Cleaning Up The Mayor's Dirt

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  3/6/2009

She knows where the dirt is.

In 32 years at Boston City Hall, Delois Laws says she has seen her share of unmarked envelopes, favor-seeking developers, and much of what happens behind some of the city's most guarded doors.

"I know all the secrets of this building," she says, "and just about everyone here at City Hall."

The 64-year-old great-grandmother from Roxbury has a job that requires more of Mayor Thomas M. Menino's trust than perhaps any other position in city government. In fact, she probably knows more than anyone but the mayor about what's on his desk (a "No Whining" sign) or in his private bathroom (a large bottle of hand disinfectant).

For the past decade, "Dee," as the mayor and most everyone else on the fifth floor of City Hall calls her, has served as senior custodian in charge of cleaning the mayor's office, a concrete-walled expanse filled with knickknacks that overlooks Faneuil Hall.

It can be a high-pressure job, given all the glass recognition awards to be cleaned, all the mahogany and leather that requires regular polishing, all the dignitaries the mayor wants to impress.

She does her best to avoid misplacing things. And she takes pride in not having broken anything in the generously adorned office, which includes a grandfather clock from the people of Derry, Northern Ireland, an Olympic torch that passed through Boston before the 2002 Games started in Salt Lake City, and a flag that flew during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

"I put things down easy," she said while spritzing on a recent morning. "If I broke something, he might have my head."

But unlike some other city employees, she doesn't fear the big man.

"The mayor's my buddy," she said. "He's always talking to me."

After all the years sponging the dishes in his office's kitchenette, laundering the towels in his bathroom, and polishing the dozens of clocks on his shelves, Laws said she doesn't worry about ruffling the mayor.

"He never questions me about what I'm doing," she said. "He only questions when I'm not here."

As she went about her morning ritual - dusting picture frames of the mayor's grandchildren and rearranging his large collection of stuffed animals - the mayor emerged from his private elevator about 8:30 a.m.

The practiced politician did what pols do: He flattered Laws.

"She knows everything," said Menino, still in workout clothes after a morning of physical therapy for an injured knee. "She tells me how things are going in the neighborhoods."

He has one quibble: "Sometimes, she arranges things on my table - and I can't find things."

But he quickly added: "She makes the place look the way it should. She does things right. It's like we're family."

The city spends about $150,000 a year for cleaning supplies to maintain City Hall, and Laws is one of the building's 12 full-time custodians, each of whom earn on average $39,000 a year.

Laws, who moved from Birmingham, Ala., in 1976 to escape the South's pervasive racism at the time, began working at City Hall a year later for $200 a week. It's the only job she has had in Boston. She now outranks all but one other city custodian, who started a few weeks before her, and has worked for the city longer than 95 percent of its 8,600 employees, according to city records.

In the spectrum of custodial work, her boss says she holds "a special job."

"Some just can't deal with other people, and she's good at that, which is very important for this job," said Jimmy Wilson, the assistant building superintendent who oversees City Hall's custodians.

When Laws was promoted to cleaning the mayor' office in 1998, Annette Gales, the mayor's secretary, said the staff and Laws bonded quickly. 

"Once we got her up here, we didn't want to let her go," Gales said. "She takes care of us."

In the office next door, Martha Pierce, the mayor's education adviser, called Laws "the best. Despite everything swirling around, she's always focused," she said. "She brightens everything up."

Laws arrives at 8 every morning and usually starts with the mayor's bathroom, where he often showers.

She comes in and out during the day, often between meetings, to keep things shiny and the waste baskets empty. She cleans the other offices on the fifth floor and brings coffee and newspapers to the mayor's receptionist. "I never sit," she said.

With such access, what secrets has she learned about how the city runs?

"I just turn my head the other way," she said with a smile. "It's the old saying: See nothing. Hear nothing. Know nothing. I just stack people's things, clean them, but I don't go through them."

Aside from six weeks of vacation, any perks about the job?

"My grandkids like to tell their teachers that I work for the mayor," she said.

As she pushed her Clarke CombiVac across the mayor's burgundy rug, she stopped when asked whether she would retire in the coming year.

The mayor pleaded for her to stay.

She thought about it briefly and decided she preferred the fifth floor of City Hall to baby-sitting her grandchildren.

"I think I'll be around here for a while," she said. "This job's an honor. It's an honor to have the mayor's trust."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.