So Emily Fisher is going back to her home town, which she doesn’t want to do, to investigate a murder, something she doesn’t know how to do. Misery may love company, but Emily doesn’t have any on her flight to Boston. And there’s a surprise waiting for her in Logan Airport, which is going to make matters even more confusing. Read all about it in chapter two of Prophecies and Penalties, “Flying home.”
When she thinks about Logan Airport, Emily makes a reference to someone named Charlie escaping from the MTA, as if you’re supposed to know who’s she’s talking about. There’s a story behind Charlie. And it’s another humdinger.
The MTA was the Metropolitan Transit Authority, now called the MBTA, for Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. This government agency runs the elaborate system of buses, trolleys, subways, trains, and boats that serve the greater Boston area. And while the system is elaborate, in the 1940s the fare system was positively Byzantine. The fee schedule was said to run nine pages. There were not only fees to get on the system, there were fees to get off the system! They’d been instituted to increase fares without changing the entry turnstiles, and were mightily resented.
In 1949, there was a mayoral election in Boston. Walter A. O’Brien, the candidate of the left-wing Progressive Party, decided to make the fare increases, including the exit fees, one of his major campaign issues. Now O’Brien didn’t have much of a campaign budget. So he hired some local folk artists to compose his campaign songs. And one of them was a song about a guy named Charlie who boarded the subway, but hadn’t brought along enough change to pay the exit fee. So he couldn’t get off!
Well, despite the catchy song, O’Brien lost. In fact, he came in last place, with just over 1% of the vote. But the song lingered. And in 1959, the Kingston Trio, a famous folk group of the era, decided to record the song. Red-baiting had tainted the Progressive Party’s reputation, they were thought to be communists, or at least communist sympathizers, so the Kingston Trio changed O’Brien’s name. But otherwise they mostly left the song alone. And their version, which you can listen to here, became a hit song.
“He may ride forever / ‘neath the streets of Boston,” for Charlie’s song has been a favorite in Boston ever since. Indeed, when the MBTA switched to a card system in 2004, they called it the CharlieCard. And they held a special ceremony for this old leftie folk song, where the Kingston Trio sang it once again, accompanied by the state’s preeminent liberal of the day, Governor Mitt Romney.
For more information, the lyrics are on the MBTA’s web site, along with some history, and the photo of the Kingston Trio with Gov. Romney comes from their web site, specifically this page, which contains some other photos related to the song, as well.