Paper, Plastic Or Poetry?

blackstone- street poet CBS

Outside a busy supermarket, Zach Houston isn't looking for a hangout. He's trying to make a living — as a poet.

"Need a poem written while you shop?" Houston asks shoppers. "Need a poem written?"

Houston is the supermarket poet of Berkeley, Calif., reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"Poems with your groceries? Need a poem?" Houston asks. "What do you want a poem about?"

He'll give you a poem about anything.

How about "a poem about affordable housing in Berkeley?" a woman asks him.

"Love and motorcycles?" another customer requests.

On his manual typewriter, itself pretty much an oddity these days, Houston taps out his poems as his clients shop or wait expectantly.

"I love it, thank you! She'll love it," said a customer named Emily. "My mother's in the Peace Corps in Madagascar. I asked him to write something for her birthday, so he wrote, 'we got mad at the gas cars, so we joined a piece of ourselves to a core …'"

As is common with poets, his success is largely a matter of personal taste.

"It is impossible to write a poem about love," one shopper said. Others quoted their poems.

"Sleep between these walls of skin, peacefully..."

"Four-year-old city kid…"

"Like an old greasy ocean, dried up by the time…"

"We are two wheels, between us a machine, that keeps the concrete from touching our feet," the recipient of the motorcycle love poem read to Blackstone. "Taking the places to us on a machine, made of two pieces of each other."

"You like?" Houston asked.

"Oh yeah, it's gorgeous," the customer said. "Thanks a bunch."

"Excellent," Houston said.

Those who appreciate his work usually hand over a few dollars.

"The best day was a Monday," Zach said. "I made $150."

That's an income that would be the envy of many a struggling poet. The great English poet William Wordsworth once described the work of a poet with these words, "In common things that round us lie some random truths he can impart, the harvest of a quiet eye."

Now shoppers are harvesting the random truths of Zach Houston's quiet eye — and Houston figures he's getting his words' worth.

  • Christine Lagorio

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