Writers & Books sponsored Sunday’s “Bus Tour with Sonja,” an event coinciding with the selection of Sonja Livingston’s “Queen of the Fall” as this year’s “If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book.” Sonya planned the tour to coincide with locations from her fabulous memoir, “Ghostbread,” and this book. “It was five minutes past our departure time and Sonya had not yet boarded, setting the stage for a dramatic entry. We heard the bus driver had already run into a car in the parking lot before we arrived. We buckled up.
Our first stop was just around the corner from Writer & Books at the Barrel of Dolls. We had just parked in front of this place on Friday night when we visited Axom Gallery across the street. Sonya read an exquisite excerpt from “Queen of the Fall” about a girl she grew up with who wound up working in the Barrel. Sonja visited the Barrel for research reasons and said it was much cleaner than she pictured.
Second stop was East High where Sonja went to school. She pointed out that less than half of the students graduate and she read a piece as we gazed out the window at our old neighborhood. Peggi and I lived a short block away from this school for twenty seven years and I grew up about eight streets away but I went to Catholic schools. My family situation was 180 degrees away from Sonya’s but the settings were all within reach.
Our third stop was Savoia Bakery on Clifford Avenue, a location mentioned in all three of Sonja’s books. We had just driven by the place on our way to this tour. My family’s haunt was Elite Bakery behind East High on Atlantic but Savoia’s has outlasted them. Our next stop was 33 School, across the street from the Playground Tavern. Sonja read another excerpt from “Queen of the Fall,” one that references Savioa Bakery, Italians (who shape the character of Rochester) and being one of seven children (like I was.)
Lamont Place, off Webster Avenue was our fifth stop. We parked in front of the house where she grew up, or the spot where the house once stood. A man cut through the empty lot headed toward Goodman Plaza with a big plastic bag filled with empty beer cans. A reading from “Ghostbread” was especially poignant.
We motored down East Main to Corpus Christi where I was baptized some twenty years before Sonja. It is now called “Our Lady of the Americas.” My parents lived in apartment around the corner on Alexander Street. Sonja read a piece about a Hispanic wedding that took place here and another about living in the church’s rectory when Father Jim Callan moved out to be closer to the community he served.
The bus driver drove over the curb as we pulled into an official tourist stop, the Susan B. Anthony House, where we sat down for tea while Sonja read from her upcoming book, “Ladies Night at the Dreamland, a combination of research and imagination.” The title refers to the dancehall, amusement park in Sea Breeze near our current home. A guide took us through the house, a beautiful place, one of those mid eighteen hundred houses where the windows in the front room go all the way down to the floor. The tour was inspiring. “Failure is Impossible.”
Our final stop was Mount Hope Cemetery. The bus passengers cheered when the driver made it through the iron gates. Sonja read from a story she wrote about a grave stone here that reads, “Here lies a white slave girl.” She died at fifteen in 1857 and is buried a stone’s throw away from Frederick Douglas’s grave. Sonja is a keen observer. Her observations coupled wth her imagination is a marvel. I hope all of Rochester does read this book.
Margaret Explosion – Playground Tavern