Sunday, May 8, 2016

REMINISCING: Down to Earth, Or How I Learned at NCCC East

Today, I’m looking back at a time of life that many people look back on with great fondness. I’m talking about those college years. No, I did not go away to college. I didn’t even stay at a local dorm. I was a proud Niagara County Community College student. Well, maybe student was stretching it just a little bit. I had great grades, but I didn’t always make it to class.

I was never one for just sitting through class listening to the professor drone on and on and on. I get bored easily and apparently, reading a book during class is frowned upon. So, I spent a lot of time in the library when I should have had class. There were a couple of us who just kind of hung out in the stacks rapping about life in general. That was the gameplan, at least until my mother informed me that a friend of mine had opened a Dead shop in downtown Lockport. At that point, it was “why drive all the way to Sanborn when I could just hang out at the shop talking about the same things?”

Down to Earth was located in the Clinton Building on Main Street, right next door to Scirto’s Jewelers. It was a place you could find all your Grateful Dead needs: hemp jewelry, stickers, hippie clothes, and homemade tie-dyes. Of course, there was the prerequisite bootleg show grooving in the background.

The store was run by my friend, Poof. When I was really young and first moved into Lockport, he and his family were my neighbors directly across the street. Later when they moved, we visited occasionally at their new home in Newfane. Over time, we kind of lost touch with each other, so when my mom told me he had opened a store, and that it was a Grateful Dead store, I had to re-establish that relationship. I think when I showed up at Down to Earth, he was maybe just a little bit surprised. Growing up, I was not the typical Grateful Dead type of fan. I may have been a little square in those formative years.

Our friendship picked up right where it left off. We had a lot of similar interests and definitely liked the tunes. After a couple of times of being caught hanging at Down to Earth by my mother when I should have been in school, I started parking around the corner so it was so obvious that I was skipping classes. Man, did I skip a lot of classes. But I still learned a lot. Poof and I would talk about a little bit over everything.

One of the coolest things for me was hanging in the back of the store while he was making new tie-dyes. We would just talk and listen to music while I watched him come up with new designs for the shirts. He made a ton of them. I bet I was in attendance for at least 100 shirts being designed and dyed. I would ask for a couple custom colors for shirts I was going to buy for myself. Where else could you get a shirt colored with “Rosie Red” and “Electric Blue” with just a “Touch of Grey?” It was only a few years ago that I learned Poof didn’t like it when people watched him make those shirts.

Another cool part of hanging at the back of the store while making shirts was that fact that the back windows looked out over the Erie Canal and Locks 34 and 35. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the canal. This was the first real, extended look I had ever had at the empty canal. I first learned by looking out the window how water still flows above the locks even  in the dead of winter. And then, in the spring, it was fun to watch the first boats of the season come down the canal. The grinding gears of the lock doors opening and closing serenaded the bubbly Jerry Garcia guitar solos, or the meandering bass lines by Phil Lesh.

Poof played in a band, Woodaxe, while he was running the store. They used to practice at the store once in awhile. In the meantime, I was working at the Kwik Fill directly across from Sunny’s Restaurant on Transit. When our store was preparing to close down to make way for a new shopping center, I got the band to play in the empty part of the store. I think they played three or four songs before they cut out and went to Down to Earth to complete the set. One of the songs was “Go and Say Goodbye” by Buffalo Springfield. It was the big kiss off to the old gas station.

We had some fun times hanging out. There was this one guy, another Deadhead, who used to drive us out of our minds. When we saw him coming, we’d quickly lock the door, shut off the lights, and hide in the stairwell. We’d hear him banging on the door. “You guys here? Come on, man. I got a crispy new show. Dudes!” He’d eventually go away and we’d go back to a normal, open shop. Thinking back on it, I wonder if he did that when he saw me coming?

I did fulfill my requirements and graduate with an associates degree from NCCC. Sure, I missed a ton of classes, but I still had great grades. And I learned a lot at what became known in our house as NCCC East. I had a ton of fun, and isn’t that really what college is supposed to be about -- loving learning? Not everything is learned from sitting in a classroom or reading a book. Sometimes you learn the best simply by living. That’s what I did at Down to Earth. Those days are some of my fondest college memories.

Next Week: Dating, or Attempting to Impress

Craig Bacon is still good friends with Poof. Wednesday night we will “Meet Up at the Movies” and re-live some grateful moments.