In the past few months that I’ve worked at the Holocaust museum, I have driven survivors around every corner of Los Angeles, wading through every Sig Alert from Altadena to Santa Clarita. I’ve just taken Dave from a neighborhood school where he spoke to a group of sweaty teenagers about his experiences during World War II; about the family he never got the chance to know, to complain about, to love; about moving away from Europe, to Israel, and then to America; about how the war in his head continued for years after the fighting ended the profound way his life was shaped by human history.
Dave, just like Dorothy, Edith, Gabriella, Curt, and Sol, has become my road buddy. Dave and the others can go into classrooms and talk earnestly about angels and demons and hope and the power of love and goodness to prevail over evil. They can say these things because they’ve lived them. They are sincere and gentle and yet, prone to the same cursing and hyperbole that dogs us all as we edge our way over the Sepulveda pass on a Thursday afternoon. And though I am getting paid to be his safe ride home, I can’t help feeling like I’m not the gal for this job. I’m far too selfish.
Dave and I are making our way back to his house through rush hour. We are somewhere on the Hollywood Freeway, before the exit to Reseda but after Burbank Boulevard, drowning in a sea of gleaming Priuses, when I realize the 80-something year-old man in my passenger seat is either asleep, or worse—pretending to be asleep so he doesn’t have to talk to me anymore.
“Dave?” I say, giving him a gentle nudge. “You can’t quit on me now! I was just getting to the part about how even though in the back of my mind I knew Tom was wrong for me, sometimes we all fall for the bad boy.”
I can’t say that the younger me ever pictured the older version sitting here, breathing in the exhaust and smog with Dave. I moved to Los Angeles in the promising spring of 2010 fresh from college, alive with the possibilities the world held for a Religious Studies major who had an interest in promoting coexistence, among other personal ambitions. I bought a car, an aspirational hatchback. A car with five doors hints at mobile, fun-loving lifestyle. I had imagined friends would pile in all at once and, if Kevin or somebody else we didn’t like tagged along, we’d throw him in the way back with the surfboards. I imagined a California existence that was more play than work, where you didn’t have to be coordinated to surf, or want to try a lot of drugs to go camping at Joshua Tree. I dreamed that my Honda Fit would take me far, but never as far as Northridge.
I don’t know why I’ve been entrusted with taking Dave to the outer edge of the San Fernando Valley. I’m a terrible driver. I’m not just being modest. The California DMV once sent me a sternly worded letter to legally certify it: “You might think you’re passing for average on the road, but driving requires constant vigilance.”
I am worried I haven’t been vigilant, that I haven’t tried hard enough, that I’ll never get up the nerve to even change lanes. I really should change lanes. Even Dave has mentioned a few times that I’ve been in the slow lane for a long time.
Which touches a nerve. I do feel I’ve been idling too long, spending too much time in coffee shops staring into the face in the foam of my fair trade Vanilla latte and not enough time building something real—like an app or at least a yoga practice.
I taught myself to freeway drive upon moving here. One night, after carefully planning out a 30-mile route to a friend’s place on all side streets, I made a wrong turn and ended up on the 110 heading south. When I didn’t die, I told God and the California Highway Patrol Officer who pulled me over that I was going to be responsible with my one and good life.
And in all that time, what have I done? Who have I loved? What did I even eat for lunch?
Dave asks me to take it easy on the brakes. “Well if you’re so unhappy with my driving, you can walk home, Dave!” I joke. He has a bad hip.
He’s just told a group of kids that no one hugged him until he was 18, when he had his first girlfriend. He asked them to try and imagine a life like that. If they’ve ever been that lonely or felt that hopeless.
Dave is funny. He’s unassuming but principled. When he met Helene, the woman who would become his wife of 65 years, he asked her out simply: “You don’t really want me to call or come around again, do you?”
Dave loves baseball; he can’t stand the guy who married his daughter. He talks like he spent his childhood going to Brooklyn Dodgers games and riding Deno’s Wonder Wheel on Coney Island. But the truth is Dave was born in Slovakia, where he and his brother chased around farm animals until the day that a man came and took them away. He never saw his parents again.
Dave and his brother were saved by a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton. Winton was 29 when he postponed a ski vacation to visit refugee camps in Czechoslovakia. Struck by the desperate situation, he arranged transport, visas, and new homes for vulnerable children. In the end, he saved 669 young lives.
But Winton’s heroism seemed banal to him. Nobody might have known about his work if his wife hadn’t stumbled upon his records collecting dust in their attic, years after the war had ended. Winton, who died last summer, seemed to dismiss the extraordinary nature of what he’d done, telling The New York Times: “Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”
I realize that perhaps all the questions I’ve asked of myself haven’t been challenging enough—perhaps because I’ve only ever wondered about myself.
Ilana Ross is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lanadelross.