Charlie’s MBTA Roots: Cheering Up a Guy Who Never Returned

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I don’t remember when I realized that Charlie — the T’s perpetually smiling, fedora-wearing mascot — was more than just a two-dimensional character.

I was reminded on Aug. 21, when the T deployed its absurdly creepy Charlie costume at famous sites across the city, like Fenway Park and the Public Garden. The real story’s a lot more interesting.

It’s one of the great ironies of modern Boston, much more than the uninitiated realize.

The current incarnation of Charlie hit the town about five years ago, when the T abandoned its token system for the tapcards and paper tickets we now know so well. But they didn’t just pull the character out of nowhere: he’d been a part of this city for decades, first appearing in a 1949 campaign song for an unsuccessful Progressive Party mayoral candidate. Songwriters Jackie Steiner and Bess Hawes wrote several folk songs for Walter A. O’Brien, a populist who advocated against a fare increase on the MTA — the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the predecessor to today’s MBTA.

Steiner and Hawes created a fictional character, Charlie, who got trapped in the city’s subway system because, while he could pay the ten cent fare, he couldn’t pay the additional five cent fee for passengers getting off the train at above ground stops. The song itself is based on the melody of a song called “The Train That Never Returned,” which in turn was based on a Civil War-era tune called — and I think you’ll notice a theme here — “The Ship That Never Returned.”

The song became popular in Boston, though O’Brien wasn’t as lucky, finishing fifth of five in the mayoral election. O’Brien’s bad luck continued into the ‘50s, when he and his wife were named Communists, charges they denied but were never able to shake. Unable to find work, the two moved to Maine, never looking back. For a deeper history of O’Brien’s political career and the Red Scare in Boston, see Peter Dreier and Jim Vrabel’s excellent article from Dissent.

In 1959, the Kingston Trio recorded the song, though they changed O’Brien’s first name in the campaign cry at the end of the tune, mindful of the man’s less-than-stellar reputation in Boston. Their recording is definitive, immortalizing it in Boston lore, and the folk music repertoire, for decades to come.

That whole history — a much longer version you can find on the MBTA’s website — brings me to the irony part. Charlie was doomed to live out his days as an eternal subway passenger, seeing his wife just once a day, when she passed him a sandwich through the car window. Yet the MBTA used Charlie to roll out not just new, higher fares, but a system that makes it easier to raise fares. We saw it happen just a few months back, when the T cut services while increasing the cost to take the train or bus.

The move away from fixed-rate tokens certainly made the whole system more efficient. Remember how you used to just stuff folded up dollar bills into that metal slot while boarding the bus? Even so, it brings us all a bit closer to the fate of Charlie, held captive by a public transportation system looking for new ways to nickel and dime the public.

So remember Charlie next time you’re crammed onto the train as you head into work, though not as the icon of the T but as our own folk hero, a man trapped on the train so long he became an indelible part of it, riding forever beneath the streets of Boston. The T tried to strip him of his past, but Charlie remains ours, so long as we remember who he is.

I’m still not sure why Charlie’s wife just didn’t pass her husband the nickel he needed to get off the train. But some things, it seems, must remain a mystery.