I had a grand, nostalgic time visiting old haunts in Boston and Cambridge last week, including riding the T, Boston’s subway (officially the MBTA). Fares are higher than when I was in college there — up from $0.60 to $1.25 — but it’s still the easiest and cheapest way to get around the metropolitan area.
More notable than the fare increase was a new style of payment: To replace tellers selling fare tokens, the MBTA is installing automated payment machines that take credit and debit cards and give back tickets — like those used in New York City and other places. The new system is collectively called Charlie, and is represented by a dashing cartoon fellow wearing a hat and smiling.
Here’s what’s funny about this: Charlie wasn’t invented for this automated ticketing system. He has existed for a long time, as the main character in a song about Boston’s subways, written in the 1940s using the melody of an even older song. Jonathan Reed at MIT provides lyrics for the song, as recorded by the Kingston Trio:
Charlie On the MTA
Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket,
Kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA
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 could not get off that train.
Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn’d
He may ride forever
‘neath the streets of Boston
He’s the man who never returned.
Now all night long
Charlie rides through the tunnels
Saying, “What will become of me?
How can I afford to see
My sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?”
Charlie’s wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin’ through.
As his train rolled on
underneath Greater Boston
Charlie looked around and sighed:
“Well, I’m sore and disgusted
And I’m absolutely busted;
I guess this is my last long ride.”
In other words, the symbol of the T’s new automated ticketing is a guy who’s stuck riding the subway for the rest of his life. Charlie would seem to be the worst choice for a branding icon.
As Wikipedia explains, Charlie “can’t get off because he didn’t bring enough money for the ‘exit fares’ which had been established to collect an increased fare without upgrading existing fare collection equipment.”
When I heard this song years ago, living in Boston, it didn’t bother me much that Charlie was trapped on the subway for want of a nickel. What bugged me was that his wife brought him sandwiches daily, yet never thought to stick his exit fare in his hand as the train went by.
As for the automated tellers: They’re easy to use, and I found the tickets more convenient than subway tokens. So maybe that’s the real reason Charlie is smiling.