Thursday, January 10, 2013

Charlie on the MTA

Do you know about Charlie and the MTA? "MTA" is a campaign song from the '40s that became a hit when the Kingston Trio covered it in the late '50s. It doesn't really matter if you know it or not, but I'll include a link at the end of the post in case you want to hear it (and see some really stellar scrunchy-backed, guitar-pickin', almost exclusively knee-related dance moves). The basic story is that Charlie got on the subway (then known as the MTA, now just the T) in Boston but, because of a five-cent fare increase that took the form of an exit fare, he couldn't get off the train. Every day, his wife went to what is now the Government Center stop on the green line and handed him a sandwich through the train window. He became "the man who never returned."

My mom rolls her eyes when I ask this question, one I have been asking since I was a little kid: why on God's green Earth couldn't Mrs. Charlie just hand the poor guy a nickel?*

The Stones say that if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. The too-often ignored flip side of that sentiment is that often, even if you try, you don't get anything close to what you need. That's a lot of trying for just a little need-getting, my friends, and it's difficult. It's easy to ask for things you want—dressing on the side, say, or to borrow your sister's favorite sweater. When the stakes are low, the word "no" in any of its variations doesn't matter. But asking for what you need…whoa, Nellie. Here there be dragons.

After my cousin Turquoise died, I found a blog post she'd written where she said that she didn't believe in unconditional love—a kind of love she defined by describing Aslan, the lion/Jesus figure in the Narnia books. I'm not haunted by much about her death—by her, perhaps, but not by regrets or blame or the kinds of weapons that we tend to wield so forcefully upon ourselves when someone we love dies. I was, and remain, angry that someone so young, and so very full of life is gone. I miss her and think of her every day. But we were pretty honest with each other, and very close, and when I hugged her at her bedside in California, just about two weeks before she died, knowing that I would be getting on a plane back to Massachusetts and I would never see her again, I didn't think there was anything left that I needed to say to her that I hadn't said.

And then I found the blog. What haunts me is that she was wrong, and that her error caused her pain. I didn't love everything about her—she was, after all, a human being, and from the part of my family that is fairly seriously damaged, and that kind of damage creates coping mechanisms that are not always easy to deal with. She made me laugh so hard that once, when we were kids and stuck in traffic, she literally made me pee my pants in the back of my parents' car. I didn't love that. I didn't love her relationship with alcohol, or many of her other relationships for that matter. I didn't love that she never seemed to understand how very worthy she was. But I loved her, and still do. So that's my regret—that I didn't know about the blog earlier. Because I would have told her she was being ridiculous. That woman's life was full of love. It was evident from the friends and family who rallied around her when she got sick, who sought out and found and mailed her treats to brighten her day, who wrote songs and stories for her, who came together—and continue to come together—on her Facebook page after she died. And even if all of those things had never happened, I loved her unconditionally. I fear that unconditional love, for her, meant unconditional approval. And the Stones never wrote a song about getting that, as far as I know. I also fear that despite my bluster now, I would have stayed silent out of fear that I wasn't as important to her as she was to me. There are lots of songs about that, too, although generally in other contexts. And on an intellectual level, at least, I know that's as big an error as Turquoise's. But there's a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it deeply enough to extinguish our fears.

I think we all probably get our share of sandwiches tossed at us when what we really need is a nickel. The kicker is that the sandwiches are so often "better"—more expensive, made with love and care, the thought that's supposed to count. But all we need is the damn nickel, and we'd settle, if we're being honest, for five pennies, even Canadian ones. Or a dime (we're happy to make change, once we get off the ever-loving train). But we—or I, anyway; I suppose I shouldn't speak for you—feel responsible for gratitude. I need to be thankful for the sandwich, and that makes it even harder to ask for the nickel, something I often don't feel deserving of in the first place. My ungratefulness becomes further evidence of my selfishness, further evidence that I don't deserve x, y, or z. It's a vicious circle, and, unlike the T, it doesn't stop running at 1AM.

I wish I had an answer for this, something convenient that you could cut and paste onto Facebook or photoshop over a picture of a sunset on the beach or something and then post on Facebook. But I don't. I don't write because I have the answers. I write because I have too many questions.

*A related, and more recent question is why the powers that be at the T decided, when changing from a token-based fare system to one that used renewable cards, to name that card after a guy who was invented in order to protest how expensive the T was. That's right—they're called Charlie cards. "Come ride the T—you might never be allowed to leave!" But that's a question for a different day. And probably a different blog.

And here, for all you knee-dancing aficionados, is the link: MTA


  1. I always asked the same thing!! Why can't she put a nickel in that lunch bag?

    But now as a grownup, I'm thinking that maybe Mrs. Charlie was enjoying her Charlie-free days and was happy to just see him at quarter past two?

  2. I think you're right--Mrs. Charlie was enjoying her freedom. If the man didn't have the common sense to leave the house with at least a nickel in his pocket, I probably would leave him on the train, too! :)


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