Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Drawing strange connections

As I was driving home the other day, I say a license plate that read, in part, "CHARON." Charon, you may remember, is the mythical ferryman who carries souls across the river Styx into the Underworld, the land of the dead. The coins that they used to place on the eyes of the dead were a carry-over from that tradition: fare for the ferryman.
Maybe the driver was a funeral director or something.
I began to wonder about the effect of inflation on Charon. If he's still in business, has he raised his prices? Does this explain the high price of funeral services these days? Does a portion of that go to the ferryman?
This got me to thinking about the M.T.A. song.

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.

Chorus:
Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn'd
He may ride forever
'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned.

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.

Now you citizens of Boston,
Don't you think it's a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay
Vote for Walter A. O'Brien
And fight the fare increase
Get poor Charlie off the MTA.

Chorus:
Or else he'll never return,
No he'll never return
And his fate will be unlearned
He may ride forever
'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned.

In the 1940s, the MTA fare-schedule was very complicated - at one time, the booklet that explained it was 9 pages long. Fare increases were implemented by means of an "exit fare." Rather than modify all the turnstiles for the new rate, they just collected the extra money when leaving the train. One of the key points of the platform of Walter A. O'Brien, a Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston, was to fight fare increases and make the fare schedule more uniform. Charlie was born.
The text of the song was written in 1948 by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes. It was one of seven songs written for O'Brien's campaign, each one emphasized a key point of his platform. One recording was made of each song, and they were broadcast from a sound truck that drove around the streets of Boston. This earned O'Brien a $10 fine for disturbing the peace.
In 1959, The Kingston Trio released a recording of the song. The name "Walter A." was changed to "George" to avoid being labelled Communist sympathizers. The Progressive Party had become synonymous with the Communist party by the 1950s.
Walter A. O'Brien lost the election, by the way. He moved back to his home state of Maine in 1957 and became a school librarian and a bookstore owner. He died in July of 1998.
(Thanks to Jonathan Reed for the history behind the MTA Song.)

Now, back to Charon. (You're still singing MTA, aren't you?)
I wondered, what would happen to someone who boarded Charon's ferry with the 2 coins, only to have the rates change while in crossing? Wouldn't that person be stuck with the Ferryman for eternity, just like poor Charlie? Sounds like the sort of story that might be told on spooky nights to explain ghost lights, swamp gas, and the like.
Only vaguely-related, the Pawnee Public Library is hosting Troy Taylor this evening at 7. He's a collector of local ghost stories and legends, and is the author of books like Weird Illinois.

6 comments:

Gregory said...

Talk about fates worse than death. I assume that Charon doesn't take Visa?

Allen said...

No, but I hear he takes Mort-erCard and Necropolitan Express

Allen said...

Darn! I should've said he takes "MasterCorpse." That would have been much better than "Mort-erCard."
What’s that handy French phrase for “wisdom of the staircase”? Oh well.
He also accepts all currency that is--ahem--no longer in circulation.

Gregory said...

Ha! Clever, you. Were you thinking "l'esprit de l'escalier"? To be honest, I've never heard that expression.

...I googled "wisdom of the staircase".

Allen said...

Yeah. I've never actually heard it used, aside from comments about convenient phrases that have no real equivalent in English.
It represents the witty comment or comeback you should have made at a party, et al, but only think of it after you've left.

Gregory said...

I think I suffer from that as a disease.