Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life imitates art (or the Kingston Trio) at the Boca Grande Toll Plaza

This one was never published. And the story about why it was never published is almost as strange as the story of Charlie and Don. This really happened. But I took out Don's last name for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with why it wasn't published. As soon as I heard Don's story I thought of the song. I was, apparently, quite alone. 

In 1959 the Kingston Trio revamped a revamp of a 100-year-old sea shanty and took it to the top of the charts. The "MTA Song" tells the improbable story of "a man named Charlie" who unwittingly boarded the Boston subway "one tragic and fateful day" not knowing the fare had been hiked to 15 cents.

With only a dime in his pocket, poor Charlie discovered "he may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston" unless he ponied up the additional five cents demanded by the conductor.
Charlie is best known as "the man who never returned." "No he'll never return (Everybody: No, he never returned and his fate will be unlearned ...) Oh yeah, THAT Charlie.

Charlie's story is fictional, of course. A cute story with a catchy melody. Couldn't really happen. Nope. No way. Not here, at least.

Charlie, meet Don. Don, meet Charlie.

The Boca Grande Toll Plaza. 
Don had recently fled his snowy home in Vermont. where he sits on his town's school board, and decided to celebrate his first day in balmy Boca Grande with a bike ride to Punta Gorda and back. It was to become his Charlie-esque "tragic and fateful day."

In a classic case of life imitating art (or a 1950s folk song), Charlie, er Don, pedaled his bike up to the window of the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority toll plaza and handed over the dollar bill he had stuffed in his pants, knowing it would be needed to return to the island and his home.

Just one problem.

Back in October the bridge authority had doubled the two-wheel toll to $2. And like Charlie, Don didn't know.

Somebody cue the banjo player.

Ten years before the Kingston Trio made Charlie a folk music folk hero, and a full 60 years prior to Don's toll plaza trip back to the future, Bostonians Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes decided to pen new lyrics to Henry Clay Work's 1865 ditty "The Ship That Never Returned."

The women wrote poor Charlie's story for Boston mayorial candidate Walter A. O'Brien, an unrepentent and equally obscure Progressive, a term reserved for socialists in those pre-Fox News days. O'Brien's platform called for rolling back the five cent fare increase. Only two things stood between O'Brien and the mayor's office. Voters and money.

O'Brien lacked both.

His solution to the second problem was to have the song recorded on the cheap. He then blared it from a festooned sound truck as he drove it on (rather than 'neath) the streets of Boston. Not only was O'Brien shellacked at the polls, the city rung him up on charges of disturbing the peace. A $10 fine.

O'Brien didn't have the money. Either, coincidentally, did Don. Not on him, that is.

The nice toll-taker was perfectly understanding, however. Don, she said, could either pony up the additional dollar he repeatedly explained he didn't have or sit there until Charlotte Harbor froze over. Charlie, er Don, tried everything. An IOU. Nope. Go home, get dollar, come back. Nope. Extract a kidney and leave it as collateral. Okay, no kidney. But the answer likely would have been the same.

No, no and not gonna happen.
I can't help," said the conductor. "I'm just working for a living."
"I explained - again - that I didn't have $1 with me, but I had money at my house and would be happy to get the $1 and bring it back. No go. By then the cars were backed up, but nobody was moving until I paid the $1." You know, the one he still didn't have.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Frustrated, Don did the reasonable thing. He blew around the gate and pedaled in the direction of the swing bridge that stood between him, a crisp dollar bill and a home-cooked meal.

Just one problem. The span linking the island to the rest of Charlotte County was, as its name implies, swung. To let boat traffic pass. And to keep him right where he was.
No he'll never return, no he never returned.
Charlie, er Don, was now trapped. As he tells the story, three GIBA employees surrounded him "and yelled at me for mistreating the booth person and telling me, again, that I could not cross the bridge unless I paid another $1." And who says customer service is dead?

That same old dollar. The same dollar he still didn't have.

By now the bridge had reopened. But nothing was moving. Nobody, apparently, was going anywhere until he ponied up the dollar. Again, the same one he didn't have.
Charlie looked around and sighed: Well, I'm sore and disgusted And I'm absolutely busted; I guess this is my last long ride.
With traffic threatening to spill onto Placida Road, a sore and disgusted and, temporarily, absolutely busted Don was hustled off to the GIBA office (aka "customer service") where, ultimately, it was discovered he had a lot more than $1 in his government-issued toll card account. It was promptly docked one dollar. But they weren't through with him yet.

"After receiving another lecture ... I was able to finally cross the bridge."

One dollar. That's less than gum. And considering we're talking Boca Grande here, it's barely a down payment on gum.

A nickel was Charlie's price of freedom. For Don, it was a dollar.

But everything is more expensive these days. Even ransom.

Don wants a sign on the bridge warning cyclists of the fare increase. Otherwise, he says, "you may never see home again." Sound familiar?

Charlie has become a Boston icon today. His memory is even enshrined in the electronic fare cards the city's subway system issues. CharlieCard.

The Kingston Trio is no longer around to update their 1959 hit with a tribute to Florida's 2011 reincarnation of the man who never returned.

Shame. DonDollars kinda has a nice ring to it.