Change

I can’t be the first person to have figured this out. Indeed, you have likely arrived at the same solution. Members of a certain generation will immediately know the answer to which I refer. For younger readers, here is the requisite background:

A man is trapped in an underground transit system lacking the necessary fare required to exit. He considers whether or not he will be able to visit relatives in neighboring locales—Chelsea, Roxbury. In addition to lacking funding, there is a concern regarding nutrition. If our protagonist rides forever ‘neath the streets of Boston, what will he eat? Each day his wife provides him with a meal.

Here is the question that has bothered generations of folksingers. If Charlie’s wife can hand Charlie a sandwich through the open window, why can’t she just as easily provide him with a nickel? A nickel occupies significantly less volume than a sandwich of even the most modest dimensions. A nickel would allow Charlie to get off the train and return to his responsibilities. Whereas a sandwich only ensures that he stays on the subway for another day without starving. 

Can we assume that Charlie’s wife wants Charlie to be able to exit the subway and come back home? There is no verse referencing marital discord. So the question remains: Charlie’s wife hands Charlie a sandwich. Why doesn’t she just hand him a blamed nickel?

One obvious point: if Charlie’s wife hands Charlie a nickel, there is no song. Generations of campers would not shout “through the open sandwich, she hands Charlie a nickel!” It doesn’t rhyme. It makes no sense. 

Which leads us inevitably to the following unfortunate conclusion. Charlie’s wife prefers the devil she knows to the devil she does not know. Charlie’s wife is not in enough pain to change. Charlie’s wife prefers the status quo. At some fundamental level, Charlie’s Wife is invested in Charlie remaining on the train. As inconvenient as it is for her to go down to the Scollay Square station every day at a quarter past two, she is getting something out of the relationship. At some level, her needs are being met, her need to be pitied and put upon among others. 

Charlie’s wife complains. Look how disrupted my life is. Not only do I have to make lunch for my feckless husband, I have to go down to the station. It’s a long walk! Oh, my aching feet! What kind of dim bulb doesn’t bring enough money to get out of the subway? My mother was right; I shouldn't have married Charlie.

A therapist I know calls this the “Ouch Paradigm.” With needy children rather than underground spouses, it sounds something like this: “my son is failing algebra and smoking pot. He sleeps half the day and refuses to help out around the house.” The aggrieved parent continues. “Look how much money I spend on his private school, his tutor, his educational consultant, his psychiatrist. Nothing helps. Woe is me.” 

It certainly sounds like the parent would prefer that her child be different, improve, get out of bed before the crack of noon. But were transformative positive change to occur, would the parent then be unemployed? Would the parent then have to consider his or her own issues? Infidelity? Substance abuse? Power and control? Existential despair? Could the child’s continued failure—as unpalatable as it is—be preferable to change? It is easier to look outward, blame someone else, than to consider one's own fundamental condition?

We opine that we want our children to function, to be successful. But do we? Here’s a test: Talk to your kid about helping out. Sure it’s easier, cleaner, and more efficient to do the dishes by yourself. But go ahead and confront the issue. If your kid still refuses to help you with the dishes, ask yourself how the situation in your home has come to that point. Is there some part of you, however minuscule, that is happier throwing up your dishcloth in disgust and thinking, "My child just won't help, I'll just have to keep on doing all the housework myself. I sure do suffer as a result of having this good-for-nothing child."

To the contrary, there has to be a way to work together with your kids for the common good in your home. Your kids will help out. You may have to make the tasks age appropriate; you may have to make the chores fun. You may have to acknowledge that housework takes longer with kids helping. But your kids will contribute if you let them.

Otherwise you have to admit that you’re happier keeping Charlie on the MTA.

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