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You know it’s a small town if ...

John Mellencamp doesn’t suck.

At no time in my life have I ever listened to a John Mellencamp song and said, “Oh man, turn this s*** off!” nor scrambled to switch the dial on the radio because the idiot DJ had made the mistake of spinning a Mellencamp side. No, I’ve never had an aversion to John Mellencamp and, I have to say, there are a number of his songs that I actually like.

Over the years, I suppose my approach to John Mellencamp has been utter ambivalence: not exactly sending me to the record store to grab his latest album (nor taking up any space on my pod), I’m also not convinced that a kitten gets tossed into the Devil’s wood-chipper every time one of his songs gets played.

And as I admitted, I actually like some of his songs (“Jack and Diane” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” can be insidious earwigs for me); more than that, his authenticity in writing about rural, small town life can take on a Springsteen-esque sweep and, at its best, creates something beyond the moment or emotion he’s writing about.

Mellencamp comes to mind because I again attended the Pagosa Springs Middle School Family Dance and although I wrote about it last year, it warrants mention again (and again and again and ... because I, um, will be attending this soiree for another four years).

In case you missed last year’s column(you can find it on pagosasun.com), it is as small town as you can get; I can’t think of anything else that brings Pagosa Springs together in the way this little event does.

Fifth and sixth graders bring their families together into middle school gym to teach them the dances that have been learned throughout the semester. Of course, the kids are in rhythm, they’ve had months of fun to figure it out. The rest — we parents and hapless siblings — flail about helplessly, try to figure out the moves as best we can, bump into one another, attempt to not look foolish.

But oh, not looking like fools is far from the point. Indeed, the more we look like fools, the more it’s driven home that we Pagosans are, plain and simple, family.

All of us.

Unafraid of looking like complete boobs, we let our children guide us onto the floor and put our trust in them that we’ll have fun. Serious (somewhat), they take us by the hand and show us all the steps, assuring us that they have our backs. Then, as the music starts, they turn their backs, shuffle their feet, one, two, three, four, slide, slide, left arm out, right arm out, up, up, turn, slide … “It’s that easy, Mom/Dad,” and then go.

Guiding us, showing us what it’s like to be free and innocent, unafraid; to grow up in a small town.

As I watched and participated, allowing my guard to fall as other parents similarly followed the lead of their children, I was reminded why my children chose this small town as their own.

Grown-ups willing to get out on the floor and be goofy, grinning, putting their hands in the air like they just don’t care… there’s little else that says “small town” and, more importantly, safety, than that.

Interestingly enough, “The Safety Dance” is not part of the repertoire and their “Pizza Hut” song wasn’t http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQ8ViYIeH04 (the only real Pizza Hut song, really).

I hate to say it (because I absolutely despise Jeff Foxworthy) but you know it’s a small town if:

The social center of your town is the grocery store.

When the downtown City Market was open, everyone would know you, ask you how you were doing; since we’re at the big corporate store (by no choice of our own), we’ve lost our connection with the people who would check us out, ask us about our day, knew almost everything about our lives.

Now, we move into the quickest lines, not unwilling to share our lives anymore but merely trying to expedite our moment in the grocery store. What used to amount to a checkout and some conversation about out lives has been minimized to a moment of whether or not a “value card” matters and whether or not you want paper or plastic.

While there are a few friendly, familiar faces working the lines and the counters, the essential warmth that met customers in the old downtown store is sadly lacking.

Still, rare is the trip to the grocery store that I don’t run into at least one person I know — usually several. Rarer still is just passing in the aisle with a cursory, “Hello, how are you?” Usually, carts come to a dead stop and we catch up: kids, the weather, something I’ve written about (or some other news in the town/county), or just idle chat.

I doubt that the market ends up as a de facto social center in Durango; I know that, in a city, one just puts their head down to gather up their goods and get the hell out. The grocery store is just there to provide victuals in an anonymous and impersonal way.

A generation ago, cities had small neighborhood markets that, much like the way a borough functioned as a small town, acted as a quasi-social gathering place. Not nearly the hot spot that a small town market is, it nonetheless functioned, for old-time neighborhood residents, similar to the small town grocer.

No more, alas. Aside from the stray carnicerîa or Asian market, corporations have driven the neighborhood markets uptown or into the ‘burbs, paving over any charm or conviviality with a slick veneer of calculated indifference.

Just like the gathering at the Family Dance, we’re fortunate to have our gathering place in the snack aisle.

Of course, you know it’s a small town if you can’t walk through the post office without discussing the weather with at least one fellow Pagosan. In fact, I can’t think of a single time I’ve checked my mail to see at least one conversation taking place near the junk-mail bins ... a conversation that continued well past the time I’d checked my box and started my truck. A single conversation is a slow day: usually, I see several in progress.

I suspect that, within a generation, the post office will be a specter of an era long past.

As I stood on the middle school gymnasium floor, snapping photos for The PREVIEW Scene page, I couldn’t help but smile at how quaint and warm the entire event was, how it captured the embrace of a small town much more than any Christmas rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Willa Cather novel.

Of course, the bonus was that, the pretty young blonde from the Elementary School Family Night in November was also at the Family Dance, again captivating me with her smile and making my week so much brighter.

And with her smile brightening my heart and the music boosting my step, I could not help but remember Mellencamp lyrics as I left the Family Dance:

“No I cannot forget where it is that I come from/ I cannot forget the people who love me/ Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town/ And people let me be just what I want to be.”

jim@pagosasun.com