It was a sign. A sign posted in a restroom in a downtown Durango restaurant.
To the folks who run the restaurant, it was a funny sign. A harmless sign done up in the style of an Old West wanted poster. A reminder to parents that their efforts to keep their kids on their best behavior while in the establishment were appreciated.
The sign, looking antique in a weathered barn-wood frame said: “NOTICE. Unattended & Unruly Children Will Be Arrested & Sold As Slaves.” It was signed, ostensibly, by Wyatt Earp, the one-time deputy marshal in Tombstone, Ariz., now famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
To a patron of the restaurant visiting Durango – an African-American woman and descendant of a slave – it was not just a sign, however. And it certainly was not funny. She informed the manager of her concerns.
That was the start of the story. The visitor’s friend, a local woman, went back to the restaurant expecting to see that the sign had been removed.
It was still there. She wrote a letter to us, which spurred a news item, which led to a resolution.
The manager took down the sign. He said he planned to contact the visiting patron and apologize.
End of the story – but start of the storm.
Our online comments quickly became contentious, with some readers applauding the woman for sharing her concerns while others derided her and her supporters for overreacting to a joke.
One poster offered a perfect solution. Change the sign, the suggestion reads, to say, “Unruly children will be given a puppy and a box of chocolates.”
If only we could leave it there. But in a sign of our times, the comments piled on, and quickly grew personal and political. And they multiplied virally on social media, turning disgustingly impolite and worse, overtly racist – yet another demonstration that too many people on the internet, despite all its promise, remain hopelessly addicted to circling the drain.
Walking in Durango, we are left to wonder if there are other aspects of our town, with its “authentic” historic flavor, that visitors may find offensive even though offending anyone is the last thing on our minds.
That sign was not a one-off. It likely came from a curio shop, perhaps one of those here in our own little town that prides itself on an old-time, good-time atmosphere.
And what about the Toh Atin Gallery sign, which originally stood outside The Chief Diner? It’s funny in a harmless way, right? Everyone knows that. It’s authentic Durango. It’s classic kitsch.
It’s a sign. A sign to some of how far we’ve come. A sign to others showing how far we still need to go.