The Poet Among Us

There’s a funny person from around these parts named Zach Houston. I guess all poets are funny in a way, aren’t they? Yes, Houston is a poet. A real, working poet. And he is a jewel.

You may have seen him on the CBS News, or heard him recently on NPR.

He totes around a manual typewriter. (When was the last time you saw someone use one of those?) He sits somewhere with a fair amount of foot traffic. He sets up one of his signs, and he sits.

For a donation, he will write an original poem. Write it on the spot, banging it out clack-clackity-clack on his typewriter. And he will pull it off the roller, sign it and hand it over.

Remarkably, Houston is not just some ape with a gimmick. He is a talented and thoughtful poet. His words have sound and rhythm. His poems, at least the ones I’ve read and heard, are intriguing. They play on ideas in original ways.

Houston, in short, is as brilliant as he is ballsy.

I saw him the other day at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. He wrote something for my daughter and her school pals. I watched him as he chit-chatted with these pretty girls, joking, flirting more than a little. But he was writing all the while. And when I read it, I was more than a little surprised at the high quality of the finished piece.

It’s not every poet who would have the nerve to compete for attention at a place like this, where people come for farm-fresh produce and gourmet food. But probably not every poet feels up to that kind of challenge. Houston, however, is obviously more than equal to the task.

Gift From an Unexpected Source

There used to be a network of raised freeways in San Francisco, just part of an imperial post-war US Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to totally encircle and criss-cross the city. Completing that plan would have cut the city off entirely from the very water that created and nourished it – the San Francisco Bay to the east, the Golden Gate to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

As it was, freeways were built down the Embarcadero, separating the city from its front door to the Bay, and right through the city’s center, casting huge swaths of several neighborhoods into perpetual shade.

Then, in 1989, we had a major earthquake that, among other things, hit these raised freeways hard. And the city brought them down, with the intention of rebuilding newer, safer versions. At least that was the plan. What actually happened was a bit different.

People started spending more time at the waterfront. Businesses sprouted like weeds where cold, dead shade had once been. Neighborhoods, like Hayes Valley, were reborn. The economy in those places grew. A school that had once stood underneath the shadow of the great freeway beast was now warm and light, and became a good and happy place to learn.

And in a clear expression of direct democracy, the people voted that we didn’t want the freeways back, thank you very much. We prefer living in a city that connects to the natural environment of water and sky, even if that means driving across the city takes just a little more time.

Today, thanks to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and as a result of the vote that followed, our waterfront has been reopened, whole neighborhoods have been revitalized, and there are more public parks, with public art, for the people to enjoy.