Daley settles (not entirely) into life as a regular Chicagoan

He still gets up early.

He could sleep in. He no longer has a big staff to deploy. No public crises nipping at his mind and time. He lives alone.

He gets up at 6 anyway, and sets off to the gym before breakfast. He likes it there, feels safe in the easy, sweaty, humming society that exists in the land of treadmills and weight machines, a place where people call him Rich.

Except the ones who still call him Mayor.

A lot of people, in the gym and outside of it, can't think of Rich Daley any other way. Seeing him out and about, they respond, if more quietly, like the startled young guy who spotted him ambling near his downtown high-rise condo a while back and shouted, with high-fives to his friends:

"It's the (expletive) mayor!"

Daley enjoyed that so much that he called a friend to tell her.

For 22 years, from the rusty late 1980s through the sparkling '90s and into the shape-shifting new millennium, Richard M. Daley ruled the third-largest city in America. His face and name were as vital to Chicago as the swaggering skyscrapers that rose under his dominion. The glories and scandals of his reign were the fuel of the city's everyday conversation.

Then he stepped aside, with the simple explanation, "It's time."

On Thanksgiving Day 2011, six months after he left office, his wife of nearly 40 years, Maggie, died of cancer.

Just like that, the twin pillars of Rich Daley's life vanished.

Or maybe not.

"I think Maggie's always there to help me," Daley said one day last week.

He was sitting, in an affable mood, in his office at Katten Muchin Rosenman, the downtown law firm where he comes to work two or three days a week whenever he's not traveling on business.

He had an hour to talk — after the gym and the dentist, before he left for a meeting of the Coca-Cola board in Atlanta — about what his days are like now. He had just closed out his campaign fund and given away the remaining $544,000, money he legally could have kept, to local charities. One more divestment from his old life.

Daley's new office is a spotless, bright space on the 19th floor with a southern view short on grandeur and long on rooftop air-conditioning compressors. The office has the feel of a sleek apartment. The credenzas are neatly populated by photos — him with his family, Tony Blair, Michael Jordan, Desmond Tutu — but the office doesn't feel fully broken in.

In that way, it's like his new life. Pleasant but not entirely settled.

Daley's friends say he laughs more than he has in years, certainly more than he did in the months just after Maggie died, a time when he could barely say her name without crying.

He looks slimmer and more relaxed, younger even, than the florid, frequently peevish mayor who was once a staple of local news. He dresses better, too, under the sartorial influence of friends who take him shopping for shoes and suits and ties, something he didn't feel free to do in Chicago when he was the boss.

He seems to like the small duties and liberties that come with a less visible life.

In the Katten cafeteria, he lines up for lunch with the other lawyers — as mayor, he was always served — and buses his own table. He is said to be a meticulous busser. On his way out of the building, he obediently swipes his ID card past the reader, a rule others tend to ignore.

He has had to reconfigure his social life, too. "Are you dating?" friends constantly ask. Everyone he knows or meets, it seems, wants to fix him up.

But while Daley's life has changed — no more parades, no security detail, he hops into a cab alone, he cooks some, he has more time for movie nights with the grandkids — he hasn't had a personality transplant.

He's still Rich Daley, passionate about big ideas and Chicago's place in the world, strategically evasive, quick to laugh and to argue. "No" remains the preface to many of his responses.

Ask about his successor, Rahm Emanuel.

"I don't try to comment on Mayor Emanuel," he said. "I live in the city. Former mayor for 22 years. I respect the office. He's going to handle the job. Let him make decisions. For me to get into that, it's unfair to him. You know, I know him well. I don't want to get into the issues."

Is it difficult to hear the personal criticism implicit in Emanuel's public remarks about the messy state of the city he inherited?

"No. No. I don't want to get into that. It does not affect me at all. I'm pretty disciplined about it."

Ask about his legacy.

"I don't get into this, this idea that you have to think about your legacy."

But let's say you do have to think about your legacy.

"But I'm not!"

Then let's not call it a legacy. What would you like people to remember about your time as mayor?

"I was a public servant. I enjoy public service. I was not a political servant."

Daley started the interview sitting primly at his uncluttered marble desk, hands clasped in the style of generations of Catholic schoolchildren who learned that clasped hands keep the devil at bay.

But within a few minutes, he was leaning into the desk, peeling the paper off his Evian bottle and clacking the bottle top on the marble while he talked.

Schools, he said. He'd like people to remember the ones built and remodeled while he was mayor. Police stations, fire stations, block clubs. Libraries.

"Some people say libraries are old-fashioned, they're lost in a new society. No. It's all learning in a new environment."

Meigs Field?

He needed no prompting beyond those two words, no long question about the infamous midnight raid that, on his orders, closed the lakefront airfield.

"Oh, it was the best thing I ever did in my life."

No apologies?

"No apologies. The people own the lakefront. The Burnham Plan proved that. It doesn't belong to a few. That's going to be a nature center, going to be a venue for music, concerts. No other city has something like that in the world."

As for assertions that he left the city in financial disarray?

"No. It wasn't in financial disarray. There's issues with federal government disarray. Almost financial collapse of the federal government, state, housing markets. In 1989 (the year he became mayor), we had fiscal problems. You deal with fiscal problems. They come, and they go."

As Daley critics are quick to point out, some problems that arrived during his tenure — issues with city pension funding or with the privatization of parking meters — have yet to go.

Another shadow that hangs over his time as mayor is the pending trial of a nephew charged only recently with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a young man after a brawl in 2004.

"I have no comment on that. Never comment on it."

Talk to Daley for a while, and you'll hear certain words over and over: Discipline. China. Children. Personal. Enjoy.

Discipline: He learned it from his father, the first Mayor Daley. The discipline to keep your personal life out of the public eye. The discipline to keep certain opinions to yourself.

China: He just spent a couple of weeks there consulting with business leaders. When Katten opened a China office, his stature as Chicago's former mayor enabled him to arrange meetings with the mayors of Shanghai and Beijing. He's dedicated to the idea that the future of Chicago is tied to China, India, Russia, the sprawling world.

Children: He recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Financial Times asking why the United States violates the human rights of children for the sake of the gun industry.

Personal: Of the topics he deems too personal to discuss in public, one is religion, except to say he goes to church.

"I don't get into religion because I think everybody has the same moral values. My dad has always taught me that. Never look down upon anybody's religious beliefs, nonbeliefs. It's a big world. It's all personal."

Enjoy: He enjoys work.

He enjoys walking and does it a lot since he doesn't drive. (A cab or a personal van shuttles him around when he's not on foot.)

He enjoys going to the grocery store, something he didn't do as mayor.

He enjoys having strangers recognize him when he's out, enjoys it when they stop to talk.

He enjoys his new iPad, sort of, and has learned to surf the Internet and send the occasional short email — activities he didn't engage in as mayor.

He enjoys reading — so did his mother, he notes — mysteries and history, magazines. He still clips interesting articles, about a good restaurant or an urban innovation, and sends them to close friends. His favorite newspaper is the Financial Times. He says he doesn't read the local papers and never has, though he adds, "I have respect for all the journalists here."

Shortly before Maggie died, the Daleys moved into a three-bedroom apartment in the Bloomingdale's building at 900 N. Michigan Ave. It was closer to Maggie's doctors than their South Loop town home was, and Daley eventually sold the town home to one of his daughters.

Maggie passed away in their new home, and afterward, he moved into a different unit in the same building, a smaller space free of memories.

He keeps a second office in that building, too, as a partner in his son Patrick's investment firm.

Last Wednesday, Daley turned 71. Ever since he was a kid in the old Irish neighborhood of Bridgeport and had friends over to the house for a party, he has loved his birthday. Still does.

He says he doesn't feel old and that this time of life is "a great phase."

If he's not as powerful as he once was, Rich Daley is still in play. The National Law Journal recently named him among the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America, noting his connections and that his younger brother, William Daley, might run for governor.

He is also considered a highly eligible bachelor, and he has begun to socialize. He has been seen sharing a meal with the actress Sally Field; with Desiree Rogers, the CEO of Johnson Publishing Co.; and with a doctor he met at the gym. Rumors fly, some of them wrong.

Through it all, he feels that Maggie stays with him.

Every Sunday that he's in town, he goes to the cemetery where she's buried. Her grave is near his mother's and his father's and the grave of his son Kevin, who died at the age of 2.

Alone, early in the morning, he visits, consoled by the belief that in some way they're all still here.