An afternoon with Charlie: one T rider#039;s experience

by Beacon Staff • September 13, 2006

About a man who is one nickel short of exiting a subway train bound for Jamaica Plain (and thus is destined to ride the T forevermore), " Charlie on the MTA" is actually a ditty against subway reform.,Last Sunday afternoon in downtown Boston, I found myself sitting in the caged ticketing area in the Park Street T station, think0ing about that old Kingston Trio tune, the one about Charlie and his fateful trip on what was then know as the MTA.

About a man who is one nickel short of exiting a subway train bound for Jamaica Plain (and thus is destined to ride the T forevermore), " Charlie on the MTA" is actually a ditty against subway reform.

I reminded of Charlie's story because it had been one story and five minutes since I had inserted $44 into one of the new computerized ticket-vending machines in exchange for my monthly CharlieTicket.

I received no ticket, only a receipt. It seems Charlie and his new automated system in Boston are making everybody's life a living hell.

According to the friendly yet manic customer service agent(CSA), whose job it is to deal with the myriad complaints of confused and annoyed automated fare collection (AFC) users like me, my card was probably stuck in the machine.

Therefore, it was best for me to just wait for a technician- a man he referred to as Mr. Moneybags- to open up the ticket dispenser and retrieve my card for me.

I had nothing planned on that rather drab Sunday. So I parked myself on the CSA's cushioned desk chair, endured the sauna-like heat, and waited for Mr. Moneybags. The wait was significantly longer than expected. As the hour- and-a half mark loomed, I started to feel a bit like ol' Charlie himself: stuck forever in the depths of the Boston underground, unfairly imprisoned by a system over which I had no control.

The longer I sat in the corner and the more time I spent observing the mess of waiting commuters in front of me, the more I felt I was not alone in prison.

Would-be T riders were wandering around the ticketing area in a daze, inserting credit cards on correctly into the ticketing machine, fumbling with the touch-screen computers and somehow screwing up simply walking through the sliding gates.

All the while, one sole CSA attempted to make sense of the chaos.

My observation has left me with this conclusion: the new Charlie system does more harm then good.

The prepaid fates still generate lengthy lines, and the elderly and the disabled are certainly not any better accommodated.

The criminal fare-evaders are not deterred by the new buzz-ing alarm system, the employees are overworked and there are obvious issues with the ticket machines.

Why is so much money being spent on such a worthless endeavor?

Perhaps it is the same reason that Emerson spent millions replacing the character-driven West Side with the flashy content-devoid discotheque that is 150 Boylston St.

It may be the same reason that Michael Dukakis, several decades ago, thought it would be a good idea to dig a big hole beneath Boston's roadways.

Simply put, out officials insist on modernizing at a faster rate than our essentially antique city can handle.

As hour three of my wait came to a close, a man introduced to me as the chied engineer of the MBTA gave me an application for reimbursement.

I was at last free to enter through the gates.

Waving goodbye, one of the CSAs I had spent the afternoon with called out to me.

"My heart bleeds for you," she said. "It really does".

With that, I passed through the handicapped entrance, walked down the stairs to catch the Red Line, and waited for a train.

I felt like 'ol Charlie once must have- although, unlike him, I would soon be free to go aboveground.

When the train came, its doors creaking open, I reached for my wallet to put away the piece of paper that had governed the thoughts and events of my afternoon, my ticket receipt.

But there I found another small piece of paper.

It was a simple green and white card, placed comfortably behind my license and Emerson ID, with the words " Charlie- Ticket" printed boldly on it.

I had had it the entire time, all three hours.

In the end, perhaps the chaos is not merely the fault of the automated robots or of the rapid, technology-hungry society we line in.

It is also us humans, flawed and unprepared, having trouble catching up to it all.