As you read this, I am (hopefully) chugging along on the Acela Express from Boston to New York City, where my daughter is getting married on Friday. Hope you don’t mind if I share a different version of a post from another blog site a while back because, well…I’m a wee bit stressed and running behind schedule. But really, the cautionary tale of poor old Charlie, who must ride the train forever ‘neath the streets of Boston, bears repeating…
When my older sister tripped off to college, I had the happy fortune of inheriting her old-school record player. It came in a cute little suitcase, along with a massive collection of vinyl 45s. I scratched the heck out of them all, as I was fond of dropping the needle willy-nilly on my favorite parts of each song. But by far the most worn was The Kingston Trio’s 1959 version of The M.T.A. Song (popularly known as “Charlie and the M.T.A.”). You can listen to the unplugged version here: (Note: There’s a slightly-weird spoken intro but it will make sense later.)
Basically, poor Charlie was a working stiff who paid his dime fare to ride the Boston subway—but got stuck on the train forever because he didn’t have the extra nickel to pay his transfer fee after a sudden, nefarious fare hike. So—and this was the best part, in my view—good ol’ Charlie’s wife went down to the station every day at quarter past two to pass him a sandwich through the window of the train as it roared past. Yikes.
It’s a catchy tune, and of course as a kid I was clueless about its political history. But why have I always been so fascinated by Charlie and his predicament?
Well, I’m a Beantown-born girl, often short on cash, and a major train aficionado (my grandpa worked for the Erie Lackawanna.) And once as a college freshman, waaaay before cell phones, I lost my wallet and bus ticket in Boston and almost didn’t get back to my school across the state. (My rescue by my high school boyfriend who inexplicably showed up as the only other person in a deserted T station is another story. I have also named my main character in my new book Gracen, for the girl who generously gave me her extra bus ticket back to Wiiliamstown at the Head of the Charles.)
But the idea of being stuck in limbo, watching the world pass by, over and over, with no prospect of relief other than a measly daily sandwich, is somewhat unsettling. And it’s one thing if your train is empty, with a creepy guy staring at you from the other end of the car, and quite another if it’s packed with people and you are the sandwich, hanging on for dear life to a pole or strap or the coat of the large man standing next to you.
But logistics aside, did Charlie hate his new life as a commuter to nowhere? Or did he welcome it as a respite from his troubles? And if he were a writer like me, would he have used the time to observe his fellow passengers and buckle down to write the Great American Mystery Novel? After all, he had no worries about social obligations, paying bills, or looming deadlines. Did he scheme endlessly about all the possible ways he might get off that train, or did he ultimately come to accept his fate? Or…did he secretly enjoy his passive existence as a perpetual passenger? Did he really NEVER get off of that train?
One thing is for sure: Poor Charlie became not only one of the most famous guys in Boston, but also the mascot of the current MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority). You can walk up to any ticket vending machine and purchase a reloadable Charlie Card or Charlie Ticket. (Are you sure you want to risk not having that fare?)
My kid self and I remain concerned. Where is Charlie now, exactly? Did he end up dying on that train and is he buried under the tracks somewhere? Does his ghost haunt the “T,” as locals still call the Boston transit system? Or did one of those windbag politicians featured in the song finally intervene successfully for Charlie, and release him to the loving arms of his faithful, sandwich-bearing wife?
Which brings us to another issue. Why didn’t Mrs. Charlie just bring him a few more nickels instead? Maybe she didn’t want him back. Maybe no one wanted him back. Maybe the whole thing was a plot to…
Yeah, I know. And I agree with you. This whole concern over Charlie has to end. As soon as my equally-stressed daughter ties the knot, and I finish catching up on the Malice Domestic news (yep, same weekend), it’s back to writing my latest (and by “late,” I mean really late) new series proposal. I wonder if Amtrak still offers that cool writer-in-residence train scholarship…
All aboard! And beware the closing doors.
Readers, have you ever lost your wallet or found yourself without cash in a dire situation?