rocco Addessa, who has cleaned City Hall for two decades, teared up as he talked about his “old boss.”
“He would whack me over the head with his cane, but he was just joking around,” Addessa said. “He was always joking with me.”
Meredith Weenick first met Menino in a job interview 12 years ago as a freshly minted Harvard MBA.
“The interview was brief, direct, and to the point,” said Weenick, a Texan who rose to become the city’s chief financial officer. “He asked me only a handful of questions that were all about me proving how much I cared about Boston because that’s the only thing he cared about.”
At Santarpio’s Pizza in East Boston, the staff mourned. Menino often came by for lunch with co-workers or his wife and his grandchildren. He loved the barbecue and the pizza, and often took a pizza to go for his son Tommy, a police officer. Often, his waiter was Tony Costanzo, 63, a server for more than 30 years.
Costanzo said Menino always graciously posed for photos with constituents. Other people made Menino happy, Costanzo said, even if they interrupted his lunch. Usually, Menino showed up smiling, but if something was troubling the mayor, “you could read it in his face.”
In those moments, Costanzo said, he would greet Menino and then slip away to change the music on the sound system.
“If you played Frank Sinatra songs, he would smile from ear to ear,” Costanzo said.
In Dorchester, Menino made an annual Christmas Eve pilgrimage to Bowdoin Street, walking the heart of a neighborhood that struggled with episodic violence. It made a difference, the Rev. Richard “Doc” Conway, a priest at St. Peter Parish, said in an interview.
“Where are you going to spend your time if you’re going to go out on Christmas Eve? Are you going to go up on Beacon Hill or are you going to do it here?” Conway said.
Jose Araujo remembered Menino’s presence 11 years ago when he opened Computers for All on Geneva Avenue.
“He worked all his life, and he couldn’t enjoy his retirement,” Araujo said woefully. “He should have taken off a little earlier. Poor guy.”
On Bowdoin Street, Nicole Lewis has three photos from Menino’s visits stashed in a folder behind the counter of the dry cleaner she and her husband have operated for 27 years. Lewis cannot recall seeing a politician in the neighborhood before Menino took office in 1994. But soon, the sight of the mayor became expected.
“It became a routine,” Lewis said. “He was a good man.”
Others recounted Menino in Brighton, Roxbury, and Mattapan, where members of Boston’s black community gathered to pay tribute to the life of a mayor who championed their causes as his own.
But for many, Menino’s impact was personal. In 1988 when Menino was a councilor, a 22-year-old City Hall security guard named Thomas Tinlin caught his eye. Menino began pushing Tinlin to finish college. The day after winning his first election as mayor, Menino called. “I want you to come work for me,” Menino told Tinlin, “but you have to go back to school.”
Tinlin earned a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s in public administration. He rose to become one of the longest-serving transportation commissioners in Boston history.
“I don’t know where I would be if Tom Menino hadn’t come into my life and taken a shine to me,” said Tinlin, who is now chief of operations and maintenance for the state’s roads and highways. “I see him everywhere in my life.”
As Thursday wore on, Angela Menino returned to the home in Hyde Park that she had shared for decades with her husband.
She and a small group emerged from a silver unmarked Ford Taurus police car. His wife of nearly five decades held the Louisville Slugger cane that the former mayor had relied on for the past year.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Tony Costanzo.