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Michael Tapp

At age 8, Darius McCollum had memorized New York City’s entire subway map. At 15, he was arrested for driving a train. Now, at age 49, he’s spent 18 years in jail for his transit love:

New Yorker Darius McCollum has been arrested 29 times for being a transit impostor. He’s been obsessed much of his life with stealing and piloting or driving any number of vehicles, ranging from piloting a subway train, stealing a bus, and putting on uniforms to pose as a conductor and a track worker during one instance …

According to McCollum, speaking about the transit system of New York City: “It’s my passion. The more was I down there, the more I wanted to do. I enjoy everything about the subway system.”

McCollum was raised close to Queens’ 179th Street station, which he thinks is why he initially got into trains. The Wall Street Journal has his backstory:

Mr. McCollum traces his fascination with trains to when he was stabbed at school at the age of 12. Afraid to return to class, he rode the subways all day and befriended a motorman who eventually let him hang out in the crew room at the 179th terminal not far from the McCollum family’s home in Jamaica, Queens.

Mr. McCollum became a fixture in the crew room. He ran errands, played cards and chess, and cleaned the dispatcher’s office and the token booths. Eventually, the motormen allowed him to conduct “yard moves,” driving the trains, alone, from the 179th Street terminal to a nearby MTA yard to be cleaned and serviced, he said.

In the 1981 subway case, the motorman who was supposed to be driving the train told authorities he allowed the teen to take over the controls after becoming sick. The real story, Mr. McCollum claims, was the motorman let young Darius drive the train.

One might ask, why didn’t he just get a transit job? McCollum couldn’t pass the MTA’s civil service exam, and the MTA says it wouldn’t hire a former train thief even if he did.

Part of the puzzle is McCollum’s autism spectrum disorder. According to his lawyer, the disorder’s to blame for his “uncontrolled impulses” to steal and drive transit vehicles. McCollum’s most recent sentencing includes mandatory cognitive behavioral therapy. While some might call him crazy, others have dubbed him a folk hero — and a documentary about his life is on the way.