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

<em>At the Edge of the Haight</em>, by Katherine Seligman
Algonquin Books
At the Edge of the Haight, by Katherine Seligman

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.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.