But did he ever return?

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, formerly the MTA, which runs the Boston subways, is replacing its token-based system with a farecard system.
The new system is called “Charley.”

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority &#8212 formerly known as the MTA &#8212 which runs the Boston subways, is replacing its token-based system with a farecard system.

The new system is called “Charley.”

Here are the original lyrics, by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes. Apparently Walter A. O’Brien was the Progressive Party candidate for Mayor of Boston in 1949; his name was McCarthyized out of the Kingston Trio version of the song, which uses an old folk tune.

Let me tell you the story

Of a man named Charley

On a tragic and fateful day

He put ten cents in his pocket,

Kissed his wife and family

Went to ride on the MTA

Charley 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.”

Charley could not get off that train.


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

Charley 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?”

Charley’s wife goes down

To the Scollay Square station

Every day at quarter past two

And through the open window

She hands Charley a sandwich

As the train comes rumblin’ through.


As his train rolled on

Through Greater Boston

Charlie looked around and sighed,

“Well, I’m sore and disgusted

And I’m absolutely busted;

I guess this is my last long ride.”

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 Charley off the MTA.


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’s the man)

He’s the man (Oh, the man)

He’s the man who never returned.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on “But did he ever return?”

  1. The reference is intentional, there's a picture of a guy on the card who's supposed to be the Charley from the song.

  2. Here's a link to the lyrics, Gloria.
    May I say grrr … of course, the T has really gone down too far up in price lately; it used to cost a mere 85 cents! As of next year, base subway fare will be $1.55. Highway robbery, I tell you.

  3. It's always been the MBTA as far as I know. I think you're confusing it with NYC's system.

  4. although the history of the song goes back much further, it was a folk hit on a comic folk album of the Chad Mitchel Trio in the sixties. I'm too lazy to go to the attic and search through my dusty collection to ID the album. But for those of you who can't remember back that far, suffice it to know that a few years later, the Chad Mitchell Trio was the springboard for John Denver's career. TRY GOOGLE. Charlie on the MTA
    (the man who never returned).

  5. I just moved to DC from Somerville, MA. The improvement in public transportation defies description. Signs telling you, accurately, when the next train is coming! Trains on weekends around the time the bars close! Cleanliness! Smart-Trip cards! I love the DC Metro.
    At the point that I left, half the stations had farecards, half token machines, and you couldn't use tokens at farecard stations, and vice versa, and I always seemed to have the wrong kind of thing.

  6. The Kingston Trio version I had named O'Brien — it said "Fight the fare increase, vote for (mumble) O'Brien, get poor Charlie off the MTA."

  7. first rider who is denied exit from the system formerly known as MTA by a faulty Charley card gets free lunch sandwiches for life, right?

  8. It was the MTA ("Metropolitan Transit Authority") until 1964. The song was a humorous protest about a 5-cent fare increase, collected upon exiting the system, the idea being that Charlie got on the train with his 10 cent fare but didn't have a nickel to get off.

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