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Charlie on the MTA

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If you spend much time in Boston, you probably have one of these.  It's better than a nickel.




If you live in Boston, there’s a good chance you know why the card you use to ride public transit is called a Charlie Card, but I’ll review the story anyway, because it’s a good one.  The mass transit system, referred to by the locals as the T, used to be referred to as the MTA, and the fare was 10¢, which you paid in cash before getting on the train.  In 1949, the MTA raised the fare.  It still cost 10¢ to get on the train—but it cost another 5¢ to get off.  

Some felt this was needlessly confusing.  Specifically, one Walter A. O’Brien thought so, and campaigned for mayor of Boston, making the new fare system the main plank in his platform.  To back him up, the song “Charlie on the MTA” was recorded for him by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes as a campaign song.  It told the story of Charlie, a man who boarded the train at Kendall Square, but when he tried to get off, the conductor asked him for a nickel, which he realized he didn’t have.  As a result, he wound up stuck on the train, riding the streets of Boston to this very day!  His wife would go to the train and slip him a sandwich through the window every day so he wouldn’t starve to death.  

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The Kingston Trio, those clean-cut young men.

The song was recorded again in 1959 by the Kingston Trio.  The Kingston Trio’s version changed the name of the politician who wanted to reform the fare rules to George O’Brien, and later versions named no one at all.  They were afraid that if they associated themselves with Progressive Party candidate Walter O’Brien, they’d face trouble due to the associations that a lot of people made between the Progressives and the Communist Party during the Red Scare of the 1950s.  (The Progressives were very much a left-leaning party, but were not affiliated with the Communist Party.)

O’Brien finished last in the mayoral race and retired from politics.  “Charlie on the MTA” became one of the Kingston Trio’s biggest hits, and of course Charlie lives on on the face of his namesake cards.  If you’re interested, here’s the song (which sounds a lot like the old standard “The Wreck of the Old 97”).


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