Dostoevsky Rides the L-Taraval

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‘Crime,’ but no punishment for garbage-spewing ingrate

By Joe Eskenazi

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky would have been hard to top at a cocktail party.

Just as you’re getting ready to tell everyone about what you saw on the Muni train this morning, Fyodor has to recall the time he was forced to dig his own grave, stood facing a firing squad and, right as the bullets were to be let loose, his sentence was commuted and he was packed off to five cheery years in a Siberian labor camp where he developed a nice case of epilepsy.

Okay, fair enough Fyodor. So you literally stared death in the face and went to the gulag and if I were to flick the lights on and off a few times you’d hit the carpet. But you didn’t have to ride Muni every day.

Actually, the connection between the great Russian author and San Francisco’s rail system is not as far-flung as one might think. Dostoevsky wrote about impudent lawlessness, the death of civility and the overall deterioration of society. In other words – Muni!

Take this scene on the L-Taraval the other day:

A young woman noisily ate her Flamin’ Hot Funyuns on a crowded train, wiped the magma-colored residue onto the train door and then tossed the bag onto the ground amidst everyone’s feet. When, at the next stop, a middle-aged woman handed her the bag, Funyun Girl tossed it back in her face and called her a bitch.

When you think about it, it was fairly remarkable the young woman was called on her actions at all; these days folks get shot over such things and it’s just not worth taking a bullet to protest a Funyun bag on the ground. But while antisocial behavior on public transportation is a curse likely going back to the days the trolley cars were drawn by Clydesdales, the notion that today’s miscreants don’t even acknowledge their violations is what truly rankles. And yet, it’s nothing new. In fact, it was squarely on Dostoevsky’s mind when he was penning “The Idiot” in 1869.

Here's a passage regarding the changing nature of crime and criminals in Imperial Russia:

“I know that there were very many crimes and just as awful ones in the past. I have been lately in the prisons and succeeded in making acquaintance with some criminals and convicts. There are … men who have committed a dozen murders and feel no remorse whatever. But I tell you what I noticed: that the most hardened and unrepentant murderer knows all the same that he is a ‘criminal,’ that is, he considers in his conscience that he has acted wrongly, even though he is unrepentant. And every one of them was like that; while [the next generation] refuse to even consider themselves as criminals and think they are in the right and that they have even acted well – it almost comes to that.”

Considering his life story, Dostoevsky took a dim view of the future. But I’m an optimist. Perhaps, a few years from now, the young person who knifes or shoots me on the morning train will even acknowledge that it wasn’t the right thing to do.

A man can dream.


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