Charlie on the T


I just got back from Boston, where I spent the weekend riding the subway — known there as the T — with a CharlieCard, the reloadable, contactless smart card that was introduced at the beginning of the year. Montreal’s smart card will be introduced in January, with a full implementation in the spring, but its name still hasn’t been released. There really should have been a competition to determine what it will be called; now we will probably end up with a blandly-named card like Atlanta’s BreezeCard, Paris’ Navigo or Washington, DC’s SmarTrip.

Boston, though, was wise enough to avoid that perilous route. To outsiders, CharlieCard seems like an inexplicably goofy choice of name for an important piece of transportation infrastructure, but it actually has deep roots in the city’s transit heritage. The Charlie in question comes from the 1948 “The MTA Song,” which tells the story of a man named Charlie who was forced to ride the rails for eternity because he forgot to bring an extra five cents to pay for the new exit fare:

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket,
Kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA

Charlie handed in his dime
At the Kendall Square Station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him,
“One more nickel.”
Charlie could not get off that train.

Every day, his wife meets him at Scollay Square where she hands him a sandwich, but apparently she doesn’t mind him being away, because she never sees fit to give him a nickel.

Now all night long
Charlie rides through the tunnels
Saying, “What will become of me?
How can I afford to see
My sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?”

Charlie’s wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin’ through.

“The MTA Song,” better known as “Charlie on the MTA,” became a hit in 1959 when it was recorded by the Kingston Trio, a California-based folk act. Over the next few decades, it worked its way into Boston’s popular culture well enough to become the winning nomination for the name of the new smart card that replaced the city’s antiquated token payment system last year. While I was using the card and staring at its cartoon rendition of a jubilant Charlie (happy, I guess, to have his fare pre-loaded on a smart card), I thought about whether it would be possible for something as simple as a smart card to work its way into a city’s public imagination.

It might seem unlikely, but since its introduction in 1997, Hong Kong’s Octopus Card has become one of the many increasingly cherished symbols of the territory’s local culture. Its Chinese name, baat daaht tung, which literally means “eight arrive card,” was selected in 1996 after a public competition. It refers to a proverb — sei tung baat daaht — that means “reachable in all directions.” Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, so the English name of the card is meant to evoke an sea creature whose eight tentacles reach every nook and cranny of Hong Kong. Wrapping things up quite neatly is the card’s design, which features a stylized infinity symbol that looks, of course, like a sideways number eight.

I knew just how much the Octopus Card had become a part of Hong Kong culture last winter, when I received a red lucky money envelope for Chinese New Year. On its face was a rotund pig holding up an Octopus Card with a subway turnstile in the background.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday November 20 2007at 11:11 pm , filed under Transportation, United States and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “Charlie on the T”

  • Siqi says:

    That reminds me, I’ve seen some really idiosyncratic names for these contactless cards in Japan. In Tokyo they have PASMO and Suica, which is the same word as water melon. In Osaka it gets better: icoca and pitata. Just how they arrived at these names is completely beyond me.

  • factotum says:

    Sculley Square station would be the correct spelling, I think… an ex-Bostonian me.
    In London, U.K., they’re called Oyster cards.

  • I’m pretty sure it’s Scollay Square. Here’s a Wikipedia entry on Government Center.

    Oyster is cute, but it doesn’t quite work as well. It’s a nice pun (“the city is your oyster”) but it doesn’t have the same layers of meaning as Octopus. Anything is better than SmarTrip, though — but I suppose some would argue that such a bland, bureaucratic name suits DC pretty well.

  • lily says:

    That’s great! When I saw the picture, I immediately thought of the song, but I wasn’t confident that Boston would have been awesome enough to make the reference.

    (By the way, in the Kingston Trio version, Charlie’s wife hands him a six-pack instead of a sandwich)