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A nod to those up long before dawn

They make your coffee and bake your bread. They make you sweat and calm your nerves. They ride the rails and clean the floors. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the people who are up long before dawn, setting Boston in motion.

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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THE BAKER

Alex Paul looks more like a counterculture disciple than a baker of brioche in faded skinny jeans, flour-covered TOMS shoes, and pyramid-studded belt. With a massive yawn and the click of a deadbolt, the 25-year-old unlocks Hi-Rise Bread Co. in Cambridge’s Huron Village and begins his day at 1 a.m., an hour early because he’s short-staffed.

Right now, no one’s here, and Paul revels in the solitude.

His mornings have a rhythm and a routine. First, make coffee. Next, change clothes, put on an apron and hair nets. Throughout, he invents little jingles that underscore his actions. “Putting on my beard net,’’ he warbles while covering his year-old chin hair.

This is not the life Paul envisioned when studying math education at the University of New Hampshire. Teaching one semester “was enough to burn me out.’’

So he found a job at a New Hampshire bakery about three years ago. Bakers taught him their art. “If you can lift 40 pounds, stay on your feet for eight hours, and come in on time, they’ll teach pretty much anyone.’’

The move to Boston happened about a year ago when his lease expired and Hi-Rise offered to pay him a dollar more an hour. “I was like: ‘Yep. I’ll take that. It’s money in the bank.’ ’’ Now, he lives in Allston with two roommates, 9-to-5ers.

Baking gives him a quality of life teaching never could, time to spend with friends and family. And with a day that ends by 11 a.m., he doesn’t have to take time off if his band, Actor|Observer, has a show. “I’m the guy who yells and plays guitar.’’

Before the first crew arrives at 3 a.m., Paul turns eight pounds of dough into two types of scones, pops dozens of gingerbread and apple walnut muffins from their baking forms, and puts granola in the oven. People want a scone and coffee when they walk through the door when Hi-Rise opens at 8 a.m., so fancier baking can wait.

Paul, the assistant bakery manager, and the bakers work in an open area. Here, the staff mixes, flours, rolls, bakes, peels potatoes, and cracks dozens of eggs in synchrony.

As Paul and John Glagloa, 21, stand at the table buttering coffee tins used to bake brown bread, the gas station across the street flips on the lights about 5:15 a.m.

“Ah,’’ Glagloa says, “time for the world to wake up.’’

THE FISH PIER OVERSEER

Watching a heavenly painter swirl orange and red into the sunrise over Boston Harbor, Vickie DeRosa murmurs, “Red sky in the morning means there’s a storm coming.’’

DeRosa stood watch over these waters as a child, waiting for her grandfather to return from sea. Now, as property manager of the Boston Fish Pier, DeRosa, 51, awaits the arrival of the 20 or so boats that call the pier home.

This morning, she checks the sea for the Olympia, a red-and-white fish trawler carrying 40,000 pounds of cod, haddock, and flounder scheduled to pull into port about 7:30 a.m., hours after DeRosa’s day began and well before it will end.

Each day is different at the pier, where, for 15 years, DeRosa has made sure ice machines work, roof lights illuminate, and trash is collected, recycled, and composted. The one constant: her 5:30 a.m. arrival.

At 3:15 a.m., DeRosa, a married mother of an adult son, ushers in the day by feeding the family turtles and the deer in the backyard of her New Hampshire home.

There is hardly ever anyone on the docks when she arrives. There might be an idling delivery truck. Or, on a day like today, a fish processor waiting for boats.

Before she walks both sides of the pier - a daily routine that takes her the length of at least 10 football fields, no matter the weather - DeRosa ducks into her office to check e-mail and change shoes. The concrete is hosed down daily, but it’s still a working waterfront. The last thing she wants is to carry home pieces of her work in the soles of her shoes.

This day, the docks are unusually quiet, save for the call of sea gulls and the whistling of the wind. The blue lights of the Bank of America Pavilion sparkle on the bay. The smell of the sea, so intense you can taste it, assaults the nostrils.

There are virtually no boats, which is a good thing. Had they packed the dock slips, DeRosa would worry. An empty harbor, she explains, means boats are busy fishing. “If the boats don’t come in with fish, we’re all in trouble.’’

Only one of the 14 fish processing companies is setting up stainless-steel sorting tables in anticipation of the day’s catch from Georges Bank. “You go to the Top of the Hub and order fish and have no idea how it got to you.’’ Much of the area’s fish - be it on a grocery store shelf or restaurant plate - comes from the pier, DeRosa muses.

Just then, the Olympia appears on a sunlit horizon.

WOMAN AT THE WHEEL

Ellen Anastasia steps into train car No. 01651 as the black of predawn fills a skylight at the Alewife T station. Station doors crack open at 5 a.m. Within minutes, a handful of riders sit sleepily in their seats, headphones affixed to ears, coffee in hand. They wait for her to take them to work - or home after night shifts.

“I was a third-shifter,’’ Anastasia, 53, says in the train’s cab, waiting for the cacophony of bells and buzzers that announce 5:30 a.m. has arrived and it is time to ease the train into motion. “Always was a night person.’’

Still is, though her days start now when they used to end. She worked nights for two decades before switching schedules about a year ago to better care for elderly parents. “It’s completely different,’’ says Anastasia, who wakes at 3 in her Methuen home. “I used to bring a woman to work at South Station, and now I get to take her home.’’

At 5:17 a.m., the first train wheezes out of the station. Then, another. Next, it’s Anastasia’s turn. Destination: Ashmont. She throws the train into gear. “I like Ashmont. Always have. That’s my perfect train.’’

She’s stuck with the job for all these years because of the people, be they customers or co-workers. “I used to move around a lot. I used to get antsy,’’ she says as the train rumbles underground, leaving behind the lights of Boston’s skyline twinkling on the Charles River. You pick the same schedule and the same route enough times, she says over the echo of metal hitting metal, and you learn riders’ schedules and they learn yours.

Her reward: Watching the sunrise over Dorchester Bay.

As the sky transitions to a royal blue, the details of Anastasia’s tattooed forearms come into focus - a butterfly with the face of a lion and an owl. “This one here, I got because of my mother,’’ the Quincy native says of the owl. “She wouldn’t go to sleep until I came home at night.’’

THE SCHOOL CARETAKER

A gray pickup truck pulls into a vacant parking lot at Manning Elementary School, down a narrow tree-lined street in Jamaica Plain. The headlights and hum of the engine slice through the stillness enveloping the little school in the woods.

Today, the wild turkeys that sometimes greet Steve Coombs as he walks into the school hide in the urban woodlands west of Arnold Arboretum. A single floodlight illuminates the steps. Despite the chill, Coombs arrives wearing a short-sleeved shirt and carrying a six-pack of Pepsi. “I take my caffeine cold,’’ he quips.

It’s 6:10 a.m., about an hour before he’s scheduled to start. But Coombs, 49, likes to get a jump on his day.

Once Coombs feeds Bruce, the foot-long Oscar fish in his boiler-room office, he disturbs the silence with a rapid rhythm 27 years in the making, 17 at the Manning.

Hall lights are flipped on. Then, classroom critters get fed: First, the fish in the third-grade classroom (“This is where Bruce came from’’); then Chubby the turtle in the science room. “Actually, his name is Hercules, but he responds to me, and I used to take him home in the summer time so he would not be alone.’’

Lights off, door closed, and on to the teachers’ lounge. Toilet paper? Check. Paper towels? Check.

Back downstairs, Coombs stops and grimaces at a scuff on the floor. He works it over with his foot: “The only way to get a scuff out is to scuff it out.’’

Mr. Steve, as students and staff call him, cleans the bathrooms, boys first, girls second. Boys are messier, but girls have better graffiti.

When it comes to the students, Coombs has favorites. He wouldn’t name names, but spoke of the joy that comes from watching a kindergartner graduate as a different person. “We’re a little more personally invested because we’re with the kids more than the bigger schools. We work for the kids.’’

Even on his day off, he is up before dawn, much to the chagrin of his wife, not a morning person.

And just like that, Coombs, stops, pulls out his cellphone, and makes a call.

“Hello. It’s a quarter-past,’’ he says. “Twenty-of? OK.’’

Coombs serves as his wife’s alarm clock as well as the snooze button. “This is the most important part of the morning,’’ he says.

At 7:40 a.m., he makes call number two.

TEAM OR

It is 5 a.m. on the fifth floor of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s west campus.

The first steps of a choreography have already begun that will build to a frenzy at 7:30 a.m., when the day’s first batch of patients are wheeled into operating rooms to ease back pain, cut away infected flesh, reconstruct breasts disfigured by cancer.

All but one operating room is stocked with necessary equipment, and soon the overlap hour begins when the overnight staff hands off to the morning crew. Pre-op nurses arrive at 6 a.m. and ready the holding area.

Names are scribbled on a dry-erase board, but only the first three letters of patients’ last name, to protect their privacy. Plastic bags for personal belongings are laid on each bed, as are tan, terry cloth footies. “Do we have all the charts out?’’ calls out Ruth Adomunes, the senior nurse on the floor with 38 years of experience, 31 at Beth Israel Deaconess.

When the first patient arrives about 6:30 a.m., Adomunes approaches and assures the nervous man, “You have a good team.’’

Then she closes the curtain as the morning rush begins.

“It’s like the airport; we have to get these airplanes rolling,’’ says Galle Russo, a mother of twins and a nurse for 19 years. “This is the wave that sets the tone for the rest of the day.’’

Russo then rushes to introduce herself to a patient, asking about his pain level. “What number is it on a scale of one to 10?’’

Down the hall, OR nurses and surgical technicians prep 17 surgical suites.

Elizabeth Berkowitz buzzes around an OR, her bright orange clogs a vibrant contrast to the stark white walls. It’s about 25 minutes before the patient is wheeled into the room.

Gauze must be stocked. The surgical table reassembled. Stainless steel trays of equipment unwrapped. Instruments checked for contamination. Each tool, including sponges and needles, counted. Saline and drugs transferred to clear plastic cups.

It’s nearly impossible to stock the room and set it up in 30 minutes, so the wrapped equipment is positioned overnight. “They are constantly playing beat the clock,’’ explains Barbara DiTullio, operating room nurse manager.

Berkowitz hustles to the pre-op holding area to speak with a patient and triple-check his paperwork.

Adomunes looks on as Berkowitz reassures her patient, telling him she personally set up the operating room. “You treat them like your mother, father, sister, and brother,’’ she says. “We’re the last stop before they go in.’’

THE DAWN SWEAT

Three women wait along Washington Street in dreary darkness for Brandy Cruthird to arrive and open her fitness center, Body by Brandy in Dudley Square. It’s 5:30 a.m., and these women know the routine once the gate comes up and the front door unlocks.

Each heads to a stair climber or elliptical machine to warm up before beginning intense personal training sessions or spin class, which starts in 45 minutes.

“I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not a morning person,’’ Cruthird, 42, says. “For some people, this is the only time they have to work out. And when you see people really committed, you don’t want to let them down.’’

So she draws on their commitment and opens the gym half an hour early twice a week. By 7 a.m., most of the clients are rushing to work, and so is she. Cruthird is a physical education teacher at Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury, and school starts at 7:30. “By then, I have gotten more things done than most people, who are still brewing coffee,’’ she jokes.

It’s been her routine for more than a decade, and luckily, she lives only six minutes away. “Jumping jacks and stretches,’’ Cruthird orders Patricia Knight and Lisa Guscott to start their workout.

A sign on the wall reads: “Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.’’

For the next 35 minutes, Cruthird takes Guscott, 48, a real estate executive, and Knight, 51, a marketing professional and novelist, through grueling moves meant to strengthen muscles. “I hate the steps,’’ Guscott murmurs as they head to the hallway stairs to sprint. “I do, too,’’ Knight concurs.

Working out, they say, sets the pace for the rest of the day. Though, Knight admits: “It is an ungodly hour, isn’t it?’’

More women arrive and Cruthird starts setting up the spin studio, where she turns on the music and turns up the heat. Class starts in five minutes, and Cruthird’s morning faithful start strolling in.

Wanda Frazier finds a spot near the door. The day-care center owner says her morning workout - stair climber, spin class, treadmill - is her day-starter. She’s there at 5:45 a.m., five days a week.

As the group of eight pedals feverishly, the picture windows behind them reveal the coming of dawn. There’s no time to enjoy the sunrise. They’re simply doing their best to follow Cruthird’s orders: “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.

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