Photos by Chris Faraone
“You can only do five at a time.”
I’m trying to consolidate the virtual nickels and dimes left on a wad of CharlieTickets, the flimsy bastard cousins of the CharlieCard, that I’ve accumulated in the past couple of months. Unfortunately, the greeter at the MBTA CharlieCard Store—yes, such a thing really exists—is of no help whatsoever. I tilt my head forward and eyeball her with disappointment bordering on pure disgust, but before I can hit her with a follow-up inquiry, she cuts me off—
“If you have more, then you can come back tomorrow. Or whenever, it’s up to you. Just not now. For now you can only do five.”
I’m puzzled. Floored, really. I hiked all the way down here, something like a hundred miles underneath the Downtown Crossing T station, between the secret sweatshop where Filene’s made knockoffs that they passed off as designer goods and the clandestine vault made out of moon rock where the men behind the 2024 Olympic bid hatched their initial plans for global domination. All I want is to leave with a shiny CharlieCard filled with the total value of these unbelievably annoying tickets, the ones that turnstiles suck in and spit out, suck in and spit out, suck in and spit out like a kid sticking their tongue out to mock someone. Sadly, my prospects aren’t looking good.
There’s an interesting number system in the cellar T shop (in case you’re wondering, no, they don’t sell any cool subway map merch or anything like that). Instead of adopting the deli counter protocol that’s worked forever in the marketplace, the CharlieCard store assigns everybody an alphanumeric combo, the venue’s version of “now serving” coordinates, as well as a separate number between one and six. I’m handed a ticket for C744, which corresponds to nothing in particular. As if the experience isn’t painful enough, the place is decorated like a kindergarten classroom at a charter school, complete with horrific colorful Twister splotches everywhere and a few token flatscreens. As I sit like Beetlejuice in the waiting room with other broke asses who are there for a number of service issues, it becomes clear my fellow straphangers all feel the same.
The joke, of course, is on us. The CharlieCard system, which launched in 2007, cost taxpayers nearly $100 million (for machines that don’t allow people to move value from unusable tickets onto one card). That was just for subway turnstiles and buses, as promises to upgrade the entire system were apparently forgotten after the Mass Department of Transportation learned that such improvements would cost up to $70 million. All this while the overall Chuck apparatus has fallen into an infamous pattern of failure.
After nearly 20 minutes of stewing, I finally get called up to the third window. Receiving me is one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met, already angry that I took more than a second to realize she was summoning me.
“Is there any way that you can consolidate all of these onto one CharlieCard for me?” I fan a dozen tickets on the counter like I’m showing all my poker cards.
“No, you can only do five at a time. You can come back tomorrow if you want to do the rest.”
“But I have 12. So how come you can do five now, but you can do seven tomorrow?”
“What do you mean seven tomorrow?” She doesn’t like my math. I give up.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll just do five for now.” I pick ‘em at random, not knowing how much value is on any of them, and after about two minutes of her swiping and typing, am handed a new CharlieCard with $1.80—not even enough for one fare.
I have no doubt the plan for this primordial transit emporium was hatched as a response to inconveniences. Still, for a taste of just how high a disregard the bureaucrats at MassDOT have for riders, one simply needs to visit this hellish inferno, and glimpse the substandard basement into which they cram customers. The only positive takeaway from my ordeal, if any exists, is that I queued for long enough to pen this heater. I guess there will be time to write a sequel, too, since I still have seven cards with anywhere from five cents to as much as two bucks occupying precious real estate in my wallet.
This article was written in collaboration with the Boston Bubble, a glossy and collectible palm-sized quarterly about transit, tech, and innovation in the Hub published by DigBoston’s partners at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. For more information and subscriptions visit thebostonbubble.com.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.