During one of his last days as Mr. Mayor, Thomas M. Menino continued a ritual he began two decades ago: a Christmas Eve stroll down the streets of the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.
Over the years, things have changed. The journey is less a stroll and more a ride in a black SUV for Menino, weakened by physical ailments. At his first stop at Fwresh Salon and Spa, the crowd of photographers was so thick that children had to push past them to receive gifts of Hot Wheels and basketballs.
But the neighborhood, too, is different: safer and more cohesive than when he started the tradition, Menino said. Wearing a festive green tie, Menino stepped gingerly from his car, but smiled warmly and chatted with people who rushed to take photos with him and thank him for what he'd done for the neighborhood.
And this year, the community had a gift to give in return: a bench in front of the teen center at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church.
"For 20 years, the mayor has been a fixture here on Bowdoin-Geneva. . . . This bench is dedicated to him as a reminder, years down the line, that he always has a place in this community and a place in our hearts, and he's always called the mayor," said the Rev. Jack Ahern, pastor at St. Peter. "My guess is 20 years from now . . . when we say, 'the mayor,' we'll always mean Mayor Menino."
Many of the people gathered said it felt like a farewell to the mayor, who is retiring Jan. 6 from the post he has occupied since 1993.
Nicole MacFarland, who has five daughters and who five years ago moved back to the neighborhood where she grew up, said she was trying not to get emotional about the end of Menino's lengthy tenure. When Euclides Fontes, a 25-year-old youth worker, described how the teen center had been a second home to him and had saved his life, keeping him off the streets and away from gangs and drugs, the words rang powerfully true to MacFarland.
Then, she walked inside the teen center. She had just had a conversation with her 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, explaining that she couldn't give her the talking monkey toy that she desperately wanted — it was $60 and they had already spent their gift budget. Then, Danielle got the toy she most wanted from Menino.
"As a parent, I feel ever grateful," MacFarland said. "And not just for this. He does so much for this community, whether it's happy times at the holidays . . . even when there's tragedy and shootings. He's always there."
Andrea Lopes, 17, said she appreciated his presence. "It's a good way of saying goodbye to him as mayor," Lopes said. "From what I know of, he's been helping our community."
Ahern said Menino's presence in the neighborhood extends well beyond the holiday tradition. Not long after the priest arrived at St. Peter 4½ years ago, violence claimed several young people in Bowdoin-Geneva, and Menino was the first to call, asking what he could do.
"He walked me around the neighborhood my first month so people would get to know me," Ahern said. "He didn't say that was what he was doing, but as we were walking around, later I realized he was saying, 'If you can trust me, you can trust this new priest.' "
But now, the mayor is two weeks away from leaving his post. Still, on Tuesday, it didn't feel like a goodbye to everyone. Anastajia Balbuena, 4, clung to Menino's coat to give the mayor a long hug after he concluded his official remarks outside the center.
Inside, the mayor sat in a chair in the middle of the gymnasium, almost like Santa — asking what children wanted for Christmas and handing out toys.
Rachel Silva, 11, said the mayor didn't ask her many questions — mostly, whether she liked her new board games — but that it was exciting, like meeting a celebrity.
"I'll never say goodbye," Menino said. "I'll be back here next year, the year after, and the year after. Not as mayor, but as a person who cares about what's going on in the neighborhood."