An occasionally, mostly true tale.
When my parents named me after a hitchhiker they picked up in a blizzard somewhere between Wyoming and Nebraska, I don’t believe they had the intention that I become a hitchhiker myself. But that’s what happened. I became someone who flings his thumb into the road at passing vehicles to travel from place to place.
On the blurry and flurried highway where my parents were driving in their Volkswagen van on a winter day years ago — before I was born or even conceived — the possibility was there that I become a highway vagabond, but it wasn’t assured. By pulling off into the slush and sliding open the side door of their VW, my becoming a road tramp was certain when my parents decided to pick up and eventually name me after Kip Gentry.
It was the 1970s and hitchhiking was considered a normal way to get around. By the time I began to stand on the sides of freeways and near on-ramps years later, the world had become less hitcher-friendly. It didn’t matter to me. My name ran through my blood like a backroad became Main Street, and Kip the wandering practitioner of many faiths — Southern Baptist, New Age crystal-ing, and Voodoo — is who I was named after. I became a hitchhiker before I was even born.
What my parents didn’t consider, is that naming me Gentry had a dichotomous connotation. In addition to being nudged toward becoming a highway hobo, my name was the title of a bourgeoisie landowner. A genteel person from centuries ago. The landed gentry. Someone who you owed your late rent.
The (lowercase) gentry — aka the real estate tycoon, landlord, and conservative trustafarian — threw countless musicians out of their rehearsal spaces, evicted numberless artists from their studios, and put billions of families on the street. Then they bulldozed it all and replaced everything with parking lots, stadiums, skyscrapers, and other homogeneously ugly behemoths of capitalism. Gentrification was not a noun to be proud of — at least not for a soon-to-be hitchhiker, vagabond, musical artist, and child-of-hippies.
Despite the derogatory use of my name as a verb — to gentrify — it was in that very verb where Kip and I kept our hidden magic. Kip gentrified my parents. His mysticism, sorcery, and family phantasmagoria are what led to my being named after his last name. That — and chicken blood as it turned out — led to me becoming a thumb-thrower.
I would eventually gentrify and thumb down vans in Alaska, trucks in Turkey, two-door Fiestas in Scotland, and Chevrolets in Minnesota. I would flag down convertibles filled with blonds on stretches of Northern California highway, and I would open the doors of Dutch doctor’s BMWs with my gentrifications.
In Europe a few hundred years ago, the estates, castles, servants, serfs, power, and jealousies of landowners hid behind high stone fences and walls. They were ‘the landed me’ — but they had no name yet.
The landlords and landladies were envious of the lower royales — dukes, duchesses, barons, and baronesses — and they moaned like impetuous toddlers to the higher royales, “I want my own name, too!” Fat with property and cash, they still didn’t have enough. They wanted the same toys as the royal kids in the sandbox next to them. They demanded a title. The tip-top royals — the kings, queens, princes, and princesses — decided to call them ‘the landed gentry’.
Kip’s family liked the title so much, they changed it to their last name.
Generations later, in a different country and a different century, my gentrification was already in motion. The noun ‘gentrification’ was not a dirty word to me, because, even before I was conceived, I was created.
My gentrification occurred a few months prior to my father and mother gettin’ busy in the back of their VW van during a Rocky Mountain sunrise. Before my mother’s nine months of pregnancy began — and before I could hitch a ride out of her womb after a long night of labor — there needed to be a new character to enter the scene. A roaming, long-haired young hobo had to stick his thumb out on an arctic road in the flatland between Cheyenne and Omaha.
It all started with Kip Gentry climbing into the side door of my parents’ VW and closing it behind him.
I don’t know Kip and I’ve never met him in person, but I know him intimately through our name. Our name is stronger than most bloodlines, and his story was transmitted to me through sharing it. Our collective story was born in the very marrow of our name and in all its incarnations: forename, surname, noun, and verb.
Kip’s family moved to America in the mid-19th century, but they did not travel to the U. S. of A. for religious freedom or land or gold or any of that malarkey; they came for Voodoo. The reputation of Marie Laveau, New Orlean’s queen of Voodoo, had traveled across the Atlantic to reach the Gentry family, who were looking for a way to get rid of a curse.
When I was born, my mother told me that the doctors in the maternity ward told her I was dead. She reminded me of this fact every year on every one of my birthdays.
For my fifth birthday, in addition to the Edward Gorey-esque reminder I received about my faux death, I received an old upright piano that had once lived a long life prostituting itself in a college bar near Bemidji State University. It was loaded into the old hippie farmhouse where my parents had decided to raise me. Little Gentry soon became quite good on the piano.
People sometimes said I was a prodigy and others said I was a precocious brat. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I just made up music using the black keys as my bad guys and the white keys as my good guys. My music came from nothing other than playing pretend in my head. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader worked pro bono to do my artist development.
As I grew older and better with harmonies and rhythms, to defend myself from the leering, evil, ice hockey-playing mutts that made fun of my musical talent, I quickly developed wit like a kindergarten Dorothy Parker. My accent resembled none of the local Scandihoovians, so the hockey puck bullies called me Maui Boy as a taunt, and I dreamed of the day I could hitchhike to the island in the Pacific.
When I did get my first chance to hitch, I was 14. It was to get to the Minneapolis suburbs to meet a girl. The winter winds had already begun in July and I flew my thumb out to catch a Chevy pulling a fishing boat behind it. I was picked up by a man who went for my crotch within the first five minutes and wielded a large knife to get what he wanted. That day, I used my piano-playing fingers to gouge his eyes and ran out the passenger door into a grove of pine trees.
In those trees, I knew that someone was there watching over me. That day of my first hitch, I knew I was protected and would never be lonely — or bored — in my life.
When Kip climbed into the VW, he was also not alone. He carried with him the leftover parts and pieces of his family’s curse. He also had a sidekick: Fern.
Fern was a straight-ahead, born-again, Bible-thumping folksinger. He had a curly Brillo pad of long hair and carried a guitar with two strings missing. There were no E-strings on the top and the bottom of his acoustic axe, but he stroked the guitar and played only E-less Simon & Garfunkel tunes.
They both were frozen southern boys clad in snow-covered tie-dye tee-shirts, jeans, and leather fringe coats when my dad pulled off the road. They were now warmed by the hearth of my parents’ Volkswagen engine and proceeding to get high — and a little sick — from the van’s exhaust leaking in through a rusted-out hole in the floor.
My mom, wearing a giant smile of innocence and youth, climbed into the back of the van from the passenger seat and said, “Helloh,” with her long Minnesotan ‘oooh’ droning. The drone carried on under her next melodious trickle of words when she asked next, “What’s yer names? And where ya from?”
Sheepishly, Kip removed one snowy mitten, rubbed his boyish face, and said, “Kip. From Georgia.”
In terms of DNA, I was still a glint in the apple of my father’s eye and a shiny sheen on the skin of the orange in my mother’s eye. But, in the world of names, I was also the unfertilized egg in the eye of the chicken and the rooster’s family who had helped rid Kip Gentry’s family of their curse.
My relationship with chickens is almost as long as the relationship with my name. My fowl origin story began when I hitchhiked from Anchorage to Kenai, Alaska. My thumbing abilities had grown considerably since my teen years, and I made my way north to make some money and to “become a man” as the blue-collar Minnesotans said.
I got a job working on the docks throwing salmon, but it was not a good fishing year. To keep working when the salmon weren’t running, I was recruited to kill and skin 69 chickens in a day. Through the course of that long, bloody, fly-infested day, I learned that I was a good killer but an even better pacifist. Chopping off the heads of things would not be my life’s work.
I fed myself off my murder spree until the fishing season ended, cleaned off all the dried fish scales in a shower at the local YMCA, and flashed a thumb to get out of Kenai. I was picked up in a large, black, nearly windowless van by a young-ish man in a plaid work shirt and baseball cap who smelled heavily of weed he called Alaska Thunderfuck. As we drove to Anchorage, over the rugged crags, and near the dirty-white glaciers, I offered him the last of my cooked chicken inside a sad combination of shoplifted Wonder Bread and marmalade.
He was very thankful and said, “It’s a good thing I picked you up, man. I was getting paranoid and you’re a great distraction. I stole this van on the street in Homer yesterday.”
I stopped eating chickens that day, and haven’t eaten them — or any other bird — since.
Had my poor mother known I’d find myself in situations eating bird sandwiches with stoned men in stolen vehicles, she may have named me Steve. Instead, in my pre-conceived past, she was deeply engrossed in conversation with Kip and Fern.
“Soh, whatcha doin’ out here east of the Rockies?”
Kip replied to her question with a hint of southern drawl, “Well, I have an uncle out west we were tryin’ to find.”
“Ooh yah? Tell me about him.”
“I hadn’t seen him in a long time. Ewan Gentry.”
“What a greeaat name!” my mother exclaimed.
“Noh. The other one.”
I imagine my mom seeing my name in a dream state as if she had discovered something that was lost.
Kip then floated up over the chords of Fern’s guitar and began to explain his ancestry, infusing his tale with dashes of crystal energy and New Age pageantry.
He began, “A long time ago, my family was Scottish and rich. Like…wealthy. But mean, too. Greedy, y’all. They didn’t care about their farmers and other workers, and in hard times, they pushed their people to work hard. During famines, they gave ’em less. The workers protested, but I always heard my family didn’t care about ‘em.
“One day, a young woman they’d never seen came right up to their front door. They opened it and she stood still, her dress whippin’ in the wind, with a smile on her face. Just starin’. They said she might’ve been a Celt. She said a lot of words no one in my family could understand, turned around, and left. Where she was standin’, all the grass was dead and never grew back.
“After that, there was a fire. The house burned down. My family lost their home and their crops. Children started dyin’. They began to lose it all. They tried to be better people after that. Tried to be generous to their workers, but it didn’t work. The workers revolted and killed some of my family. Almost everyone died and ended my line. They had a curse…an evil…in them they couldn’t get rid of.
“They didn’t know what to do, so Great Great Great Great Aunt Maja went to Edinburgh to meet with a gypsy. She wanted answers, y’all. The gypsy read her fortune and told her there were people that could help her, but they were in America. The gypsy told Aunt Maja about New Orleans and the Voodoo priestess who lived there: Marie Laveau.
“They didn’t have much left, so they used what they had, got on a boat, and headed ‘cross the ocean. Georgia was the closest they could get to New Orleans. They didn’t have enough money to go on, so they stopped in Savannah.
“It took a while, but Marie Laveau got found. And she helped my family…with a spell, blood, and Voodoo ritual.”
My long-bearded father had been quiet most of the drive, intently focused on keeping all four travelers safe from dying. He steered around icy patches at the last minute and kept the van from being knocked off the road by the whoosh of semi-trucks roaring past them.
Now, my dad called out skeptically with his deep and gruff voice as he piloted the van, “Well, what happened to the curse?”
Kip said quietly and mysteriously, “I still have it in me. It’s just…got less power now.”
Only two years after I escaped the stolen van in Alaska, I went to the UK. I had no reason; a magnetic force drew me there. My inner arrow pointed my compass east across the sea.
I found myself on a roundabout in the rain in early April outside Glasgow and the sun was setting. The light was going out and I had my right hand in the air with my thumb extended. I was picked up by a Ford Fiesta and a Scot with an accent thick as Highland wool brought me back to his flat. He said he was worried I’d get pneumonia being out in the cold with cars splattering me.
Upon my arrival inside his dry flat, my host lit up a strong hashish spliff in my honor. Was it gypsy Voodoo magic or human generosity that prevented me from being robbed and killed that night in Scotland?
My questions have never ceased, they’ve only grown. As I hover over the heads of my parents, Kip, and Fern in a memory I was never a part of, the snow whipping against the outside of The Little Volkswagen That Could, I ask myself: did Fern have some skin in my game, too?
Fern only knew songs by Paul Simon, and he played many of them in the VW van that night as they sped down the interstate with the wind blowing 50 miles per hour. After Kip’s story of Celtic curses eclipsed into eerie silence for a long while, my mother began to sing along to Fern playing Homeward Bound (aiming but missing the Art Garfunkel harmony), as my father narrowly missed snow drifts piling on the blacktop ahead.
When my mom and Fern sang, ‘Every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be homeward bound,’ was it paving the way for my own future and the yearning I would feel out on a winding two-lane?
A year passed after that rainy night in Scotland, and I found myself stranded in Monaco with a girlfriend named Lara and only money for two cups of coffee and a bag of mandarins. We had gone looking for work in Spain but our one-way train tickets were stolen, so we slept on the rocky beach for a few days until our hunger got to be too much.
Lara was not one to hitchhike, but I managed to convince her to try to get home by way of thumb. After a long period of holding our right arms in the air, with the sun dropping on a narrow Riviera road, she realized showing some thigh was the way to snag a car, and a former Formula One driver pulled over with his wife.
They drove us lightning-quick to Paris while we slept in the backseat, and dropped us off near a Metro station. It was 3 am, we had no money and nowhere to stay. We must have looked like prey because a graying Parisian picked us up. His eyes whirled in a way that made me realize our murder was evident, so I quickly pulled Lara and our backpacks out of the moving car onto the street again, nearly losing a leg in the process.
A packed car filled with Ravers saw us escape, let us into their car in a flurry of four-on-the-floor techno house beats, and took us miles out of the city. We were deposited on an empty highway near the Palace of Versailles.
Lara had a panic attack and began to cry. I spoke softly, reassuring her it would be okay until she calmed down. Then we began trudging over a concrete median to a dark country roadway so cars wouldn’t hit us. It felt just as menacing as the highway, but less like we would be splattered by speeding vehicles and more like death might approach from the looming dark.
We walked in the coal black of the night until it was 5 am, then we felt the lights of a lorry blazing behind us. The truck stopped. Reluctantly, we walked to the passenger door that had swung open, and inside a French man who badly needed a shave smiled down at us with a saintly expression. We climbed up and into the main cab with the lorry driver.
He introduced himself as Pierre, and the only English he knew were the lyrics to Simon & Garfunkel songs. The sun rose, Lara’s head lolled off to sleep, and Pierre pressed play on his truck’s stereo. The first song was America.
He and I sang the words together like old friends swaying in our seats: ‘They’ve all come to look for America!’ After the song faded, we continued singing while Lara slept, song after song, Cecilia, Mrs. Robinson, and The Boxer, until he gracefully and safely placed us in the arms of a ferry headed to London and home.
The gravitational pull of geography and music kept me going. Was it also Voodoo incantations, Celtic rituals, or some force known only to the tips of thumbs?
In the past-before-I-existed, my curious mother was inquiring, “That’s a funny name…Fern. Where does that come from?”
Fern, who rarely spoke the entire time he rode with my parents, now told my mother with a deep West Coast drawl, “Yeeaah….well…it’s, like, short for Fiddlehead… cuz…I’m, like, a fiddler….ya know. Yeah.”
My mom questioned further, “Do you play the fiddle, too?”
Kip now interjected and said, “It’s a plant thing. When new fronds come out on ferns they’re called fiddleheads. And a fiddle is kinda like a guitar. So, we call him Fern. Names are funny, right? ‘Specially for musicians.”
The conversations before my conception told the tale of my life. These tales were etched in my history and across my thumbs before egg met sperm. My primordial ooze was a soup of song lyrics, road stories, Celtic magic, and Caribbean spiritualism.
It was as though my palms had already been read before my hands had formed. As I continued traveling and hitching, I was living my life in parallel and sideways and forward all at once. A continuous deja vu.
Not long after Pierre saved Lara and me, I was single, back in The States, and hitchhiking down Highway One from San Francisco looking out over the ravishing beauty that is the Pacific coast. I was heading to a gig.
After growing up in the Midwest as a young scallywag player of music, then tasting the blood of chickens in Alaska, and getting lost in Europe, I moved to California. There, I developed the backbone and courage to create a music career. Fern probably did have an influence, but I had one-upped him: there were seven different E’s on a piano. If one broke, I had a lot more to choose from.
Walking along the seaside breathing in the sweetly salted air, I flashed my thumb and was picked up by three Georgia Peaches in a convertible going south. Their blond hair was as fine as any peach I had ever tasted. And I did taste them. Well, two of the three.
Before I had the chance to bite into their fleshy goodness, the driver asked me, “What do you do, handsome? Why ya on the way ta Santa Cruz?”
I replied, “I’m a musician and I’m going to play the Catalyst tonight.”
The magnetic pull of the Gentry family’s search for Marie Laveau landed them in Georgia, and the bond I developed with their descendant Kip had become the connective tissue that led to three succulent Peaches from Georgia letting me into their fuck-me-red convertible.
Why else would they stop to pick me up? Somehow, the ghostly trail from Kip and the Gentry family had led across North America, from Georgia to Norcal, all the way from where the Scots had settled looking for Voodoo.
But how silly those Scots were. Savannah, Georgia was still a long way from New Orleans, Louisiana.
My life playing music led me back over the water to Europe where I began to perform in the East. Prague, Dresden, Berlin. But having run low on funds, I decided to hitchhike to The Netherlands where I was to perform at the North Sea Jazz Festival and later do a short tour.
I had trouble catching rides out of Prague, but by noon, I finally got one from a sketchy Czech woman to the German border. My second came from a paranoid German man who took me directly to a police checkpoint. The Deutschland police did everything but search inside my testicles while I stood outside a petrol station. Finding nothing, they rolled on leaving me to gather my things.
After watching the near-assault from a nearby fuel pump, a man walked over, introduced himself with a laidback Dutch accent, and offered me a ride. He was a doctor and as I got into his BMW, he said, “I hope you like to go fast.”
Then, he asked me to roll him a cigarette and threw me a bag of expensive tobacco.
When we stopped halfway to Rotterdam, he offered to buy me dinner. The menu was in Dutch. When I asked what ‘kip‘ was, I learned it was the winged creature I had stopped eating in Alaska.
I discovered that I had been named after a Chicken Landowner. A Bird Entitled, Squab Landlord. Kip. Gentry. The pieces were falling into place. Kip’s nameline meant that the blood of the holy chicken ran through him.
As I twinkled on my mother’s iris and danced on my father’s pupil, a ballet was also occurring in the eyes of an ancestral line of roosters and hens.
Months after my stint performing in Holland, I was in a village in Turkey near Adana on the Syrian border. I thought I was gathering musical ideas, but really I was drawn by the magnet again to a new, foreign place and heading deep into it.
I woke up one August morning in a one-room pensione and had a fever. Then, chills. I was shivering and it was 104 degrees outside. Within a day, everything I had eaten or drank was gone. Left in a toilet or waste basket. For four days, I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, sweating non-stop, and only able to get up to dry heave or try to defecate.
During those long, nightmarish days, I came very close to death but I wasn’t allowed to slip into the afterworld. Every hour, my soul was startled by a wicked sound: KAKAW! KAKAKAW! The cockle-doo-dooing of a demonic rooster one story below my open window.
On day four, I was able to climb out of bed and sit at the window without heaving or shitting. It was quiet. Still. Peaceful. When I looked down at the dry, desert ground a floor below me, he was there. The rooster. Dead. Killed by a patchy-furred calico cat who was eating him slowly.
Blood flowed out from the rooster’s neck and it looked familiar. Seeing the blood made me feel better, healthier, and more alive. More than an illness had been lifted from me.
I got on the road and thumbed. A white cargo truck pulled over with a large, orange sign on the side. It was a chocolate truck driven by a handsome, thickly-mustached man who had two young sons with him. They brought me inside and took me all the way to Istanbul. We giggled and ate dark chocolate the delicious color of rooster blood all the way to the ancient city on the Bosphorus.
105 degrees colder on the other side of the world in a time zone called ‘the past’, Kip wanted to end his story for my parents and to explain how his family rid themselves (mostly) of their curse.
After Fern played a few songs and silence returned to the van, Kip returned to his story…
“I don’t want to scare y’all, but there is still some curse left inside me. I see it as a blessin’, too. Marie Laveau helped…let’s just say…tame my family’s curse.
“There were only a few of my family left when they got to Georgia. Great Great Great Grandma Maeve was only five years old. They lived like indentured servants in Savannah. The curse was on their backs. They never could get ahead. Always behind. Always sick, hungry, and in shabby clothes. That curse made them work like their family made the fieldhands and workers back in their home country.
“They had no money and no way to get to New Orleans. Aunt Maja was the only one who had the energy left to remove the curse. So, she saved up a little food, put it in a sack, and left in the middle of the night one spring, taking the Gentry family crest with her sewed into a piece of fabric. She walked all the way from Georgia to New Orleans, stayin’ with people along the way. They took her in and she worked for her meals.
“It took Aunt Maja a few months to get to New Orleans and she had no idea how to find Marie Laveau. She slept on the streets and was nearly ready to turn around and go home, but she heard some rich women gossipin’ in the street one day. Talkin’ about having their future’s told and one talked about havin’ an ailment cured.
“See…Marie Laveau…she was a healer. She was powerful. Knew about herbs. Was clairvoyant. Aunt Maja asked the rich ladies who they were talkin’ about and it was Marie. Aunt Maja found out where Marie lived…where she also sold herbs and gris-gris and told fortunes. She went there and stood outside ’til Marie came out. Bashful and scared, my aunt went up and talked to her. We don’t know what was said but she was there for less than an hour.
“Three nights later, Aunt Maja went out to the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. Lore in my family gets hazy but the story passed down is that there were a lot of people out on the bank. Black, Creole, and a few White…but mostly women. They did a ritual. With drums, singin’, dancin’…and spells. In the middle of it, Marie asked for my family crest and covered it in the blood of a chicken sayin’ words over the top Maja didn’t understand.
“When the ritual was over, in the morning, Aunt Maja went back to Marie’s home. See…Marie needed to be paid…and to repay her, my aunt worked for Marie for a few years.
“My aunt eventually went back to Savannah…and she left the Gentry family crest covered in chicken blood with Grandma Maeve. Then, Aunt Maja went back to New Orleans and worked for Marie until the end of her life.
“When my grandma got older, she burned the crest. Threw it in a fire she made on the longest night of the year, y’all. But she passed down the words Marie said and they got passed down in turn by all my grandmas. The words were: ‘You must give and not take. You must heal and not hate.’
“My family never had hardships like that again. Bumps and bruises but nothin’ major. We know Marie left a little of that curse in us as a reminder…to remember how to be. To be good. Gentrys are good people.”
Kip finished his story. My mother was smiling but she was quiet. She stirred inside. She knew I was coming and, now, she knew what my name would be.
A chicken had been sacrificed for Kip and his family and it would lead to me. The blood of chickens flowed through all of us.
Kip and Fern rode with my parents for less than 24 hours. When they reached Lincoln, they got out, put a few dollars in my father’s hand, and each hugged my parents. Then Kip said a prayer that had a little Voodoo, a little crystal energy, and a little Southern Baptist in it. The two hitchhikers walked on into the capital of Nebraska and were never seen by my family again.
I now call home the final resting place of Marie Laveau, here in New Orleans. I no longer wonder why I live here because I know the magnetic pull of my name led me to the Crescent City.
My thumbs are mostly retired now except to clatter on laptops and piano keys, but I still feel the blood of chickens running through me.
Sometimes, I hear voices sing that sound like Simon & Garfunkel with no E’s. They beckon me to get out on the road, throw out my thumb, and see who will drive me all the way to Maui.