This story was originally published in Newsday on March 26, 2000
Darius McCollum was a precocious child of 9 when his mother took him by the hand into the subway for his first ride, an F train from Jamaica to Macy's in Herald Square.
Underground, the boy found a mysterious world of lights in the darkness. Of blasts of hot air and the rush of trains. Of doors that vanish and pop out again, and thundering noises and a thousand unknown faces.
"It was," says McCollum, now 34, recalling that trip, "someplace adventurous."
More than an adventure for a child who always seemed to be the target of neighborhood bullies, the underground offered McCollum safe passage from the mean city streets above.
From that day underground in 1975, McCollum began a lifelong obsession with trains and buses, although he has never worked for New York City Transit. He frequented depots, chatted up motormen, befriended token clerks, studied transit operations and soaked up the culture of the city's buses and subways. He has even volunteered as a tour guide in the agency's transit museum in Brooklyn.
By the age of 15, McCollum had operated an E train in Manhattan. Eventually, he was wearing service uniforms, complete with identification badge, and carrying trackmen's keys.
Occasionally, he would spring a train operator and take an empty train back to the yard. Expanding above ground, McCollum, in uniform, would park a bus or two, or sometimes brazenly pass himself off as a substitute driver and take a bus for an express run from Staten Island to Manhattan, picking up customers along the way.
But these antics have cost him dearly. In the past decade, McCollum has bounced in and out of jail for impersonation, forgery, theft and numerous reckless acts. McCollum, who was interviewed recently at Rikers Island, is such an irritant that the transit agency posts his photograph in workers' locker rooms, asking employees to report him to the police immediately.
Last month, just a few weeks after completing a 11/2-year state prison term for taking a transit truck for a joyride (his fourth felony conviction), McCollum was back in a subway control tower in Manhattan, passing himself as a member of the service and chumming it up with the employees when an N train went "BIE," transit talk for locked brakes. McCollum quickly rushed to "assist," before the train operator recognized him as the person who had walked off with his flashlight five years ago.
That incident landed him in Rikers on charges of burglary, reckless endangerment, criminal impersonation and possession of stolen property. He is scheduled to appear before State Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman next month for a hearing.
The police say McCollum is a menace and that if he is left unchecked he will go on to injure riders and himself. Last year, the state Parole Board agreed, turning down his request for an early release despite excellent behavior in prison.
"There would be a reasonable probability that you would not live and remain at liberty without again violating the law and release would be contrary to the the welfare of the community," the board wrote, noting that McCollum does not seem to understand the gravity of his actions.
His family says their son was a bright child who found "solace" in the subway after years of humiliation and beatings in school, including one attack that left him hospitalized with a punctured lung. They have tried to have the courts order psychiatric evaluation; they say that each time, McCollum has slipped through the cracks.
But they haven't given up hope that someday McCollum will right himself and come out of the troubles underground.
"I will never give up on him," says his mother, Elizabeth McCollum, who is retired from the publishing industry and living in North Carolina. "I may take a break from him," she says. "But I will never give up on him."
Fellow inmates say he is a conciliator, a peaceful person who serves on a special panel to meet with corrections officers to discuss problems. He is personable and listens intently when engaged in conversation.
McCollum loves to talk about his years underground.
When he was about 12 years old, he started by going down to the subway after school at 179th Street and Hillside Avenue, the last stop on the F line and a 10-minute walk from home.
"I'd call my mother at work and say, 'Mom, I'm home,' " McCollum says.
"And I'd pretty much leave the house and go down to the train and hang out. 179th Street was my stomping ground. It's the last stop. It's got a crew room. The dispatchers, the superintendent, they're all there."
The workers took a liking to him. His mother says it's because he would run errands and do favors, and after a while they would let him sit in the front of the car and show him how they operated the train.
McCollum said he was 15 years old when one train operater invited him for a ride on the E train. For six stops in Manhattan, he turned the controls over to McCollum. Police were alerted when an exiting passenger reported seeing a minor at the controls. Because he was a minor, he served no jail time for the incident.
No harm done, says McCollum. He had gotten practice "doing relays," or turning the F train around after it reached the final stop. Then motormen would ask him to take an empty train back to the yard.
"The train comes in from its regular run, and the dispatcher might tell the person, 'Take the train to the yard,' and that person may already have in his mind this is his last trip, he's going home. So they come to me and say, 'Listen, I just finished working a whole eight-hour day, and I don't want to do this. So kid, you want to take the train to the yard?' And I go."
When he was not operating trains, he was responding to emergencies. "One day, I was at 57th Street," he recalled. "There was a fire. The Fire Department is always called in but they have a rule: They can't go on the tracks unless the power is off. Well, it just so happens that I'm there. So they give me an extinguisher, and I go in there and put the fire out. What I do next is write the column number of the location of where fire is at. Then I might come upstairs and write a report on it on the TA Metropolitan Transportation Authority letterhead and give it to whomever is supposed to handle that area.
"Now they might ask me, 'Who are you?' and I'll say, 'I'm from track. I do fire watch out of this particular station.' Or I might be at the command post, and they don't really know who I am. One thing about TA, they take it at face value because I'm pretty much always in uniform or I have some kind of transit look. I know the lango, so they say this guy's legit. He must work here somewhere."
Once he reported, in uniform, to the employee infirmary at transit headquarters in Brooklyn. He said he wanted to get some aspirin. "I had to wait two hours; they make everybody wait," he says.
Over the years, he has amassed an assortment of transit equipment. He won't say they were stolen, but he has pleaded guilty to burglary on several occasions. The items vary from train keys that allow him to open doors to a hazardous material uniform complete with goggles and mask.
He is keenly aware that his reputation underground has grown, so now he spends much of his time ducking police and transit employees whom he may have met over the years.
"Sometimes, they might have a 12-9, a person underneath the train. Usually it might take about four hours to clean up. If someone comes along, and I recognized that person, I usually take off, I hit the road; I'm out of there."
For money, he'll take a job at a fast-food restaurant; he says he lives with relatives in Queens. He also says he once took the transit test and scored high. But he prefers not to work for the city.
"I'd rather be a buff," he says.