Mass Transit Atrocities

One of my favorite bands growing up in the 60’s was The Kingston Trio.  (Disclaimer: I was uncool before it was cool to be uncool, and long before it was hip to be square.)  Probably my favorite song was their 1959 hit The M.T.A., because it recounted an age-old tale of man’s struggle against mass transportation that really resonated with a pre-teen John.  Listen to this haunting introduction, and you’ll understand how I was captivated.

These are the times that try men’s souls.  In the course of our nation’s history, the people of Boston have rallied bravely whenever the rights of men have been threatened.  Today, a new crisis has arisen.  The Metropolitan Transit Authority, better known as the M.T.A., is attempting to levy a burdensome tax on the population in the form of a subway fare increase.  Citizens, hear me out!  This could happen to you!

How can you not be moved by this?  Listen to this tale of woe:

Well, let me tell you of the story of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day.

Meet Charlie, quite possibly the stupidest human being who ever lived.

He put 10 cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family,
Went to ride on the M.T.A.

This is a key plot point.  Charlie left home with 10 cents.  One thin dime.  A tenth of a dollar.  Remember this.  It will come into play shortly.

Well, did he ever return?  No, he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned. (What a pity!)
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston.
He’s the Man Who Never Returned!

(Spoiler alert: His fate is that he never returned.)

Charlie handed in his dime at the Kendall Square station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain.
When he got there the conductor told him “One more nickel.”
Charlie couldn’t get off of that train.

One must marvel at the efficiency of the Boston city government back in 1959.  The distance between Kendall Square (in Cambridge) and Jamaica Plain is 6 miles.  Even at a leisurely walking pace of 3 miles per hour, this is at best a 2 hour trip.  That the city managed to pass a fare increase, implement it, and bring the MTA staff up to speed that quickly is astounding.  One suspects that the Mayor issued an executive order imposing the fare increase because of gridlock in the Boston city council.  The mayor promises that the fare increase will be rescinded once the council passes a transit authority bill.

But did he ever return?  No, he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned. (Poor old Charlie!)
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston.
He’s the Man Who Never Returned!

(Spoiler alert: His fate is to ride forever beneath the streets of Boston.)

Now all night long Charlie rides through the station
Crying, “What will become of me?

One of the Seven Wonders of the 1950’s was the Entropy Disruption Device, which the MTA employed on its subways at the time.  The EDD was used to protect machinery from normal wear and tear and mechanical failures.  As a result, MTA subway cars never need to be taken out of service for repairs.  Sadly, the technology was lost forever when the EDD fabrication machine broke down.

How can I afford to see my sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?”

  • Distance from Kendall Square to Jamaica Plain: 6 miles
  • Distance from Jamaica Plain to Chelsea: 9 miles
  • Distance from Chelsea to Roxbury: 8 miles
  • Distance from Roxbury back to Cambridge: 5 miles
  • Estimated travel costs (pre-fare increase): 40 cents
  • Chances that Charlie could have made the round trip on the cash in his pocket: 0%

But did he ever return?  No, he never returned,
And his fate is still unlearned. (Shame and scandal!)
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston.
He’s the Man Who Never Returned!

(Spoiler alert: His fate is to be called “The Man Who Never Returned”.)

Charlie’s wife goes down to the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two.

Scollay Square Station, in downtown Boston, was torn down in 1962.  The question of why Mrs. Charlie doesn’t go to the Kendall Square station near her home in Cambridge is left as an exercise for the reader.

And through the window she hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin’ through!

It is a well-established American tradition for wives to bake a file into a cake in order to help their husbands to escape from traditional American hoosegows.  Would it have been too much trouble for Mrs. Charlie (or one of the kids) to slip a nickel into Charlie’s daily ham on rye?

Well, did he ever return?  No, he never returned,
And his fate is still unlearned. (He may ride forever!)
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston.
He’s the Man Who Never Returned!

(Banjo solo, because what tale of woe would be complete without a banjo solo?)

While we listen to the dulcet tones of banjoist John Stewart (no, not that Jon Stewart!), let’s take a moment to list the people so far who have been unwilling to give poor, bedraggled, despondent Charlie a stinkin’ nickel to rescue him from his plight:

  • His wife
  • His family (presumably children)
  • The subway conductor (in fact, him and all the subway conductors to follow over the next half-century)
  • His sister in Chelsea
  • His cousin in Roxbury
  • Every passenger on the Kendall Square – Jamaica Plain run  (Disclaimer: after a while, the, shall we say, “aromatic” nature of Charlie’s subway car probably drove off most of the other passengers)
  • The Kingston Trio, (who are clearly making money off of Charlie’s misfortune)

Now you citizens of Boston, don’t you think it’s a scandal
How the people have to pay and pay?
Fight the fare increase!  Vote for George O’Brien!
Get poor Charlie off the M.T.A.!

George O’Brien (below) wore a yellow ribbon in support of Charlie, but never did anything to help the wayward traveler.  He died in 1985.  The ribbon has been tied around an old oak tree outside the Boston Garden.

George_O'Brien_in_She_Wore_a_Yellow_Ribbon_(1949)_trailer

Or else he’ll never return, no, he’ll never return,
And his fate is still unlearned. (Just like Paul Revere!)

As schoolchildren used to learn in history class (before it became bad for their self-esteem), Paul Revere was a hero of the American Revolution, who warned the colonists of the impending arrival of British troops.  Due to an untimely increase in hitching post fares, he was unable to dismount.  He has been riding endlessly back and forth between Lexington and Concord ever since, and is known affectionately as “The Patriot Who Never Returned”.

He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston.
He’s the Man Who Never Returned!
He’s the Man Who Never Returned!
He’s the Man Who Never Returned!

Et tu, Charlie?

Suspicions have circled that Charlie’s was in fact being pursued by authorities in connection with his involvement in the gangland-style stabbing of the previous mayor of Boston by a cabal of former supporters.

Update: The Facebook page “Get Charlie Off the MTA” has 14,206 likes.  The hashtag #PayCharliesFare is trending on Twitter.  A recent Kickstarter has raised over 8,000 sandwiches, which have been passed to Charlie by flash mobs at various Boston subway stations since September 2013.  22% of these sandwiches have chipotle sauce, which Charlie hates.  None of them has a nickel inside.

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One thought on “Mass Transit Atrocities

  1. Now, to be fair, do we know that Charlie actually wanted to get anywhere? All we get in the intro is that he had his dime and he was going off to ride the MTA, which you have to admit, he did extremely well. Getting somewhere is a different matter.

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