catch me if you can…help me if I’m white
My cat is dying. That has nothing to do with con men or racial injustice, but everything to do with spending more time than usual on the couch while tending to a sick kitty and distracting myself from the inevitable.
In between at-home workouts and a part-time remote job, I’ve been spending most of my time in the doom scroll rabbit hole of streaming services while Henry the cat rests on my lap. Today, through pure happenstance, I found myself watching two movies about real-life con artists that left my head reeling by the time the credits were rolling.
My search began in the afternoon; I wanted something chipper and bright on in the background while I worked. Having already finished the season’s hot-ticket items (Bridgerton et al), Netflix was happy to unearth and recommend Catch Me If You Can, the wonderful 2002 movie based on Frank Abagnale Jr.’s life as a mod con man, flying over a million miles for free while posing as a Pan Am pilot, bank fraud and forged checks fluttering in his entrails.
Abagnale also posed as a doctor, lawyer, and prison agent before his arrest in 1969. He had served 5 of his 12-years in prison when the FBI hired him to finish his sentence as an employee in their check fraud department. He went on to advise and lecture for various agencies and companies, as well as running his own financial fraud consultancy company. Abagnale is still alive today, living quietly in the midwest with his family.
I finished the film, warmly lost in the captivating performances of everydad Tom Hanks and childhood idol Leo DiCaprio, not to mention a slew of amazing female cameos. I relished watching Ellen Pompeo, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks, Kaitlin Doubleday, and Amy Adams strut their stuff in their 60’s finest.
Afternoon waned into evening. With my workday done and the cat sleepy on pain meds, I began the scroll again, searching for something to blur the hours between 8pm and bedtime.
I’m a huge NYC Transit aficionado. A train geek. I’m endlessly intrigued by the secrets of the subway, abandoned stations, mole people, IND, IRT, BMT, transit history, you name it. My evening scroll brought me to Prime Video.
Naturally knowing all the intimate details of my interests, Prime recommended the 2016 documentary “Off The Rails,” about Darius McCollum, a gentleman who has, at print, gone to jail 30 times for hijacking and driving various modes of NYCT. In true Besosian fashion, it scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had. I clicked play.
I’ll spare you an in-depth recap, hoping instead you’ll take 90 minutes of your own doom-scroll to view the film yourself, but here’s a Reader’s Digest version:
Darius McCullom was born in Brooklyn in 1965. While Frank Abagnale Jr. was crisscrossing the globe on Pan Am, young Darius was becoming fascinated with his own, more local, form of transportation: The NYC Subway.
As a child with Asberger’s Syndrome, the rote predictability of the subway was Darius’s refuge in a big, bad town. The MTA employees were his friends. He learned the ins and outs of daily operations and had the transit map comprehensively memorized at age 8. He began taking on operator duties alongside active employees and driving trains as early as age 9.
His impulses and obsession with transit only increased when he was stabbed in the back, in the literal non-Shakespearian sense, by a classmate with a pair of scissors at the age of 12. Now that school was unsafe, his only escape remained the ever-stalwart subway.
Darius began gleefully taking over shifts for his transit worker friends, most notably with his first arrest at age 15. Darius was caught driving a downtown E local train while the operator begged off shift to visit a girlfriend at the 34th Street stop. Darius refused to rat out the employee, or any of the employees who took advantage of an autistic boy with a reverence and insatiable knowledge for the transit system.
Because of the E Train incident, Darius was denied employment with the MTA when he applied at ages 17 and 18, the only job he ever wanted.
His fervor never waned, and he spent the next 20-odd years commandeering trains, buses- whatever transit vehicles he could get his hands on. He would always drive the subway or bus along its plotted route, carefully picking up and dropping off passengers, known system-wide for his kind and gregarious PA announcements. The D train was his favorite.
Darius would commandeer transit vehicles until he was arrested, and resume as soon as he was released from prison. Not once in his 18-plus years in prison was therapy offered to Darius McCullom. He was denied employment at the MTA again and again, even removed from a beloved volunteer position at the MTA NYC Transit Museum.
Even after he procured a more aggressive legal team in 2018, his best choice was to enter an insanity plea and ship off to a government psych ward, where his plea keeps him from behind bars but without any control of his wellness or potential release. He’s still there to this day.
The film ended and I was agog. Here were two men, both impersonators, both obsessed with systems greater than their own, with such divergent paths following their arrests.
Frank Abagnale’s dream was never to work for the FBI. Or a fraud securities company. And yet, he was gift-wrapped a chance to bust out of jail and parlay his white privilege and vast expertise in check fraud and financial swindling into the very agency he had been defrauding. He remained free, besides once a week check-ins with the FBI, until his sentence was complete. His post-conviction career in securities advisement garnered him millions.
Imagine if McCollum, who had been shouting his desire to serve the MTA from the rooftops his entire life, had been given a fraction of that grace. Imagine the lives he could have touched, the systems he could have improved. I bet the L train reno would have been seamless.
Perhaps both men have indicators of a narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps both were searching to be seen, to be lauded, to be in control. Undoubtedly both experienced trauma in their early years. But racial bias and a prison system hell-bent on the lucrative revolving door of black men failed Darius McCollum and served Frank Abagnale.
Darius’s blackness charted an entirely different course of action with no redemption. The unique strengths and abilities that his Asberger’s provided were not celebrated and utilized as Abagnale’s skills were, but instead used to label him a “loose cannon.”
One of these men was cumulatively sentenced to 13 years in prison and served 5.
The other is serving 22 years and counting.
One of these men was lauded for his government-assisted rehabilitation, with a tell-all autobiography spawning not only the very movie that delighted me for two hours on this chilly January day, but also a Tony Award-winning musical that has employed many of my friends.
The other sits in a Rochester psych ward, his only visibility through an aimless documentary scroll on Amazon Prime and Wikipedia.
So should your escape from reality involve commandeering a Boeing 707 or a Coney Island-bound D Train, whether your joyride becomes a Broadway musical or a life sentence still sadly depends on the color of your skin.
Aside from viewing “Off The Rails,” you can visit @freedariusnow on Twitter to read the latest on Darius’s case and sign a Change.org petition to release him from the federal asylum where he now sits. You can also write to him:
c/o Rochester Psychiatric Hospital
1111 Elmwood Ave.
Rochester, NY 14620