One of the first days I worked at the post office, two bright-eyed twenty-somethings came in to drop off flyers for Employee Recreation Services, advertising some upcoming events. There are several different groups of employees here in Grant Village, who work for different companies, and with different housing assignments. The largest group is the Xanterra folk. Xanterra handles all of the concessions and hospitality services throughout the park: the lodges, hotels, restaurants, and campgrounds. They have dorms in every village, and generally employ college-aged kids from all over the US and abroad. Next is Delaware North who run the General Stores in each village, and this is primarily populated by retired people who just want to work part time and spend the summer in Yellowstone. Then there’s a small group called YPSS who run the service station. After that is the National Park Service: your Law Enforcement Rangers (LE’s), Interpretive Rangers (Interps), Resources Folk, and Maintenance Workers (Rafal falls under this last category and we live in the NPS housing area.) Then there is someone like me who works at the post office. This teeny tiny post office is what’s known as a “contract station,” which means that although we are a genuine United States Postal Service outpost, I am not directly employed by the Federal Government. (So, no, in case you were wondering, I am not receiving the mythical benefits bestowed upon your average postal worker. But I only work about 12 hours a week, I get to wear whatever I want—all tattoos and piercings exposed—and listen to Kruder and Dorfmeister while I do it. So I’m not complaining.) Instead, I am technically employed by Sidekick Contracting and I am one of two total employees. While the Employee Recreation events are open to all employees in Yellowstone, their office is located within the Xanterra dorm, and they serve mostly the Xanterra kids.
When they dropped off their flyers, the words TALENT SHOW stood out to me, bold and beautiful. I’d been looking for some way to connect with people—even as an NPS wife, I am not exactly dialed into a community—and I have a long history with talent shows.
Before I rafted the Grand Canyon, I was invited to perform in a homegrown talent show in a log cabin deep in Montana, put on by the people whom I’d never met (except for one: Kelso), but with whom I would be spending 30 days rafting. I performed The Great Smoke-Off by Shel Silverstein and won (both the talent show and their hearts). I carried this “No Talent Talent Show” tradition with me to Petit-Jean Performance Festival, which, as far as I know, is an institution that SIU still upholds (and was the genesis of my terrible alter-ego, Jacky Appleton, but that’s a whole other story). While we were in the Grand Canyon, Kelso and I wrote a rafting rap that we performed in my favorite talent show ever, and this rap became part of Sideshow (but only in the full-length version). I love me a good talent show. I thought this might be a way in.
The next time the Employee Rec kids came by, I casually asked if I would be able to participate, since I’m not technically affiliated with any of the major employment groups, and they affirmed with excitement.
My initial impulse was to perform The Great Smoke-Off again. I usually pull this baby out whenever an impromptu performance opportunity presents itself, because it’s a crowd pleaser, I can really sell it, it requires no props, it’s already memorized, and most importantly: it wins talent shows. The Great Smoke Off tells of the epic battle between Pearly Sweetcake—who can smoke ‘em faster than any dude can roll—and the Calistoga Kid—who can roll ‘em faster than any chick can smoke as they battle for the world title in Yankee Stadium. But drugs are R E A L L Y taboo here in the National Park, like downright scandalous, like you do not want to out yourself as someone who associates with, or, god forbid, approves of drug use. So that piece was out of the question.
I hemmed and hawed and procrastinated; and thought about using something new about Yellowstone, but nothing is really ready yet; and thought about doing something old from Sideshow, but I didn’t know if anyone would get it and worried about being too sexy; and I suddenly felt as though I had never written anything good ever and I thought about chickening out. But just a couple of days prior to the big event, the Employee Rec kids returned with more flyers. They were thrilled that I was thinking about being in the talent show and they brought a sheet for me to fill out with my bio and a bit of information about my piece. How could I say no? I jotted down my info and under talent I simply wrote “Storytelling.”
I texted Rafal about it and I also put it up to Facebook. Rafal, Gigi, Tracy, Ash, and others all said HULA-HOOP SCENE. So although I was nervous, I took the overwhelmingly unanimous suggestion. But rather than letting the hula hoop scene play without context, I fashioned an 11-minute piece with a bit from the opening, a few new lines, the hula-hoop scene (actually titled: Anna Louise: The Invocation), and some from the very end. I now present this piece to you:
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve come here tonight to spin you a story. A tale that touches five generations: five daughters turned mothers across a matrilineal sequence. All five of these women chose the stage: out of love, out of necessity, in line with destiny. All five of these women rode rapids of shame: both female and poor, but fiercely independent, struggling to be both seen and remembered.
Within this story, I hold the sound of applause, the taste of adrenaline, the ever-changing smell of entertainment: those inextinguishable sensory snap shots that seduce even the most sensible of creatures. For beneath this tent, for this brief moment—as it is with every circus—the illustrious, the fantastic, and the synchronicitous will be our guide. So please, suspend your disbelief with me and enjoy the ride.
My great-great grandmother was a trapeze artist. Which means, as far back as I can tell, the women in my family have been performers. There is my great-great grandmother the circus performer, my great-grandmother the burlesque dancer, my grandmother who danced in Chicago’s jazz clubs, my mother who traveled with the carnival sideshow, and me. But not everyone in our family is proud of this lineage—it’s too sordid, too sexy, too symbolic of the lower class—and so, over time, much of this history has been lost.
According legend, my great-great-grandmother, Anna Louise Townsend, worked for Ringling Brothers before they merged with Barnum and Baily. In the narrative of my family, it is always stated exactly that way. In the patchy oral historical archive, the fact that she worked before the merger was significant and that lone fact was well preserved.
But based on the information I do have, Anna Louise would have worked for Ringling Bros. between 1904 and 1910. Ringling Bros. joined with Barnum & Baily Circus in 1907, but they were managed and toured separately until 1919. So she would have been working in the years leading up to and during the merger. It’s only natural that some things would have gotten lost.
And I did find one clue: one little scrap of information, the kind you latch onto, and magnify, and dream about. There was a famous dancing elephant by the name of Anna Louise. One has to wonder, where did the elephant get her name? [Beats Antique’s Roustabout begins]
I dreamed a dream of Anna Louise Townsend, supine atop the trapeze beam, arms outstretched, traveling. Imagining all her life would be. And I heard her. Breathing. Smiling so loud it could laugh.
Anna Louise rode the trapeze. But the breadcrumbs of legend stop there.
And then, I saw it: the story of Arthur Ringling. The blind greed that drove away his brother and led him into a bad business bargain. Arthur Ringling, scorned by the flame of P.T. Barnum and exiled by his lust for coin, fell into a sleep of his own.
The symmetry of her face appeared to him. Before the merger, before the fanfare. That siren of the trapeze. By 1906, Arthur rarely broke bread with the performers. But one autumn day with the moon in the sky he marched through the main floor. As her trapeze swung and the wind caught her hair she called out “Lord, please let me die on the back of adventure.”
Arthur Ringling, already an old man, felt his age settle into his bones. It was crazy, but he loved her. His lips to hers and adventure was found.
He woke with her name in his mouth, with her taste on his teeth and he called out, “Anna Louise!” But Anna Louise Townsend, now Anna Louise Baugh, was long gone.
With what feeble strength he maintained in his legs, he pulled himself to the stables. With what feeble authority he maintained in this place, in the dream he had constructed, he laid her name upon a baby elephant. So someone would never forget.
Anna Louise Baugh, already a widow, surrounded by children and grandchildren, one brisk Chicago evening, whispered, as she filled out the 1940 census questionnaire, “Lord, please let me die on the back of adventure.”
And as if to answer, her granddaughter, still a child, fell into a sleep of her own. She saw her tap shoes and the jazz clubs where she would rouge her knees. Dorothy Delores was adventure incarnate.
And my grandmother, raised by her grandmother, saw herself raising me. She awoke from her slumber, broke open a cardboard box., and on the day of the 1940 census, she danced. She executed her first shuffle-hop-step with such proficiency; the sight would have delighted Arthur Ringling. [music ends]
In truth, there was no Arthur Ringling. Charles Edward Ringling and John Nicholas Ringling were the actual brothers in questions. And they bought the circus from Barnum, not the other way around.
Anna Louise the elephant was imported from Zimbabwe by Frank Thompson of Bradenton, Florida. She was purchased by Tom Demry, who trained her for the circus. Tom Demry and Anna Louise continue to perform today.
But still, I can’t help but wonder, where did they come up with that Elephant’s name?
In this complicated world of ours, there is so much to be ashamed of. There are so many ways to not feel like enough. But lucky for you and lucky for me the rules of mundanity do not apply here. For beneath this tent and for this brief moment, as it is with every circus, there is more than enough passion to go around. For it is not pride that counteracts shame; pride is just another magic trick of the ego. Instead it is passion that mixes with shame in the mysterious alchemy towards self-love.
In the twisted tale you weave through your life, the life of your family, the life of your art I give you permission to not be good enough, for who is, for what kind of monster could be.
And who am I to give such permission? Just a magician, just a friend, just a fifth-generation performance artist making peace with my class and my past.
You can feel it can’t you? My magic? My permission? The depth of my passion and love? It is contagious, it is unlimited, it is enough. Thank you.
I did not win the Grant Village talent show. I came in 3rd behind a salsa dancing duo (1st) and a violinist (2nd), who were all deserving of their awards. The salsa dancers and violin player went on to the park-wide show the next day.
There was a problem with my bluetooth speaker and my audio was too quiet: it was audible, but the balance wasn’t right. And it is a difficult thing to lose your audience, to grab their attention, hold for a bit, and then slowly feel some of it dissipate. It is hard to keep giving it your all as you’re hyperaware of their burgeoning disregard, but it is such good practice to keep pushing. I kept thinking about Amanda Palmer, about how her work as a street performer gave her, in her words, “balls of steel,” and taught her that she didn’t need everyone to like her. She only needed a few people to fuel the whole endeavor. And I didn’t let all of them slip. A good handful of the audience stayed with me, eyes wide and on the edges of their seats. So I continued to perform for everyone, considering it a gift, especially for those who wanted to receive it. And the judges were among the handful, bad audio or not.
In the days since the talent show, people have talked to me about it at the post office. Compliments, conversations about performance art, and connections have emerged, and that was always the point. As a part of the bio the MC read from to introduce me, I included the fact that I am writing a new piece about Yellowstone and that I hope to perform here in Grant before the end of the season. When he read this aloud, the audience cheered, and just this morning, a customer at the post office asked me how the writing was going. I provided a gift—my art, my vulnerability—and small seeds are beginning to grow.
Everything is slower here. Everything is different with Lydia on my hip. But I am committing words to the page, little by little by little, and making connections the same way.
I am reassured that, no matter what, my art will persevere. Namaste and Fuck Shame.