Hobbled Menino yearns to walk in his old footsteps

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / December 3, 2009

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Wincing in pain, lying flat on a newly purchased automatic recliner with his left leg immobilized in a brace, Mayor Thomas M. Menino stared at the ceiling yesterday, thought of everything he is missing, and sighed.

The 66-year-old mayor, confined to hospitals and home for 25 days, said he is now confronting one of the most difficult chapters of his life. Struggling through physical therapy and watching PBS at 2 in the morning when he is so uncomfortable that he cannot sleep, the mayor, who has built a political career and a personal identity around his omnipresence, acknowledged that he is now invisible in the city he loves.

Menino is not sure when he will return to City Hall, where he has worked as a city councilor and as mayor for more than a quarter-century. For now, he has effectively converted the living room of his long-time Hyde Park home into the new seat of city government. A parade of civic and business leaders, as well as mayoral aides, make the pilgrimage to Chesterfield Street, sitting on a plaid couch to brief the mayor or hear him out.

“The president has Camp David,’’ he said, a phone at his elbow and a fax machine at his side. “I have Camp Chesterfield.’’

In his first interview since he severed the tendon that connects his thigh muscles to the top of his left kneecap, Menino said he plans to attend a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast next week, an event at which he traditionally delivers one of his three major annual speeches. But it is painful for him to stand for extended periods, so he will greet the crowd and then have aides deliver remarks.

Menino, the city’s longest-serving mayor, injured his knee on Nov. 8, five days after he won reelection to an unprecedented fifth term. He said he expects to be at his inauguration Jan. 4.

But little else is certain: He canceled a family vacation to Bermuda last month and an official visit to Haiti next month and deputized a raft of city councilors, department heads, and even his wife to stand in for him at the long stream of Christmas tree lightings that had been a staple of his calendar and among his favorite aspects of the job.

“It’s humbling,’’ Menino said, dressed in beige shorts, black sneakers, and a white golf shirt, with heavily padded crutches resting against a mantelpiece nearby.

“But I’ve still got the phone, I still get to talk to people, and I still have a good staff, and that’s important, I think.’’

Menino is scheduled to see his doctor on Dec. 21 and hopes to have his leg brace removed then and to begin more intensive physical therapy.

He said he would like to be back at City Hall within a few weeks, but his aides cautioned that they do not know when the mayor will be able to walk without assistance or return to his office full time.

The mayor is able to walk slowly with crutches, but because of the brace, he cannot bend his knee and is supposed to keep his leg elevated as much as possible. Menino said his doctors have told him that if he allows his knee to heal properly, he will make a full recovery.

“I just want to get rid of this thing and get rid of these things,’’ Menino said, waving at his brace and crutches. “I’ll be back to where I was. I know I will.’’

The mayor said the injury occurred on a Sunday evening when he was carrying a bag of food up the stairs at his son’s house, after a relaxed day in which he had gone to church and a Patriots game.

“My leg collapsed,’’ he said. “I heard this sound. It was like my pants tore. It was tremendous pain.’’

An ambulance whisked the mayor to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where surgeons reattached his tendon the next morning. He spent four days at the Brigham and then another five days at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital learning to walk up and down stairs on crutches.

“These things happen, and they happen for some reason I can’t explain,’’ Menino said. “Someone said it happened to slow you down and understand you’re mortal. You can slow down.’’

The mayor’s days now are centered around tending to his knee, as well as city business. He wakes at 6:30 a.m. and slowly makes his way to the front door for the day’s newspapers.

“I’m dying for the papers,’’ he said. “What am I missing? What am I not missing?’’

After breakfast, an occupational therapist helps him cover his brace with a plastic tube, and to shower. Several days a week, he meets with a physical therapist who inspects his knee and helps him gently exercise his leg muscles.

Unable to sleep well, he often pads downstairs in the middle of the night, settles into his recliner, and watches Charlie Rose or the History Channel.

“I’ve just got to follow the instructions of the doctor and the physical trainer: keep the leg up, ice it five times a day, don’t bend the knee, and walk on the crutches,’’ he said. “One foot in front of the other. Head up and back straight.’’

Visitors have been stopping by with words of encouragement, gift baskets, and Mylar balloons. Councilor Salvatore LaMattina brought tripe and chicken soup from East Boston. Robert A. Brown, the president of Boston University, brought a book about Lake Como, an Italian resort that the mayor has visited. President Clinton called yesterday, saying, according to Menino, “I heard you’re hurt.’’

Menino has called Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo to push charter school legislation. He has met with a White House official to talk about stimulus funding.

He calls the police commissioner and the fire commissioner every morning. Yesterday, he led a meeting of his Cabinet via speakerphone.

“Really, other than the fact that he’s at Chesterfield Street and not on the fifth floor, he’s still on the job,’’ said Councilor Rob Consalvo, who said the mayor has called him four times since the injury. “He’s right on top of the issues, and it has not slowed down his work ethic.’’

Because the mayor doesn’t use e-mail, aides are driving important documents back and forth from Government Center to Readville twice a day. And city officials said the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is often slow at City Hall, so the mayor’s absence has been easier to manage.

But the mayor ruefully listed all the events he is missing - charity dinners, serving meals to the homeless, and tree lightings across the city - and said his inability to be out and about makes him unhappy.

He said that in the last month, the farthest he has walked is to the end of his street, with a physical therapist at his arm.

“I’m stuck,’’ he said, flexing a blue resistance band with his arms. “I can’t be as helpful as I want to be. That’s my frustration.’’

Levenson can be reached at