Darius McCollum would stand around the subway concourse of Columbus Circle just to wait for someone to ask him for directions. Offering the travel advice made him feel special.
McCollum is also a famous felon, known to New Yorkers through countless tabloid headlines as the man who reportedly stole hundreds of MTA trains and buses — only to operate them in accordance to their schedules, safely picking up and dropping off passengers, before returning the property. He’s currently incarcerated and is facing up to a life sentence for stealing a Greyhound bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal last November.
“Off the Rails,” a new documentary screening in New York City this November, offers a sympathetic look at McCollum, 51, who has Asperger’s syndrome, and how the mentally ill can fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system.
“He’d wait to offer tourists advice because it made him feel so good,” said Adam Irving, who directed the documentary. “It made him feel special and he’s not made to feel special in anywhere else in his life.”
McCollum’s disorder fostered his intense passion for mass transit that could not be satiated unless he was physically behind the wheel. He was arrested 31 times for impersonating transit workers, according to the documentary.
McCollum first fell in love with the NYC transit system while growing up in Brooklyn, when he would ride the “dynamite D” train, as he calls his favorite line, with his mother to go shopping and see off-Broadway plays. By age 8, McCollum is said to have had memorized the entire subway system.
“In 70s and 80s the subway was dirty and dangerous, but for me is was paradise,” McCollum said. “Looking up at these big machines, it was something I fell in love with.”
McCollum struggled to make friends in school and found comfort in the trains.
Over time, he built a rapport with workers and acquired a vast knowledge of every lever, button and hatch in the subway system. That eventually led to a level of comfort where one conductor let McCollum operate an E train independently at the age of 15.
“I felt so doggone good,” McCollum says. “It was like, ‘gee, I can’t wait to go do it again.’”
And so he did, over and over without permission, much to the displeasure of the MTA. As he traveled in and out of prison, McCollum was primarily homeless, living in the subway system, as he found it difficult to land a job as a convicted felon.
Asperger’s repeatedly serves as a disadvantage to McCollum in court, where he has faced problems such as an absentee lawyer and a judge who refused to acknowledge his disorder.
“The criminal justice system failed to rehabilitate a harmless, nonviolent person who has a passion that isn’t necessarily evil, but all they’re able to do is warehouse him in cage,” said Irving. “Darius is indicative of someone with mental health issues that isn’t a traditional criminal, yet court system only has two solutions: maximum security or straight jacket.
“And so we have to remember that as we’re watching this movie that Darius is still sitting in a cell,” he said.
Off the Rails will have a weeklong screening at Metrograph theater, beginning this Friday, November 18.