Notes from the road: Solving a great musical mystery

(Boston)—The locals warn out-of-towners to forget about trying to drive in historic downtown Boston.  Traffic is terrible. Roundabouts are hopelessly confusing.  The old streets are narrow and leave strangers bewildered.  Better, they say, to stay in the suburbs and ride the subway into the heart of the city or catch a Gray-Line Tours bus if you want to see the many historic sites in one day.

Those who choose to ride the subway buy fare cards that are inserted into slots that open the gates to the platforms.  The fare cards are known as “Charlie Cards” (which you might want to remember for a trivia contest sometime).  They’re called Charlie Cards in memory of the hapless, trapped, subway rider named Charlie who became world-famous, thanks to a 1949 campaign song for a progressive mayoral candidate who campaigned against the city’s complicated subway fares which included an “exit fare,” a way to increase the taxes without changing the fare collection system at the start of the trip.  The Kingston Trio made it a hit song in 1959.

It tells the story of Charlie, who paid his dime at the Kendall Square Station then changed lines so he could reach Jamaica Plain, a place founded three centuries earlier by Puritans looking for land to farm and eventually became one of America’s first streetcar suburbs. But when he got to “JP,” as local folks call it, he did not have the extra nickel to pay his exit fare, dooming him to roam beneath the streets of Boston forever because “he couldn’t get off of that train.” His devoted wife went each day at the Scollay Square Station (pronounced “Scully” by the natives) and waited for the train to slow down enough that she could pass him a sandwich through an open window. At least, that’s how the song tells the story.

One of America’s great mysteries is why she never gave him a nickel when she gave him the sandwich.

We have done some historical research on that issue because it has bothered us, too, for decades.  We think we have uncovered the entire story in the microfilm room of the Beacon Hill Metropolitan Library, which is a short distance from the former Bull & Finch Pub that is now called “Cheers” because it was the prototype for Sam Malone’s tavern in the television show; its entrance was featured in the show’s opening.  The story found in the records of the Beacon Hill Democrat-Challenger, a long-dead newspaper, turns out to be a rather sordid matter.  But it does have a happy ending because Charlie, in real life, did get off of that train.

Charles J. Faneuil was a descendant of Peter Faneuil, the merchant who in 1740 built a market house that became the centerpiece of the early Boston independence movement.  Despite his historic family name, Charles was a middle-class bookkeeper for a suburban department store.  He was a solid and dutiful husband who left each morning and came home each night from his apparently dead-end office job that paid him enough to keep food on the table and a two-year old car in the driveway.

Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil, born Ann Revere Adams, was a descendant of two early Boston families whose “old money” was spent several generations previous to her marriage to Charles.  They had three children, Samuel Adams Faneuil, Betsy Ross Faneuil, and James Otis Faneuil.  Ann was a housewife but longed to be part of Boston’s upper social strata made up of descendants whose “old money” still existed and had multiplied because it was not squandered by previous generations. She yearned to be part of the kind of organizations that would refer to her as “Mrs. Charles Faneuil” instead of “Ann Faneuil,” as her friends did in the Tuesday Evening Mahjong Society.  In time she came to see her husband as an adequate provider but someone who would never give her a chance to live her dream.

The first public indication that the domestic life of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil was not all peaches and cream (and sandwiches handed through subway car windows) is the notice that Mrs. Faneuil had filed for divorce, charging desertion and abandonment of family.  She claimed Charlie had willfully absented himself from the family home by intentionally taking only a dime with him when he left for work that morning, knowing that he would need another nickel not only to get to work but would need another dime and a nickel to ride the subway back home that evening.  She suggested in her filing that Charlie did so because he had become enamored of one Theodora Williams, whose friends called her “Teddy,” a fellow rider on the subway. And she claimed that Teddy did not loan her husband a nickel, either, because she didn’t want him to leave the train so she could make sure he would be there for her.

The case was filed for Mrs. Faneuil by Quincy Kennedy Kerry, the Faneuil family attorney, whose main reason for representing the family was his attraction to Ann Revere Adams Faneuil. When he had heard of Charlie’s predicament, he had visited Ann to express his sympathy and found her surprisingly willing to accept it, not knowing that she—weary of being a simple housewife and child-raiser—had fantasized about what life would have been like if she had married a lawyer many years ago, instead of good old steady Charlie, and how nice it would be to dine at the club, wear elegant clothes, and travel to beautiful places that lawyers like to visit.

Charlie learned of the action when he read about it in a discarded copy of the Democrat- Challenger that he found on a seat in his subway car after the morning rush hour.  The news stunned him.  He did not know Teddy although he thought she was a fellow passenger during baseball season when she rode the train to Fenway Park. Teddy worked at the will-call window of the ticket booth.  They had hardly spoken other than an occasional “good morning” when she took a seat across from him. In fact, she had shown no interest in having a conversation.

That’s when it also dawned on him that divorce was a reason why Ann never put a nickel in the sandwich bag and, further, never put an additional fifteen cents in it so he could get home.  He had many times regretted not grabbing some extra change from the dish on the table by his front door as he left that fateful morning and had been grateful that he found the dime that he had left in the pocket the last time he wore those pants. Not until he got aboard the train did he discover there was not a nickel in that pocket, too. He would have said something to Ann during the sandwich deliveries, but she always timed her delivery so it happened as the train began to move again, leaving no time for discussion.

Teddy learned about the divorce filing when she heard some of the other girls in the ticket office chattering among themselves that same morning.  “Charlie who?” she wondered.  She also wondered if it might be the strange guy she sometimes saw in the subway who always wore the same increasingly rumpled suit and, in fact, seemed to smell bad in the few times she had been forced to sit across from him.  His hair was much too long and his scraggly beard had not filled out well in the weeks—or was it months?—since she had first noticed him.

Charlie also worried that he had lost his job because of his growing list of absences. His mood darkened in the next few days, likely driven by increasing hunger and his deepening concern about his job, to the point that he was thinking of leaving the train without benefit of nickel by throwing himself onto the tracks from the rear car and lying there until the next train ended his misery.

But that was when conductor H. W. Longfellow (his friends called him “Hank”) noticed Charlie’s state and took the steps that saved his life.  Charlie and Hank had formed something of a bond on the long low-passenger hours during the day shift when Longfellow worked. Longfellow, feeling some responsibility for Charlie’s situation because he was the conductor who told him “one more nickel” arranged for Evangeline’s Pizza to deliver one of its specialties to Charlie each day at the Scollay Square Station, a savvy move for Evangeline’s because the story of Charlie was starting to gain some public attention and Evangeline’s got some great public promotional value out of being Charlie’s food supplier. Longfellow also brought a pillow and some blankets from home for Charlie to use at night to sleep with at least a little comfort. Longfellow has come in for some criticism because in all the time Charlie was trapped on the train, Longfellow did not loan him a nickel.  But it was strictly against MTA policy for conductors to give nickels to passengers who claimed to have “forgotten” to bring one from home. The authority knew that it soon would be dealing with hundreds of “forgetful” passengers if it let its conductors loan nickels or even to let a passenger promise repayment on the next trip.  Employees who showed such kindness had been known to be kindly excused from their jobs, a circumstance Longfellow could not risk because he had a wife and family, too.

But Hank had something else that became important in the long run.  Hank knew a lawyer.

Hugh Louis Dewey was an ambulance-chasing attorney whose grandson, Hugh III, became nationally famous as the busy attorney for two Italian brothers who ran a car-repair shop in suburban Cambridge where they purportedly “fixed” cars they had never seen after diagnosing the problems during a telephone call without consulting maintenance manuals. When Huey Louie Dewey, as he was known in the office on Harvard Square, got involved, the case really got juicy.

Dewey could have paid Charlie’s exit fare to get his client off the train but he advised Charlie to continue to ride while Dewey called the local press and arranged for some sympathetic news coverage. Charlie’s story took up two full pages of the Sunday feature section of The Democrat-Challenger, including pictures of Charlie with his now-long hair and beard and later, clean shaven, trimmed, and wearing a new suit—all of this provided by Dewey to show the man Charlie had become since his wife took up with the family lawyer and stopped providing nickel-free daily sandwiches and then showing him as the man he once was and could be again.

Dewey hit Mrs. Faneuil AND lawyer Kerry with an alienation of affection suit and, since Mrs. Faneuil didn’t have any money, asked for substantial damages from Kerry, whose law firm was one of the upper-crust firms in the city.  If it had been in Memphis, and if John Grisham had been writing novels when all of this was going on, Kerry’s law firm would have been the prototype for a best-selling novel.

And Charlie DID get off of that train. He did not, in fact, “ride forever beneath the streets of Boston,” nor was he “the man who never returned.”  Folk song stories, one must remember, are just stories, not history.

Dewey eventually provided the nickel for Charlie to pay the exit fee a week after the big newspaper article. He was put up in a motel while he waited for the lawsuits to work their way through the courts and while he looked for a new job.  His friend, Longfellow, convinced his MTA bosses to hire Charles J. Faneuil temporarily as the company’s first passenger-relations agent. The move garnered some positive publicity for Charlie and the as well as a modest income so he didn’t have to live on Evangeline’s pizza anymore. It also scored some public relations points for the MTA, which had been pilloried by the Democrat-Challenger, and avoided a lawsuit threatened by Dewey alleging Charlie’s continued presence in the subway constituted a form of kidnapping and the exit tax was a form of ransom.

Dewey also rushed to Fenway Park to meet with Teddy Williams and sign her up for a separate lawsuit accusing Ann and lawyer Kerry of libel.  She also wanted damages for pain and suffering caused by extensive office gossip.

It took about eighteen months for all of this to work itself out.  Charlie did not contest the divorce although he did fight Ann’s efforts to get alimony and child custody.  The judge ruled that Charlie had not abandoned Ann. In fact, the judge said, Ann—by ending the sandwich supply runs—had abandoned Charlie and in doing so had endangered his health. Therefore, said the judge, she was an unfit parent and the children were given to Charlie.  She was allowed to keep their house into which Quincy Kennedy Kerry moved after a respectful interval.  He, however, turned out to be only a member of his law firm and not one of the top partners whose memberships at exclusive clubs were picked up by the firm.

Teddy Williams settled out of court for ten-thousand dollars and a public apology from Ann and Quincy.  She and her partner, Dorothea “Dix” Hancock, used the money to open what became a successful wedding cake business in the Back Bay area.

By the time H. W. Longfellow retired from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA of folk song fame, had become the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

And Charlie?  He left his job at the MTA when the suburban department store gladly rehired him as an assistant manager, thinking it could capitalize on his notoriety.  He was the store manager when he retired.  The three children grew up to be good citizens and showed no scars of the split-up of the family. By then Charlie had married a widowed high school social studies teacher, had slipped from public view, and was living quietly in a middle-class Boston neighborhood. He refused to take part in the changes at the MTA. “I’m so tired of hearing that damned song,” he once confided to his wife.

On December 4, 2006, the MBTA ended its exit fares and began using “Charlie Cards.”

That afternoon, two elderly men got their cards from a machine and used them to go through the gate to the platform. Charlie Faneuil and Hank Longfellow took a ride to the Harvard Square Station.  Nobody noticed them.   No newspaper photographers were there.  Nobody wrote about them in the next day’s newspaper.  When they got off the train, they caught a cab for a short ride to 73 Hamilton Street, a place known as the Good News Garage, where a couple if Italian guys claimed to have fixed Charlie’s car, a 1960s Dodge Dart. It had 21,294 miles on the odometer, not many miles for a car so old.

That’s because, of course, Charlie rode the MTA.

(photo credits: MBTA, etsy.com)

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