Kruh: Modern day ‘Charlie’ may return

August 9, 2017

Sixty years ago this month, with Boston’s perilous financial state leaving some to question the very survival of Massachusetts’ capital, the Legislature took control of the region’s trains, subways, and buses from the city and handed them to the new Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA. Two years later the MTA reached deep in the pockets of the region’s subway riders by adding a 5 cent exit fee at certain stations in the system.

It turns out that 1949 was an election year in Boston, and as several candidates vied to take over for Mayor James Michael Curley (then in his fourth, nonconsecutive term) one candidate, socialist Walter O’Brien, seized upon the nickel as an issue around which the workingmen and women — who relied on the subway to get to work — could rally and vault him into office.

It didn’t work out that way, of course. While Bernie Sanders is a prominent exception to the rule, socialists generally do not fare well in American elections, and they did especially poorly during the “Red Scare” of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

While Walter O’Brien would live out his days in obscurity as a librarian in Maine, his campaign song would live on to become a national hit and forever associate Boston with the trials of a guy named Charlie (the hero of candidate O’Brien’s song, representing all the working folks of Boston) who, the song went, “changed for Jamaica Plain,” but “when he got there, the conductor told him ‘one more nickel’ Charlie couldn’t get off of that train!”

What makes the story relevant is the recent news that the MBTA (the descendant of the MTA) facing shortfalls in revenue due to uncollected commuter rail fares, will soon require riders to show their tickets before boarding trains. Which, to be fair, doesn’t seem like an unreasonable action for the T to take. Count this writer among those riders who saved the fare on a trip or two when crowded trains prevented conductors from collecting tickets, meaning I did not need to activate the ticket on my phone, thus saving it for another ride on another day. Most people who ride the T regularly, probably have a story like that.

But here’s where the 1949 saga of our hapless commuter named Charlie comes into play in 2017. Keolis is reported to be exploring having riders show proof of payment at the end of their morning commute when they disembark at one of three main stations — Back Bay, North Station, and South Station. Those without tickets will have to pony up right then and there.

Back in 1949, with no Apple Pay or other app to facilitate painless payment of the surcharge, the issue of an end-of-line surcharge struck a chord with thousands of working-class commuters who jangled change in pockets or pocketbooks and knew where every nickel went.

But are there dangers lurking for a modern-day Charlie? What if our everyman’s phone battery has died. What if his payment app has crashed? We always wondered why Charlie’s wife, who dutifully handed him a sandwich as the train “went rumbling through” the Scollay Square station, never handed him a nickel. Maybe now she can pass him a charger or working phone so Charlie doesn’t have to face the ignominy of being another commuter who never returned.

David Kruh is the author of two books on Scollay Square. Talk backat letterstoeditor@bostonherald.com.