This morning, the New York Times ran an obituary for Jacqueline Steiner who, along with Bess Lomax Hawes wrote an unforgettable song in 1949. The song has become so popular throughout the US and throughout the world that it is hard to believe that it actually had its beginning as a campaign song for a political candidate.
According to the Times story, the candidate was named Walter A. O’Brien who ran on a platform which included opposing a fare increase on the Boston transit system. That proposal included a small fare which one would pay to get off the subway or trolley car. So, in order to dramatize the burdensome nature- and stupidity- of this system, Steiner and Hawes wrote a song for his campaign about a poor guy named Charlie who paid to get on but didn’t have the extra nickel to get off the train.
And so, the legend of Charlie of the M.T.A. was born.
The candidate lost and the song disappeared until the Kingston Trio revitalized it in 1959. They decided to change the name of the candidate to “George O’Brien” especially since Walter O’Brien was, according to the Times article, deemed to be a communist and was blacklisted. But, the other lyrics remained the same and the legend grew as the song hit Number 1.
As the article points out, it is so much ingrained in Boston culture that the “T”, as the Boston transit system is now called, chose “CharlieCard” as the name for the automated fare card needed to ride the subway. Today, if you go to Boston and travel on the “T”, you have to buy a CharlieCard. Brilliant.
The song is so much fun and you can hear it here if you don’t know it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7Jw_v3F_Q0
Whenver I hear the song, I think of so many hours I spent on the M.T.A. and later the “T” going to Boston Latin School each school day and on trips to Brookline or downtown. I’m not going to claim that it was perfect then or that it is now. Those who have the ride the T today, I’m sure, can tell horror stories as can be told about any transit system. But, for now, I’m filled with nostalgia as I think of the “streetcars” on the Boston College line which I rode so often as they dipped into the subway at Kenmore Square right near Fenway Park and continued into the center of downtown.
And, we did have to pay to get off the train.
The system eventually changed but, when I was kid, you had to pay a higher fare- on the honor system, I guess- if you entered the train above ground and intended to get off in the subway than the fare you would pay if you planned to get off before the subway.
And, on the way “outbound” from the subway, you would pay a quarter to get on and then had to pay a dime to get off above ground.
It was a crazy system and it made no sense and that’s exactly what the song is about.
Of course, the Times raised the obvious question that arises when someone hears the song for the first (or hundredth) time. If, as the song goes, Charlie’s wife could hand him a sandwich each day through the open window as the train rumbles through the station, why didn’t she hand him a nickel to get off the train? It is one of the eternal questions which continues to defy an answer.
I love subways and make it a point when visiting a new city which has a subway to ride even if just for the experience. I spent many hours in New York riding the subways especially with friends who shared my interest when they visited from out of town. I love looking at subway maps and am fascinated with a website called nycsubway.org which has pictures and descriptions of subways throughout the world.
But, beyond my love of other subways is the nostalgia I feel as I remember the sharp turn as the green line rumbles out of Boylston Street station, the great view of the Charles River as the car approaches Science Park and the memory of standing outside waiting for the streetcar to come to take me to school on cold winter mornings (when we couldn’t convince my mother to drive us).
As I wrote, I’m sure that if you have to ride it every day, the T can be horribly frustrating, expensive and not very worthy of nostalgic reveries. But, for this born and bred Bostonian, it is the stuff of fond, warm memories.
Good luck Charlie! Meanwhile, enjoy the ride!