A single stalk of pokeweed came up in the backyard. I recognized it by its bright red stem and its black shiny berries, little oblate spheroids that somehow I knew even as a kid were poisonous, although it was fun to squeeze the juice out of them and write stuff on concrete in dark purple. Except I would later learn pokeweed isn’t always poisonous. Woody Allen’s line that everything our parents said was good for us—milk, sunlight,, red meat, college—actually turned out to be bad for us has its opposite, at least in nature. Plants that are normally toxic—pokeweed, milkweed, stinging nettle—can be edible if you boil them to death. And in the case of pokeweed you have to get the very young leaves when it first comes up in the spring, before it’s put up a stalk. People boil it and eat it, and call it “poke sallet”—not salad, which is what I first thought they were saying, before I saw it in print. I’m not a big fan of leafy greens. I like them best in the form of sag paneer, which is Indian for “creamed spinach”, but I’m kind of tempted by pokeweed, or I would be if I could spot it before it’s branched out. I always forget it Every time I see pokeweed I think of Jerry Thompson. He was a columnist for The Tennessean, back when it was a newspaper and not just a stack of printed coupons. I’m old enough to remember the morning paper being delivered, and I started reading Jerry Thompson’s columns in the fifth or sixth grade. I don’t know why, but I noticed one morning that he’d written something snarky about Barbie ditching Ken and taking up with a sketchy character named Rio. And it was funny to me that this was newsworthy. So “Thompson’s Station”, with his ruminations on everything from pop culture to the good old days when he did things like throw cats on his father’s bare back and accidentally shoot roosters. And there was the time he and a cousin took a snort of an uncle’s moonshine. His uncle kept a jug in the barn “for medicinal purposes”, and Thompson and his cousin weren’t happy when they learned it was flavored with pokeweed root, which may or may not be poisonous but tastes really awful.
My senior year in high school I took a creative writing class. And writing was only part of the class. We also had to submit. The teacher would let us thumb through her copy of The Writer’s Market in search of places that might take the contributions of high school students. And I found some. I had a real knack for finding small publications that had ceased or simply disappeared even though they were still listed as active. Some of my fellow students got their first rejection letters. All I got was envelopes marked “Return to sender”.
The teacher also brought in a few local writers. I was really excited that Jerry Thompson was one of them. By that time I’d learned that he didn’t just write a funny daily column. He’d had a long career as a journalist. He’d been the first journalist to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and had written a book about it, My Life In The Klan. I had to explain to a black friend that it was intended to be an exposé of the organization and not a recruiting manual when he saw me reading it. Maybe I should have kept it hidden under my copy of Rooster Bingo, Thompson’s other book, which was a collection of his lighter newspaper columns, although if I’d looked like I was trying to hide it that might have come across as even more suspicious. Thompson in person turned out to be a lot like his columns: gentle and kind and funny and laid back. He told a few jokes and a few stories. Aside from mentioning his love of poke sallet—something he brought up regularly–I really don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember he had the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on anyone.
After each writer visited we were supposed to write a thank-you letter to them. At least that’s how I interpreted it. A girl in the
class wrote a report on Thompson’s visit, describing his attitude and adding that he was really cool. It, along with my thank-you letter, was mailed to him, and Thompson wrote about it and quoted her, but didn’t mention me, his number one fan–at least in the class. Being published eluded me once again.
A few years later Jerry Thompson would be diagnosed with cancer. Since I was off at college I didn’t read his columns regularly anymore so I missed most of his fight with the disease, although on a few trips home I did see his new “Thompson’s Station” photo. Already bald when I’d met him Thompson’s new photo showed him completely hairless, eyelashes and all. He would fight the disease for eleven years before finally passing away in early 2000. Maybe I should put a marker or a small fence around that spot where that pokeweed plant came up so that next spring I’ll be able to spot it as soon as the first leaves appear, but I’ll probably forget about it until there’s a bright red stalk.