Losing a friend to sudden death is a shocking and confusing event. Losing a friend whose unexpected death is newsworthy is even more bewildering, I recently learned while reading recollections of a departed loved one and barely recognizing him.
It's been a week since I heard that my longtime friend, Emmy-winning TV writer David Mills, had died, and I'm still waiting for it to make sense. Hours after my son, Darrell, had told me he'd sent Dave a note after reading his quotes in a New York Times article about Treme, the HBO series Dave was working on in New Orleans, the phone rang. Dave had collapsed on the set. I refused to be distraught, even as I prayed the problem wasn't serious.
How could it have been? Lively and opinionated 48-year-olds aren't supposed to pass out and die while doing work they adore. So it was with shocked disbelief an hour later that I started reading online articles about my barely departed friend. Even in my stupor, I enjoyed praise for Dave's work for the Washington Times and the Washington Post, and as a writer and/or producer on NYPD Blue, The Corner, Kingpin, The Wire and on his blog.
Then I read the descriptions. Wendell Pierce, one of the stars of The Wire, recalled him as "gracious and humble," and "very quiet." Dave's sometimes collaborator David Simon described him as someone who "moved benignly between the black world and white world." Alan Sepinwall, a New Jersey Star-Ledger writer whom Dave mentored, praised Dave's patience with him, despite Sepinwall having turned himself into a self-described "incredible pest."
Such heartfelt perceptions of Dave only increased my sense of unreality. Humble? Quiet? Benign? Photos of my friend's familiar face beside the word "obituary" was confounding enough without characterizations that defied what I knew—or thought I knew—about him. Then I realized: Of course, others who loved this complex man saw him differently than I had.
Figuring Dave out had been problematic for me from the moment I'd laid eyes on him.
I was at my desk in the Style section of the Washington Post in 1990 when a colleague told me the thickset stranger across the room with the youthful open face was a job candidate. "Good, Style could use a Latino writer," I responded. My co-worker paused and said, "I'm pretty sure he's black." I looked again. "You think so?"
It amused Dave that his every-guy face made people assume he was Italian, Arab or Hispanic; he waved away waiters at Mexican restaurants who greeted him in Spanish, which he didn't know. A woman who'd attended elementary school with him insisted "everyone knew David Mills' family was Indian, I don't know why he says he's black now." No wonder Dave named his blog Undercover Black Man. The rare brother who could attend white supremacist rallies undetected, he observed first-hand attendees' fury and hatred, sometimes engaging bigots in long exchanges, afterward revealing he was African-American. Flustered, they'd tell him, "Well, you're smart because you clearly had lots of white ancestors." Dave's indistinguishable looks fueled his fascination with—and refusal to be pigeonholed by—race. Others' difficulty with pinning down his identity only seemed to solidify his concrete sense of himself as someone aware of, yet never embittered by, his blackness. His amused contempt for racists' cluelessnesss was unmistakable, especially on Undercover Black Man.
This "humble" writer sometimes bragged to me about his abundant talent; my "quiet" friend could bellow his points with the best of them. Dave's earnings as a TV writer supported his penchant for leaving $100 tips, yet he favored simple khakis and drove a Camry. Happily unmarried, Dave had a deep appreciation of the opposite sex—I'll never forget him wistfully saying after I turned 40, "There's nothing like a 25-year-old woman." His closeness to an ex-girlfriend in a distant city occasionally made him question his singleness. Yet he knew who he was: A man in some ways a kid, excitedly exploring every cultural and social nook men with families had little time or energy to examine.
So is it surprising that as a single mom, I found this childless co-worker to be my sons' most enthusiastic adult babysitter? Hamani and Darrell, aged 8 and 5 when Dave started visiting, often forgot that the guy taking them to the zoo and the rodeo was in his 30s. Watching TV with them, Dave—unlike other adults who sat on couch—"lay beside us on the floor, a pillow under his stomach," Mani says. "He felt like one of us." Darrell recalls Dave trying to keep up with him and Mani as he chased them through the woods with a video camera, recording an "action film" in which the boys were stars. "He had on his long, black trench coat, was tripping over branches, hollering "Action!"
A former movie critic, I'd instilled in my sons a love of film. Dave deepened it, introducing them to such exotic fare as John Woo's stylishly violent Hard Boiled. "It's still my favorite action movie," says Mani, now a Los Angeles screenwriter penning a sci-fi-actioner for Warner Brothers. "I was all about Die Hard, then Dave brought over [Hard Boiled] and it changed the way I saw action …. Without it, I wouldn't be as inspired to write action today." Dave also taught him about screenplays' significance. "Millions of people love movies, and they don't know why …. It's like food at a restaurant—if you go in the kitchen and see the preparation, you have a whole new appreciation of it. He's the one who let me into the kitchen when it comes to screenwriting."
In 2006, Darrell was an acting student at the University of Maryland Baltimore when he asked Dave, who was writing for HBO's acclaimed series The Wire, to get him a part on the gritty show. Darrell was stunned when Dave said, ‘I can probably get you an audition, but if you can't act, they won't hire you. I won't just write you a role. You've got to blow them away."
"I realized that I had to work for it," Darrell, 24, says. He did—earning a one-line part that grew to a two-year, credited role. Dave's death made him realize that all those years of McDonald's visits, Oscar parties and, recently, occasional gambling trips to Las Vegas (where Dave always slipped Darrell $100) had made him and Mani "as close to being [Dave's] kids as anyone. He liked watching us grow, playing a part in what we were becoming."
Days after his death, I revisited people's online recollections of Dave and this time saw the man I knew—especially in a comment from Dave's oft-collaborator Simon, who'd met him when both wrote for the University of Maryland student paper: "I confess I knew [Dave] my whole life and counted him as among my best friends," Simon said, "and I'm still trying to figure him out."
He wasn't alone. "There was a lot Dave didn't talk about," said Mani, who briefly lived in Dave's apartment while getting established in Hollywood. "Thank God for Undercover Black Man and his screenplays—if I hadn't seen his work, I wouldn't have known who he was outside of what I saw when we hung out."
I knew Dave better than most. And though I'll ask almost anyone almost anything, I only once found the nerve to ask Dave what he did for romance between trips to his ex. He answered with words I'd long deserved but never heard: "None of your business."
He was right—but Dave was too tempting a mystery not to try to solve. His blunt, even cruel, comments at times enraged me; more than once I slammed the door behind him, vowing our friendship was over. Days later, we'd be arguing—and laughing and throwing up our hands at the world's madness—again. His skepticism sharpened my insights; our bond softened his cynicism. Yet at times I wondered: Shouldn't friendship be … simpler?
It hit me: More than anyone I knew, Dave had lived as he wanted. Acclaimed in very different mediums, he loved writing, even when cherished projects failed to pan out. He'd sidestepped sticky familial obligations and deadening 9-to-5 gigs that would have burdened him. He ate delicious meals with minimal calorie counting, traveled when he felt like it and rubbed shoulders with every kind of person—all in a world in which millions wait desperately for the weekend for relief from their lives' dreariness.
Years ago, I was dining with Dave and some other friends at a cozy Thai restaurant when one of our companions ordered a dressing-free salad and tofu. Eyebrows swooping together, Dave listened incredulously to the friend's very sane reasons for his healthful choices. Asked Dave, "Why live?"
Why, indeed? It took 20 years, but last week my feelings for David finally became simple:
I'll miss him.
(David Mills will be buried in a private ceremony on Monday.)
Donna Britt, a columnist for Politics Daily, is writing her memoir for Little, Brown Book Group.