Skip to main content

Charlie on the MTA

See the source image
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.  

See the source image
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”).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Betty Crocker: A Brief Biography

Long have our supermarket shelves borne products with the name Betty Crocker.  This name has long since lodged in our heads an essential part of americana.  It seems to evoke the past.  It seems to always have evoked the past, a past when life was simpler and Mother and Grandmother cooked at home, using time tested recipes and only the purest ingredients.  We can’t go back to that simpler, wholesome past, but we can give ourselves a Proustian shot of nostalgia by tasting the past we remember, or the past we only wish we could remember, but know must be so good.  That is the Betty Crocker brand.  You might have seen drawings of her, but have you ever actually seen the legend herself?  Here’s an image of Miss Crocker from a 1953 television ad:


The full "Betty Crocker" TV commercial.

Okay, that’s actually actress Adelaide Hawley, who played Betty Crocker in a number of commercials for the brand from 1949 to 1964.  Betty Crocker was born in 1921, so this representation looks to be…

At, Hashtag, And Per Se

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, there has been little change to the keyboard used in English.  The position of the letters has remained the same, and the numbers and punctuation have as well. The advent of the personal computer has required additional keys, most of which have found their own standard spots on the keyboard, but for the most part, there haven’t been many changes to the original design.

If you look at the above keyboard, you can see there have been some changes. Keys for fractions don’t really exist anymore; nor does a key to write the ¢ symbol. But the ¢ key on this 1900 model typewriter also includes the @ symbol, which has been common on keyboards since the dawn of typewriters. It’s older than that, even. But of course it is: how else would anyone write an email address? Except… who are you going to email in 1900? No one was emailing anyone before 1972. That’s when programmer Ray Tomlinson invented email. He figured that if you’re going to …

Kick the Football, Charlie Brown

For nearly the entire run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, one running gag has been the football gag.  The gag is simple: Lucy Van Pelt kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place, and tells Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown gets a good running start, ready to give it a good, solid kick, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away.  The final panel usually has a miserable Charlie Brown laying on the ground while Lucy looks over him, holding the football, telling him in one way or another that he obviously shouldn't have trusted her.
The gag first appeared on November 14, 1951, when the strip was just over a year old.  In the first occurrence, the football was not held by Lucy but by Violet Gray, another little girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  (Violet would later become a minor character in the strip, and Lucy would become a major one.Lucy wouldn’t appear in the strip until the following year.)  The first football gag is quite a bit different from w…