Poetry In The Produce Aisle

George Osterkamp is the CBS News producer in the San Francisco Bureau. He worked with Correspondent John Blackstone on this story for the CBS Evening News.
I met Zach Houston on my way to buy groceries at the supermarket--expecting to encounter nothing more interesting that day than a ripe papaya or fresh Hawaiian pineapple on sale. Zach is a poet-for-hire, an engaging 24-year-old, offering poems to anyone and everyone arriving at the Berkeley Bowl supermarket.

Displaying a sign reading, "Poems About Anything," Zach will write you a poem while you go buy your food. Give him a subject, and the time it takes you to shop, and he'll give you a poem written to order on an ancient portable typewriter. If you'd like to give Zach a few dollars for his effort, he won't mind.

Zach Houston was so charming that day, so good with the customers, that we made a date to come back to film for a CBS News story. Zach had some training in art design, but is delighted to try to make a living as a poet. Turns out his delight was echoed by most of the shoppers who asked for a poem. All of us on the CBS crew were struck by how very happy he made them as they received their personal poem—in fact, I was envious as I wondered if we would be able to delight viewers as much as he could delight his customers.

There was Marybeth Mears, who asked for a love poem for "my sweet husband, David." They'd just celebrated their first anniversary. Zach wrote: "It is impossible to write a poem about love. Because we exist. And our kisses use lips like language to say more than words, to make a we."

There was Rose Villa, a shopper and long time Berkeley resident, who asked for a poem about affordable housing, and the politics of Berkeley. Zach wrote: "Bumper sticker liberals, living in ideology and jobless. Except for a place to be expensive, and well fed – by an agenda."

Then there was Miguel, who rode into the Berkeley Bowl Supermarket on his motorcycle, and after first passing Zach by, came back and asked for a poem about "love and motorcycles." Zach was stumped at first, and asked him, "Are you in love currently? Or are you in love with motorcycles?" Miguel started to answer, "Uh, I'm um (pause) loosely…" But Zach finished his sentence, "Loosely affiliated with the possibility of love? Alright, I gotcha." And he wrote:

"We are two wheels, between us a machine that keeps the concrete from touching our feet, taking the places to us, on a machine made of two pieces—of each other."

Miguel was thrilled. He explained why he first passed Zach by, and how happy he was that he'd returned for the poem about Love and Motorcycles: "I think I'm in a bit of a hurry. But never in that much of a hurry that I can't take a moment for some heartfelt poetry."