Released in 1975 on their album Why Can’t We Be Friends?, “Low Rider” was one of the biggest hits for War, the crossover band that fused elements of rock, funk, jazz, Latin, R&B, and reggae. The distinctive melody of “Low Rider” is created by playing harmonica and saxophone in unison, so they sound like a single instrument.
Kim and I worked together at a staffing agency in our mid-twenties. We shared a desk, which is to say that our L-shaped workstations were juxtaposed without a divider, forming one large T-shaped table that comprised most of the front office.
Here, we would interview professionals and derelicts alike, eavesdropping on each other’s conversations and adding sound effects. “My daddy always told me, if you can’t get to work on time, don’t even bother going,” bragged one odoriferous chap who opted not to remove his sunglasses during our interview, and who claimed to possess the expansive skill required to perform any sort of work. A subtle coo emanated from Kim’s side of the desk.
A coal miner’s only daughter, Kim had a pugnacious discernment, and she knew all the dirt on everyone in that part of Appalachia. She also had a tiny blue dot tattooed on her chest, leftover from her battle with cancer when she was a teenager.
I was an overeducated Midwesterner who still retained the habit of smiling hello to everyone I passed. New to the area and hoping for a better job, I dressed for success every day. Kim later told me that she’d thought I would be a good influence on her. I of course knew she’d be a bad influence on me, but it seemed wise to stay on her good side.
And so we bonded, over our slutty middle aged boss, over the challenges of trying to staff 50 jobs before the shift started the next morning, over the dim-witted applicant in a purple miniskirt who revealed that the worst job she’d ever had was removing rocks from dirt. “I mean, really. Who put the rocks there in the first place?” she asked me.
I diligently recorded every word into the file, ignoring the tiny squeaking snort as my coworker bolted down the hall with tears streaming down her face.
Some time later, I quit the temp agency for a more professional position, working for a sadistic bully with OCD. Kim went to college, and eventually built a prestigious career in the same field as me.
But once we no longer worked together, we started meeting for a few beers after work instead. My husband had climbed another rung on the corporate ladder and right out of my life, so I was grateful to have a wingman on the bar scene – a side of me that shocked and delighted Kim, given her early impressions of my character.
Together, we flirted with bartenders, danced with laborers still dirty from work, and toured every little podunk watering hole in Schuylkill County. Some were located in actual incorporated towns, but the mountain roads that connected these were littered with “patches” of civilization, little more than a couple dozen houses and a post office. Kim knew them all.
A few times, she took me to a bush party. This impromptu gathering of people drinking in an unlit clearing just off the mountain road in the dead of night was a foreign experience to me. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness and the beer fuzzied my brain, I reveled in the anonymity of the situation and made friends with people I couldn’t recognize later.
Once, however, it was too cold to stand outside messing with the locals and random things going bump in the night, and I found myself in the back seat of Kim’s tiny black Honda while she and her on-again, off-again boyfriend lit up in the front seat. I suckled my beer and rode the secondhand buzz as their smoke filled the interior and they played “Low Rider” at full volume, over and over and over with no indication that they would ever stop smoking, ever stop grooving, ever stop loving that moment enough to ever take me home. I thought I was in hell.
Kim moved to Philadelphia, I moved back to the Midwest. I never saw her again. The cancer returned, twice, and she fought it off both times with that strong Polish ferocity and her stubborn refusal to give up. We kept in touch, even talked about getting together for another beer, for old time’s sake.
In March of 2011, as she was coordinating several cancer support groups and fundraisers, she posted this on her Facebook page:
“Let go. Go crazy. Think. Laugh. Cry. Worry. Cherish. Ponder. Worry. Wonder. Love. Listen. Know. Your life is yours…don’t waste it on nonsense.”
And then within an hour, she suddenly collapsed, and she was gone. The world lost some color that day; or as she would say, a little piss and vinegar. And every time I catch “Low Rider” on the radio I shake my head and laugh, remembering a night fifteen years ago, overwhelmed by a most unlikely pairing of harmonica and sax, with no idea just how far from hell we truly were.
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