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

The Halley's Comet Panic of 1910

If you were around in 1986, you might remember the excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet.  Halley’s Comet hadn’t been seen since 1910, and 76 years later, it was getting ready to make another pass by Earth.  Many who were excited probably wound up feeling a little disappointed. I’ll admit I was. I was sixteen, and was eager to see a bright ball in the sky with a burning tail lighting up the night.  All we got to see was a small, faint, comet-shaped light in the sky. It turned out that in 1986, the comet passed when the Earth was on the other side of the sun, so there wasn’t much to look at. We knew it was coming, though.  We’ve known this since 1705, when Edmond Halley predicted the comet would return on Christmas night, 1758.  Halley died in 1742, so he never got to see that he was correct—but he was correct. Halley’s calculations show that the comet will pass by Earth every 74 to 79 years, and these passes are predictable. When Halley’s Comet isn’t near Earth, …

Alcock and Brown: The First Transatlantic Flight

Since his celebrated landing in Paris 90 years ago, we often hear of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  He flew solo, taking off from Roosevelt Field in Brooklyn and landing in Le Bourget field in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours in his cramped, lightweight plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.  Lindbergh was one of several individuals or teams who were competing for the Orteig Prize: a $25,000 purse offered to the first to fly from New York to Paris, offered by wealthy New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.  Lindbergh took off and landed perfectly, and managed to navigate the whole way without getting lost.  This was quite a feat in the days before computers to aid navigation, or the elaborate system of air traffic control that would come into being, once commercial airlines started to develop.  What Lindbergh did immediately made him an international hero and a household name for years after, with streets and buildings and yes, airports, named after him.  To this day, Charles …