Boston is a city of firsts. Boston Common was America’s first public park, opened in 1634. The Boston News-Letter, first published in 1704, was its first newspaper. Boston was also home to America’s first public library, first marathon, and its first subway transportation system. Today, the subway is officially known as part of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, and colloquially known as “the T,” and even the most casual of Boston visitors will know of it’s existence and ride the underground, even if only for the novelty.
The T dispenses fare cards called Charlie Tickets, or reloadable Charlie Cards that are used to board the subway system. But just who is, or was Charlie.
In fact, there is a story that goes along with the the ticket. Charlie was once a passenger on the Boston subway system back in 1949. Back then, the subway was known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or M.T.A. Charlie had boarded the subway train and paid his fare, but forgot to take an extra nickel that had just been imposed as an “exit fare.” The extra fare was supposed to be a solution to increase the total subway fare without having to change the existing collection equipment of the day. Charlie, being broke and lacking the money to get off the subway was forced to ride indefinitely under the streets of Boston.
But don’t worry about poor Charlie. Although stranded on the T and unable to disembark, his wife would meet him daily, handing him a sandwich as the train came rumbling through Scollay Square (now known as Government Center) to keep him fed. One thing she never provided was the nickel to get him off of the train.
Now, if this seems a preposterous tale, it is. You see, Charlie exists only in the lyrics of a song written by Jaqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes. The song was originally written as a campaign jingle for mayoral Progressive Party Candidate Walter O’Brien. O’Brien received only one percent of the vote and never got to be Boston’s chief executive. However, a full decade later in 1959, the song gained fame with the popular remix by the Kingston Trio. Almost overnight, the nation knew of Charlie’s fate, and wondered why his wife would not give him a mere nickel to disembark the subway. One theory is that she was sleeping with the sandwich vendor.
One important note is that although Charlie is fictional, the “exit fare” was not. At one point in time it was actually a real cost of riding the T. It may be hard to conceptualize these days, but in 1949, re-engineering all of the turnstiles that gave entry to the Boston subway system was a real pain in the ass. It was easier to charge another nickel, handed to the conductor to exit rather than go through that hassle. O’Brien wanted to stop the exit fares, but ultimately his socialist leanings were not able to gain popular support.
Even though O’Brien did not win the mayoral race, Charlie lives on in the form of the millions of tickets purchased to ride the Boston subway system. So the next time you hop on the T and feel like the ride is a bit too long, just remember old Charlie who has been riding the same train car for the past 70 years. You might bump into him and if you do, toss him a nickel.