Trying To Survive On The Margins In 'At The Edge Of The Haight'

Jan 16, 2021

Katherine Seligman's new novel makes alive and visible the lives of people we often walk past, sometimes as quickly as we can. Maddy Donaldo is 20 years old and sleeps in hidden spots inside San Francisco's Golden Gate Park with her small dog Root, sometimes eating and showering in a shelter before returning to forage for food and loose change on the street.

One morning, Root finds the body of a young boy — bloodied and taking his last breath — and a man standing over him who growls at Maddy, "I know where to find your ass." The story of Maddy and her circle of friends, and the identity of the slain young boy she discovers is at the heart of Katherine Seligman's first novel, At the Edge of the Haight.

Seligman was a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and she says it was her reporting that put these characters in her mind and heart. "I had lived in San Francisco, in Haight-Ashbury in particular, for more than 25 years, and I had written about issues related to homelessness," she says. "And it was actually something I saw one night, driving through Golden Gate Park, that was the seed for this novel."


Interview Higlights

On what she saw

We were driving home. It was dark, and a man threw himself in front of our car and pleaded with us to stop. And he said someone was trying to kill him. We did stop and call the police, and by the time they came and shone a light into the nearby grass, we could see the body of a young man lying there.

That was about 10 years ago. And I could not get that scene out of my mind. And I did do research and talk to people, and ultimately came to believe that the issues I wanted to write about would fit with fiction.

On what unhoused people have to do to survive

I think one of the things that really got to me in the years I've been here, and particularly in talking to people for this book, was how it's a full time job to take care of yourself when you're on the street. People are usually — if they're sleeping in the park, as during the pandemic, very few people are sleeping in the park. But it used to be that you'd get roused at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning by people making a sweep and telling you you can't camp there. So what the kids would tell me is that they would have to get up, stumble out of the park, and then they maybe could go back to sleep later, but often not.

It can be a very tough place to be, you know, in terms of getting people to shelter, into longer term solutions. There is sort of no one way there. There is an extreme lack of services, direct services and places for people to live while they're getting their lives together.

On how she hopes people will read the book

I hope that will remind people to keep their eyes open and consider ... the person they see on the street, or anyone in the supermarket — or everywhere you go. to see beyond the person sitting there with an instrument and a cup or a dog, and to just to see the person behind that.

This story was produced for radio by Isabella Gomez and D. Parvaz, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Katherine Seligman's new novel makes alive and visible the lives of people we often walk past, sometimes as quickly as we can. Maddy Donaldo is 20 years old and sleeps in hidden spots inside San Francisco's Golden Gate Park with her small dog Root, sometimes eating and showering in a shelter before returning to forage for food and loose change on the street. One morning, Root finds the body of a young boy, bloodied and taking his last breath, and a man standing over him who growls at Maddy, I know where to find your ass.

The story of Maddy and her circle of friends and the identity of the slain young boy she discovers is at the heart of Katherine Seligman's first novel, "At The Edge Of The Haight." Katherine Seligman, who's been a writer at San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, joins us from that city. Thanks so much for being with us.

KATHERINE SELIGMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: It was your reporting that put this idea and these characters in your mind and heart.

SELIGMAN: Well, I had lived in San Francisco - in Haight-Ashbury, in particular - for more than 25 years. And I had written about issues related to homelessness. And it was actually something I saw one night driving through Golden Gate Park that was the seed for this novel.

SIMON: What did you see?

SELIGMAN: We were driving home. It was dark. And a man threw himself in front of our car and pleaded with us to stop. And he said someone was trying to kill him. We did stop and call the police. And by the time they came and shone a light into the nearby grass, we could see the body of a young man lying there.

SIMON: How long ago was that?

SELIGMAN: That was about 10 years ago. And I could not get that scene out of my mind. And I did do research and talk to people and ultimately came to believe that the issues I wanted to write about would fit with fiction.

SIMON: We'll note that Maddy is estranged from her family - might call it birth family. But she does share her life with a circle of friends - Ash, Hope, Fleet and not to mention Root.

SELIGMAN: Yes, she finds this dog on Haight Street, and he really provides her company and security, as does this group of kids who she lives with, who become a sort of family to her.

SIMON: I mean, one of the many windows your novel opens is we - can help a reader understand the rules by which someone who's unhoused has to live just to get by.

SELIGMAN: Right. I think one of the things that really got to me in the years I've been here, and particularly in talking to people for this book, was how it's a full-time job to take care of yourself when you're on the street. People are usually - if they're sleeping in the park - as during the pandemic, very few people are sleeping in the park. But it used to be that you'd get aroused at 4 or 5 in the morning by people making a sweep and telling you you can't camp there. So what the kids would tell me is that they would have to get up, stumble out of the park, and then they maybe could go back to sleep later, but often not.

SIMON: Yeah. The young man that Maddy sees in - dead in Golden Gate Park is identified. His parents happen to be named Golden. They come from upstate New York to meet her. What do they see in Maddy?

SELIGMAN: I think what they see is a chance to walk in the footsteps of their son, to see what he went through in the park. They don't understand that every kid's life is different and that she might not have a way into how he lived in the park.

SIMON: People - and I mean good people - I think often have an idea that if we could just build more shelters, everybody would have someplace warm and safe to stay. We've both done stories in actual overnight homeless shelters. I know every time I've done a story there, I learned why some people prefer to take their chances on the street.

SELIGMAN: Yeah, it's - it can be a very tough place to be. You know, in terms of getting people to shelter into longer-term solutions, there is sort of no one way. There is an extreme lack of services - direct services - and places for people to live while they're getting their lives together.

SIMON: How do you hope that people who read "At The Edge Of The Haight" might see the world differently when they turn the last page?

SELIGMAN: Well, I hope that it will remind people to keep their eyes open and consider when they - the person they see on the street or anyone in the supermarket or wherever you go is to see beyond the person sitting there with an instrument and a cup or a dog and to just - to see the person behind that.

SIMON: Katherine Seligman - her novel "At The Edge Of The Haight" - thank you so much for being with us.

SELIGMAN: Thank you.

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