'13-05-03I caught the segment on the midday news: a wrong-way driver on the 5 freeway, a head-on collision, one dead in each car. It’s the kind of story where you don’t have to wait for the toxicology report. Some asshole had way more than a little too much to drink but got in his car anyway. Fuck that guy. Got what he deserved. Too bad he took someone else with him. Awful, but this kind of thing seems to happen in Southern California about once every other month, so I pretty much forgot about it by the time I was out and about for the day.

Later at the coffeehouse I got a group text: our friend Alex had died in a car crash; we were invited to gather and commune. Definitely a shock. Alex was nothing if not vivacious, and it’s hard for me to process someone like that passing. Him? Force me to guess which of my friends will be the next to go, and I will never pick someone like Alex. I felt the same way when I woke up one sad December morning to the news that Long Beach Post co-founder Shaun Lumachi was dead. Him? Somewhere in my subconscious vivacity equates with invincibility, something like that.

Between the coffeehouse and the communion I thought about Alex and prepared myself for the combination of sadness and comfort to come. I arrived to somberness and hugs, and almost immediately I asked for details about his death. Late last night he was driving on the 5, I was told. He was going the wrong way at speeds up to 100 mph. I didn’t need to hear the rest. “That was him?

I said very little for the next hour. Whatever sadness I felt was dwarfed by anger. Anger at Alex. That was him. He was the asshole. Exactly the type of asshole who killed Shaun. Worse, because that asshole was at least going the right way before he dozed off and drifted into oncoming traffic. That asshole was sober. Nobody sober gets on a freeway going against traffic and races along until he stops his car by running it head-on into another. And killing someone.

That poor someone was Julian Rodriguez, a 53-year-old Los Angeles resident who became an American citizen just last week was doing nothing wrong when Alex killed him. As I sat with my friends, I thought about a parallel gathering that might be taking place with Julian’s friends, his family. I could not partake in any of the happy remembrances of Alex that were happening around me; I just fumed at my dead friend. Fuck that guy.

I do not believe we should hold our friends to a lower standard than we hold strangers, that they ought to get any special dispensation for their sins because we know them, because they are warm toward us and vivacious and play the cello well. If anything, our friends should have to meet higher standards. We should love them partly because for us they are people who compare favorably with the rest of humanity. Otherwise the only reason we’re singling them out for the special attention of our friendship is because they happened to cross our paths and enrich our little lives. Those are two indispensable criteria of friendship, but they should not be the only two.

Neither should we hold the harm done to strangers to be any worse than harm done to those dearest to us. Yes, of course the death of a loved one hits me closer to home than the thousands of other deaths on Earth each day, but that is a statement about the value lost to my life, not about the value of the life lost. And so although it would have been far worse for me had Alex killed Danielle or Matthew or any of the people I sat with in that room last night, what Alex did to Julian Rodriguez is every bit as bad.

Is it fair to judge an entire life by one terrible act? I don’t pretend to be the arbiter of fairness. I don’t even know whether that’s what I’m doing—or if I am, whether that’s how I will always feel. The head-on collision that obliterated two lives did not obliterate the lives those two people lived up until their tragic meeting. That includes my many experiences with Alex, all of which were positive. The night in Bixby Knolls when I first learned the word parkour by seeing him (not exactly a ballerina) do little jumps against the slightest obstacles and calling “Parkour!” every time. The time he picked up zils from my broken tambourine and threaded them into that scruffmungous red beard of his. Working with him on many music projects. His sadness at rehearsals for Josh Fischel’s memorial, confessing how bad he felt at having not gotten back on the great terms that defined their earlier times together. That his big personality did not preclude him from pausing in quiet introspection, genuinely trying to consider what was being said to him rather than simply looking for the next opportunity to display that big personality. His laugh, easy and frequent and genuine. That he always showed me probably more warmth than I deserved from him. The way his fiery soul could manifest in performance even when his cello wasn’t loud enough in the mix. (Wait for the last two minutes of this to see what I mean.)

All this continues to exist as much (or as little) as the rest of the past exists. It exists no less than it would have had be slept it off or called a Lyft or something else, anything else. But he didn’t. He got behind the wheel of his Honda Insight and killed himself and Julian Rodriguez. I would be lying to say what I’ll most remember are the good things. What I’ll most remember most about his life is this, the stupid fucking way it ended. I am sad for myself and for my friends. I’m sadder still for his family and those closest to him. I’m saddest of all for the loved ones of Julian Rodriguez. I’m even sad for Alex. He simply cannot have wanted this. However unforgivably stupid he may have been on the last night of his life, he did not want this.

The headline of Alex’s Facebook page on the day of his death: I enjoy living. The irony there is beyond awful. People are posting the kinds of things you’re supposed to post—how they’ll miss him, how wonderful he was. I’ll post no such thing. Maybe some piece of information will come out that will invalidate my anger at Alex and all the scathing things I’ve said about him here. Maybe he was like Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest, plied with alcohol by nefarious characters and forced behind the wheel. Maybe an almost-as-unlikely series of events will come to light and reveal Alex as blameless, one of two blameless victims in a terrible but unavoidable tragedy. If so, I will be delighted to have been wrong, to say that this was my reaction in the moment but it was premature, that while most wrong-way drivers deserve all this ire, Alex was the unheard-of exception. Then there will be nothing left but the good things past and the loss of whatever time to come we might have had with our friend. Then the loved ones of Julian Rodriguez will have a much clearer emotional space in which to mourn. Then I’ll just be sad.

But my reaction today is: fuck that guy. He was my friend, and I’ll miss him, but it appears that in the end he failed to live up to a bare minimum standard of human decency. His failure may have been one of negligence and not malice, but that negligence was criminal and life-changing. Life-ending. Stupid.

Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, they say in PSAs. I don’t think friends should overlook the terrible acts of friends or should pardon them. I won’t, anyway. I can’t. I know it’s more comfortable for us to carry on as if we don’t see them or they never happened. But when our friends do terrible things that leave victims behind, we ought not be comfortable.