By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
I just wish the public transportation authority in New York City would just give Darius McCollum a job already–if only it were that easy. He knows the system inside and out, because as a child someone took him under his wings and showed him all there was to know about the city’s bus and rail systems. Years later, as told in the documentary “Off The Rails,” McCollum is a man with Asperger’s syndrome whose overwhelming love of transit has landed him in jail 32 times for impersonating New York City bus drivers and subway conductors and driving their routes.
As a boy in Queens, New York, McCollum found sanctuary from school bullies in the subway. There he was befriended by transit workers who taught him to drive trains. By age 8, he memorized the entire subway system. At 15, he drove a packed train eight stops by himself, making all the stops and announcements. Over the next three decades, McCollum commandeered hundreds of trains and buses, staying en route and on schedule, without ever getting paid. He also attended transit worker union meetings, lobbying for better pay and working conditions for a union to which he didn’t belong.
Although McCollum has never damaged any property or hurt anyone in his decades of service, he has spent 23 years in maximum security prison. His recidivism embodies the criminal justice system’s failure to channel the passions of a harmless, mentally-challenged man into a productive career and purposeful life.
You can’t watch this documentary without feeling sorry for McCollum. His only joy comes from being behind the wheels of the buses and the trains, and experts note that this makes him content and filled with self-worth. Of course, he takes medication for his Asperger’s, but I submit that if he only had a job working within the system, instead of outside of it, he probably wouldn’t need his medication. New York City transit officials say they do empathize, but they can’t take a chance on McCollum blowing up and putting passengers and others in harm’s way, if they were to hire him.
The documentary shows his relationship with his mother, who extremely coddles him, and who is living in North Carolina and can’t get to see him, even while he is fighting his cases in New York City courts. Toward the end, she is sick and her husband has taken ill, as well. McCollum endures one arrest after another. In between this, however, he meets and marries a woman. But this union doesn’t last too long, as McCollum leaves throughout the night to steal buses and trains, taking them on their scheduled routes. He is finally at a point where he receives probation and is able to leave the state. He visits his mother, only to miss New York City. He returns back to the city that never sleeps and eventually is pulled in the direction of his love for the trains. His last sentence in jail is just asinine. The same experts featured in the documentary say that McCollum’s case of autism is one that they had rarely seen. But what they all agree upon is that incarceration will never be the key to his complete recovery.
“Off The Rails” has won many awards at recent film festivals, and press materials state that the Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg projects that it will be an Oscar contender for Best Documentary Feature. The film will screen at Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., from December 30 through January 5, 2017. For more information, visit www.facets.org.