The Economies of Summer: Cherokee Purples, and After-Hours Parking Tickets

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

It was 13 or 14 years ago, on Market Square of course, that I first heard the phrase Cherokee Purple. It was in reference to an irregularly shaped object that looked lumpy and bruised, like the head of a Martian after a serious beating. “Are you sure that thing’s ripe?” I asked the farmer. In fact, parts of it looked unripe, parts overripe. She assured me it was ripe, and something special.

As it turned out, it was that. I always liked tomatoes okay, in a salad or on a pizza or a bacon sandwich. Before the Cherokee Purple, I never thought of tomatoes as a main course. That first one, like every one since, had a complex taste you’re more likely to associate with the flesh of creatures.

There’s an interesting story about them, as you’d expect, that sounds like a fairy tale. That it once existed only as heirloom seeds, then for a century or more only in a secluded patch in Sevier County, a secret oddity that family lore claimed was a legacy of the Cherokee who once valued them.

That sunny Saturday on Market Square, they changed my life. I eat them alone or on a whole-wheat sandwich, with a little mayonnaise and salt, and maybe fresh basil, but that’s all. After a hot day, two or three sandwiches make a fine supper.

They don’t last long on the kitchen counter. You need to eat them tonight. I have turned down dinner invitations because I had Cherokee Purples that would have gone to waste.

People complain they’re expensive. You can get tomatoes for half the price at the supermarket. But nobody’s going to go broke paying $3 a pound for tomatoes. When folks spend over $1,000 a year to carry smart phones, $25,000 a year, on average, for family health care—can $3 for a pound of perfect tomatoes ever be a real problem?

Word has gotten around. The phrase, which Google suggests didn’t exist in the English language until Reagan’s second term, has been soaring. Now the tomatoes are even showing up in quantity in groceries, a little cheaper than they are on Market Square.

It’s not a good thing. They look different from other tomatoes, with that trademark greenish-purple cast, but the grocery-story Cherokees look too uniform in shape. I bought some. They were as tasty as the average Boy. They weren’t real Cherokee Purples.

A farmer on the Square knew exactly what I was talking about, and explained it. Cherokee Purples are such a fleeting joy, he said, that to transfer them by truck to the grocery or supermarket, they have to be picked before they’re ripe. When that happens, they’re no big deal.

Anyway, this is the time of year to get them. Market Square is the place.


If it ever happened, I’ve always said, I would write about it.

For years, I rarely had to deal with parking tickets. Now I’m in charge of a nonprofit called the Knoxville History Project. Every morning I think, for a moment, “Maybe I’ll ride the bus today!”—then I remember there’s a check to be signed over there, or a meeting way over there. I no longer have the distinct luxury of riding the bus. I miss the jolly camaraderie, and the opportunity, when such camaraderie is lacking, to read a book.

I also miss the impossibility of parking tickets.

It was my last regular day in the Walnut Building. After some business in West Knoxville, I had a late meeting in the Old City at 4:30. I thought I’d check in at the office quickly before I went home. It was 5:34.

I don’t mind walking a couple of blocks, and that time of day, it’s easiest to find spaces in the part of downtown south of Cumberland and east of Locust, the government district. The courts, the post office branch, city and county offices are there, plus a bank or two. Parking is both expensive and strictly short-term. Then everything closes. Park there after 4:30, even 4:15, nobody bothers you. Until this summer, at least.

I’d read in the Mercury about the city’s sudden new strictnesses. But seriously: at Main and Walnut, all the buildings visible to me were closed and locked. The street was empty. Mine was the only car parked on its block. I did not bother the meter. Partly to save a couple quarters, but partly because I didn’t want to be the naive doofus seen putting money in a meter on a vacant street at 5:34.

When I returned to my car after half an hour, I found a surprise. It’s been so long, I didn’t recognize it. It was an orange ribbon, like some Go Vols confetti.

At 5:36 a diligent officer had written me a ticket. I could have challenged it. It described my car as “beige.”

My ancient sedan is, for the record, a subtle, aged cream. You could call it a blanched almond or a light goldenrod—or perhaps when it’s dirty, a Tuscan. It is not beige. Based on the description in the little orange warrant, I’d have a case. Fortunately for the officer, I am not a litigious fellow.

There are of course worse problems than one $11 ticket, though you can buy 3 pounds, 10 ounces of Cherokee Purples with that.

I do have one serious point. Not all parts of downtown are equal. In this government section, demand for parking is extremely high every weekday, until it ceases soon after 4, when everything starts closing. Even the post office locks the doors at 5:30.

Of course, it’s like that all day Saturday. But meters don’t notice how lonesome it is. They’re still keeping us on a short-leash timer, just as they did at lunchtime.

Nobody pays a dollar an hour to park beside closed buildings. The practical result of a blanket enforcement policy, for a couple of hours every weekday and all day Saturday, is wasted spaces.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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