A new documentary explores how a man’s obsession with New York’s MTA lands him in a legal gray area.
In 1983, when Darius McCollum was 18 years old, he owned 139 keys for the Metropolitan Transit Authority system in New York. He could operate subway trains, get into ticket booths, use the showers, and issue commands from the control towers. His closet was lined with outfits given to him by transit worker friends: uniforms worn by bus drivers, subway operators, and sanitation workers. McCollum kept them in pristine condition.
“I might be doing a conductor one day, a bus driver the next, ticket booth another day,” he says in the new documentary Off the Rails: The Darius McCollum Story, which winds through McCollum’s nearly 40-year history of impersonating New York transit workers.
For 51-year-old McCollum, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a love of transit has amplified into a fascination he can’t stop chasing. McCollum has never been employed by the MTA. When he hops a train or a bus and fires up the engine, it’s technically a criminal act, one for which he’s been arrested 30 times.
Over the years, McCollum has become a media sensation. He was the subject of a 2002 Harper’s essay, “The Boy Who Loved Transit,” which was later anthologized in a compilation of the best American crime writing of 2003. But for every sensitive profile, there were dozens of pithy pieces from local news outlets, which covered his antics with glee, reaping opportunities for puns: “Subway nut is retracing his tracks,” a 2010 New York Post headline read.
When Adam Irving, the director of Off the Rails, first heard McCollum’s story, he was drawn to the spectacle, too: a middle-aged man, magnetized to the New York transit system, caught in a seemingly endless cycle of temptation, arrest, and release. In 2013, when Irving started filming, he had set out “to make a lighter, quirkier, catch-me-if-you-can kind of film,” Irving says. But there was a deeper layer to the story, one that interrogates the whole architecture of the criminal justice system in New York, and finds nothing in it that can account for McCollum. A year after he began, Irving dismantled the original film and started over.
The version of Off the Rails that premiered this month recounts the whole scope of McCollum’s story—how a violent incident when he was 12 transformed him from a charismatic, social, train-loving kid into a teenager who took refuge in the transit system; how he grew distant from his family and more convinced that the MTA was the only place he belonged. The young McCollum won the trust of transit workers, who showed him the ins and outs of the system, calling on him to pilot their routes so they could sneak off to secret rendezvous or catch a nap. McCollum treated the system like his home, and approached it with care and precision: he learned the schedules and the mechanics, and can recite each route from memory. Asperger’s is characterized by high intelligence, particularly in one area, and social difficulty. “I’m really good with trains, but I can’t seem to figure out people,” McCollum says in Off the Rails.
The MTA takes a harsh stance toward McCollum: Though he’s proved himself a capable and enthusiastic conductor, often spicing up standard announcements with proclamations like “This is the dynamite D train!,” the organization won’t hire him, and maintains that his diagnosis renders him a liability. McCollum’s most stable residence for the past few decades has been jail.
In the aim of creating a balanced film, Irving spent two years tracking down Michael Dougherty, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted McCollum in 2003. Most of the other people—therapists, social workers, McCollum’s lawyer—that Irving interviewed for Off the Rails appear at a loss for how to handle McCollum’s case, but many are convinced that prison is not the answer. Dougherty disagrees. “If he’s going to continue to put the public at risk, prison is an option that has to be considered,” he says in the film.
It’s at this point that the word “criminal,” attached to McCollum, activates the film’s central question: What does it mean to incarcerate a man who, while technically breaking the law, hasn’t hurt anyone? The criminal justice system “only deals in black and white,” Irving says. “It doesn’t have a way to address anything in between.”
Last fall, Irving thought he had an ending for the film: McCollum, released from prison, had traveled to North Carolina to stay with his mother. The closing shot showed him walking down a set of abandoned train tracks, saying he’d finally found a way to live without the MTA. But last November, McCollum returned to New York, and was arrested almost immediately for commandeering a Greyhound bus from Port Authority. He is currently in jail awaiting trial, and faces up to 15 years in prison.
When he screens the film around the country, Irving says audience members will contact him, looking for ways to help McCollum. He can’t offer a solution. Instead, the film implores the organizations involved—the MTA, the New York criminal justice system—to reconsider McCollum. “If I can’t ride the trains, I might as well be in jail,” McCollum says in the film. There’s a gray area between the two, Off the Rails suggests, and it needs to be explored.
Off the Rails will be available for steaming in 2017.