“You worked for me a long time ago.”
The first time the man made an impression on me was a long time ago, probably in 1990. I was working at the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter in Boston in what was then called the Men’s Unit. Some of the older homeless men talked about factory and manual labor jobs that they had back in the 1950s and 60s, jobs that just required someone willing to work hard- the ability to run a cash register or a computer or smile at a customer was not required. The shelter was a tough place, lots of substance abusing men, lots of mentally ill men, and lots of men who had both things going on at the same time.
Our executive director Rich Ring asked me one day to see if there were 8 guys willing to work for a construction company in Hyde Park. The company was having a hard time finding laborers and needed help for a couple of months. The Hyde Park District City Councilor knew Rich and thought some homeless guys might want a chance to work. We were used to politicians coming through especially at election time and Thanksgiving and with TV cameras around. I wasn’t used to politicians thinking that homeless people might actually want to work. I asked around and found 20 guys who wanted the gig. The name of the Councilor stuck in my memory.
Three years later, as fate would have it, the Councilor became the Acting Mayor, in reality the Action Mayor. There would be an election. I wanted to volunteer. I went to one event in May, got hooked up immediately with the neighborhood activists of Jamaica Plain. I became “Eddie the Homeless Guy” and we did a lot for the Action Mayor. The best political meetings of all time happen at Doyle’s.
The Acting Mayor became the Mayor, confirmed on Election Day by the voters. The next day I got a call from one of the JP coordinators, “Eddie, get me your resume.”
“I wasn’t doing it for a job. I volunteered because I like him.”
Two years later, I was looking to do something different and there was a City job open doing homeless and hunger work in the Mayor’s Office. Eight years of seeing a lot of people coming through the shelter with the same problems - no home no job no peace no rest in the words of Bruce Springsteen –made me want to work on the problems of homelessness in a different way.
I worked for the Mayor for seven years. The org chart wasn’t pretty but it was flat with something like 40 department heads reporting directly to the Mayor. It’s amazing what can get done when the Boss has his or her ear to the ground, when you’ve got good people pulling in the same direction. Harvard Business School will do the case study someday.
Besides having the opportunity to do great work on behalf of homeless families and individuals, I got to do some very very cool things. I sat for lunch at a small table with the Mayor and Angela….and Ted Kennedy and Vickie Kennedy.
I got to emcee a homeless advocacy event, protesting a state policy….on the field of Fenway Park on an August afternoon in front of 300 homeless advocates, Larry Lucchino, Jason Varitek, and Dick Williams. I have a picture and my catcher’s mitt autographed by Jason to prove it. It doesn’t get any more surreal than baseball and homelessness.
Nothing more surreal unless it’s basketball and hunger. To promote the Can Share Food Drive, we got Celtics forward Walter McCarty to attend. The Boston Celtics organization was up for sale; a very nice man named Wyc Grousbeck, who was finalizing the deal to take over and didn’t want to be recognized, showed up at our event. When I met the Mayor at his car, I told him who was there and asked what he thought of the rumored deal. “$360 Million is too much to pay. You can’t make money owning the team unless you own the building.” Yes, the Mayor was savvy.
Despite the reputation for gruffness, I only got chewed out once. “Why are we doing this event on a Saturday afternoon?,” he growled at me when I met his car before another hunger event. “Because your scheduler said you were booked all week,” I said. He accepted it; he wasn’t concerned about working on a Saturday because he worked every day. He wanted there to be as many people as possible to promote the Food Drive.
The Urban Mechanic sweated the small stuff because you’ve got to do the small stuff right before you can tackle the big stuff.
In 2002, I left the Mayor and the City of Boston to get married and move to Newburyport. I work in Lowell now. I ran for the Newburyport City Council in my new hometown in 2007, saw the Mayor at an event in Boston, and asked him if he had any advice. “Work hahd.” And if you’ve ever heard him speak, you know exactly how that sounded. I won doing it his way - one door, one voter at a time.
I last saw the Mayor in the Fall of 2013 at a recognition event to honor him. He was still in charge waiting for the new Mayor to be chosen in a few weeks. I went up through the crowd to say hello.
“You worked for me a long time ago,” he said.
“Yes, I did, Mr. Mayor.” And we had worked hard.
Some people make such a strong impression, touch so many lives that they don’t ever really die. Tom Menino is one of those. Rest in peace.
Eddie "The Homeless Guy" Cameron