Exclusive: 'MBTA vs. MIT' lawsuit really about Charlie, not CharlieCard

Don't believe anything you've read over the weekend about Massachusetts transit officials suing MIT and three of its students to keep the latter from "revealing" already-well-known vulnerabilities in the Boston agency's CharlieTicket magnetic stripe and CharlieCard smartcards.

This story is much bigger than yet another squabble over responsible disclosure.

This is about Charlie ... and how, after 60 years, his fate has come to be no longer "unlearn'd."

Written in 1948 and immortalized by the Kingston Trio in 1959 (video above), the chorus to "Charlie on the MTA" is among the most famous in all of folk music -- especially if you believe Boston is the hub of universe:

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.

The song may be as important to Boston's sense of self -- not to mention cultural history and modern-day tourism -- as The Tea Party, Paul Revere's Ride, Fenway Park, or dare I say it, Cheers. (As a Northeastern University student in the '70s, I half-expected to find myself seated next to Charlie every time I got on the Green Line.) So you can imagine the consternation at MBTA headquarters in Boston last week when a band of MIT mischief-makers threatened to blow the lid right off the legend of Charlie.

Oh, sure, their diversionary assault was problematic enough for the clueless bureaucrats: The students did manage to gather details of the cheesiness of CharlieTicket and CharlieCard -- named for you know who -- and they were hell-bent on distributing that information at the recently concluded Defcon security conference.

But here's the real reason the MBTA sought and was granted that court injunction: Seems those MIT hackers had unearthed incontrovertible evidence that Charlie did get off of that train -- and right quick, mind you. What has followed has been a massive cover-up stretching six decades.

For the uninitiated, the song suggests that Charlie -- "on that tragic and fateful day" -- boarded the train at Kendall Square with only "ten cents in his pocket," all of which was deposited into the collection bin. He had every intention of disembarking in Jamaica Plain were it not for the fact that he lacked the additional five cents for an "exit fare." The exit fare and attendant controversy were as real as The Depression; in fact, they were what prompted the songwriters to pen "Charlie on the MTA" for a political candidate.

So, could Charlie -- or any rider -- have really come up a nickel short and been stopped from getting off a train? Sure. However, historians have long had doubts about Charlie being stuck on that train indefinitely -- "he may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston" --- in no small measure because of the song lyrics themselves; in particular, this passage (which can be heard a 1:17 of the video above):

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.

You see the problem, right?

So, too, did those MIT students while they were rummaging around in MBTA electronic storage vaults looking for more security dirt. Quite by chance, they stumbled upon a treasure trove of historical documents detailing the real-life Charlie episode ... and government cover-up. Among the documents -- unencrypted, by the way -- was this note from The Man's wife that was apparently tucked in between his sandwich, pickle and a napkin:

"Here be a couple nickels fer ya, Charlie, now git yer lardass off this silly train and home for supper lest you be sleepin' on the sofa."

So Charlie, being no fool, was home by five, according to the document, as opposed to being "the man who never returned." The missus even had pot roast and a mug of suds waiting on him. (It's worth noting that The Kinston Trio apparently knew nothing of the deception.)

Not so much of a "tragic" tale once you know the truth, now is it.

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