OAKLAND – She walked down Telegraph Avenue in this city's grungy-cum-trendy Temescal neighborhood, a little overdressed in a black trench coat and blue scarf on a sun-saturated late winter afternoon.
It was the last day of Angela Spinazze's business trip before returning to Chicago, and she had time to kill. She was window-shopping, lost in thought about how she really could be happy living in an unconventional place like Oakland.
That was when Spinazze heard a short burst of noise, a vaguely familiar percussive sound, emanating from the nearby Temescal Alley shopping strip. She turned right on 49th Street to investigate.
A smile spread across her face at a curious sight of a scruffy young man banging away on a manual typewriter beside a sign reading "POEMS – Your Topic, Your Price." Hovering nearby was a woman, Sara Felder, waiting for the poet-for-hire to finish composing a two-buck ode to "music."
The two women chatted while poet Zach Houston sat on a bench hunting and pecking on his pale-green, Swiss-made Hermes Rocket manual typewriter, vintage 1968, which was teetering on his lap.
For eight years now, Houston, an Oakland poet and performance artist, has taken poetry to the streets for fun and profit. He's been profiled by NPR and CBS' "Sunday Morning" and has spawned so many imitators in the Bay Area that he's thinking of moving on to another medium.
But to Felder and Spinazze and other passersby, Houston's act was fresh and new.
"I couldn't quite figure out what I was hearing," Spinazze said. "But it was one of those sounds you just don't hear much anymore."
Houston looked up and smiled. "I love the typewriter, man," he said. "I'm only 30, but I feel a severe disconnect between analog and digital. I like 'em both."
Then he resumed banging away, finishing the ode to music for Felder just as, coincidentally, he ran out of paper. He ripped it from the roll and handed it over, and Felder proceeded to read it aloud.
all are equal in experience audio
electronic transform from several
hundred miles away thats
the ticket to in concert we
all go together acoustic
to refuse to listen
is near and far
She stopped mid-word.
"Love this!" she exclaimed.
She finished reading, pocketed the 5-by-7 inch paper (thick stock; Zach doesn't skimp), then mused on the utility of poetry in our lives.
"It's a complicated world, and we need heightened language to get through it," Felder said. "And poetry is like looking out at the ocean, you know. It's a way to achieve that. Street poems, street art – beautiful contribution to society. It's a subversive way to look at commerce, also. You pay the artist directly. How often do you do that anymore? It's all very ancient Greek."
Felder asked Houston if he knew of another street poet she'd encountered, one who often haunts the 16th and Mission Street BART station, where, Felder added, "the acoustics are great for a manual typewriter."
"That must be Lynn Gentry," Houston said. "He started doing it a couple of years after I did."
In the pecking order of Bay Area typewriter street poets, Houston stands (sits, rather) as the originator. There's no Yaddo-like organization in which to check, no PEN Center for street-corner scribes, but given Houston's vita, he certainly has the credentials.
He's had an artist-in- residence installation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, exhibitions at SF Camerawork, composed on demand on the streets of Berlin and The Hague, Netherlands, and "performed" at galleries from New York to Los Angeles. He recently opened a studio in downtown Oakland, thanks to a grant from a San Francisco arts organization called Southern Exposure.
His style is stream of consciousness, though he admires e.e. cummings more than the Beat poets. He laments that he once sat in front of the famed City Lights bookstore and got nary a taker. These days, you can find Houston on Saturdays at the farmers market at San Francisco's Ferry Building, though he has so many other projects that he sometimes blows off the gig.
Not bad for a self-styled artist with no MFA to his name and little formal training – though he did study linguistics, art and sociology at Sonoma State University before dropping out.
"I wanted to major in 'information' and – do you get the joke? – they said information didn't exist as a study," he said. "I said F-you. I'll check back in 15 years when information (technology) is all you'll study. It's, like, the most advanced science in the world. That was kind of frustrating, you know, being rebuffed by a mediocre school."
But Houston doesn't have time to elaborate. He's banged out Felder's poem and another on the subject of "secrets, coincidences and triangles" for Helena, a barista at a Temescal Alley cafe. And now Spinazze is requesting a poem. Subject matter: winter.
He pushed his sunglasses over his brow and into a tangle of brown locks, scratched his three-day growth of beard. He smiled and had a question for Spinazze.
"Do you know what January is in the Bay Area? It's, like, January is our June – our summer."
While Houston got to work, Spinazze fell into a reverie about typewriters, explaining that "in my undergrad days I made money typing other people's term papers."
A few minutes later he extracted the paper from the roll and handed it over. Spinazze asked him to read it aloud.
"june you airy strange restraining order in eternity " Houston began.
When he finished, Spinazze clapped and handed over $10. It may not be the Pulitzer Prize, but, hey, the 10-spot was appreciated.
ZACH HOUSTON'S POETRY
Street-corner poet Zach Houston does not have a regular work schedule. But he says he often pops up on Saturday's farmers market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. For more information on Houston and his poetry projects, go to http://zachhouston.com.
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.