Adam Irving’s directorial debut is the undeniably sad story of 50 year old Darius McCollum whose obsession with the trains and buses of NY’s transit system has resulted in him spending over half his adult life behind prison bars. McCollum has Aspergers syndrome and like other sufferers on the spectrum, his way of coping is having a singular compulsion. In his instance he became totally infatuated with anything and everything to do with the MTA from a very early age .
When he was a boy he was taught all about the transit system by friendly subway motorman, and so in 1980 at just aged 15 years old he went one step further and drove a New York City Subway E train full of passengers for six stops. It resulted in the first of many arrests and also a flurry of extensive media coverage which over time, he also became very addicted too.
Over the next few decades McCollum gained considerable notoriety as someone who would dress up in an official MTA uniform and then help himself to either a subway train or a bus, and take off. He always kept to the route, which naturally he knew off by heart, and stopped to pick up passengers and even collect fares. On another occasion he promoted himself to a ‘supervisor’ and successfully resolved issues for other drivers and conductors, and once he was even spotted on a picket line with transit workers striking for better pay. The irony that he was a unpaid volunteer never seem to phase him even then.
Over the years he was arrested more than 30 times but the legal and prison systems had no real idea on how to deal with this consistent offender. It was clear that he had not committed these ‘offenses’ malevolently or for any personal gain …. other than the personal thrill he got ….but that didn’t stop his sentencing being increased each time, or being housed in Rikers Maximum Security Prison with some very violent criminals. At one time one of the social workers who tried to intervene on McCollum’s behalf noted that the prison service had spent $60K per year for over 23 years at that point to keep him incarcerated, but not one single cent on getting him any therapy at all.
There is one particular trial when the Judge declared that she had researched Aspergers online (!) and in her opinion McCollum didn’t have it, and thus she handed out an even stiffer sentence.
Always a loner, McCollum did at one point find himself a Ecuadorian girlfriend, who even though she couldn’t speak a word on English, soon became his bride. She even stood by his side when he got his next prison sentence, but after he was released and he still kept going back to his old habits she asked him to chose between her and the trains. He chose the latter.
Irving’s expertly handles this intriguing story with a great deal of compassion for his subject, but as it unfolds he leaves us in no doubt that they cannot be any satisfactory closure on this seemingly never-ending situation. The authorities were happy enough to pick McCollum’s brain for his intricate knowledge of the transit system when it suited them, but they always baulked at the very notion of actually giving the man a job even though it is fairly obvious that he has all the makings of being a totally dedicated employee. Irving ensures that we sympathize with the very affable McCollum and the fact that without a job, a permanent home, and denied access to the one thing that really makes his life seem worthwhile to him, he will keep re-offending not as a cry for help, but simply this is what makes him happy and content.
When you approach McCollum’s story from the extensive press coverage, or even from a brief synopsis of the movie, you cannot fail to be amused by the audacious exploits that so infuriate the transit authorities. However the fact that it impinges on McCollum’s ability to lead a normal and free life; leaves one with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, and also regret that society would prefer to just keep him deprived of his freedom rather than help him move forward.