History

Charlie on the MTA | Lexicon

“Charlie on the MTA” was written for the 1948 campaign of Boston’s Progressive Party candidate for mayor, but the phrase means something else today.

By Yankee Magazine

Sep 01 2016

boston-subway

“Charlie on the MTA” was written for the 1948 campaign of Walter A. O’Brien.

Charlie on the MTA | Lexicon
“Charlie on the MTA” as depicted on Boston’s current subway tickets, known as “Charlie cards.”

On the one hand, “Charlie on the MTA” is a song written by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Hawes for the 1948 campaign of Walter A. O’Brien, Boston’s Progressive Party candidate for mayor. The song protested the proposed fare hike by the Boston subway system, or MTA (now MBTA), which would have required one fare to get on the subway and another to get off. Popularized by the Kingston Trio, the lyrics tell of a man who got stuck on the subway when he found himself short of change. “He may ride forever,” the chorus goes, “‘Neath the streets of Boston/He’s the man who never returned.”

Nowadays, “Charlie on the MTA” is used to describe someone caught in the revolving doors of city bureaucracy or to label local sports figures who leave us and never return. As for Charlie himself, one Boston Globe writer speculated that if he were alive today, he’d probably turn up on a talk show and confess that his wife — who used to hand him his daily sandwich at the Scollay Square station — ran off with the sandwich vendor.

Do you remember the lyrics to “Charlie on the MTA?”

Excerpt from “The New England Sampler,” Yankee Magazine, February 1995.