Converted school bus camper will carry adventurers, lifestyle message across country
Norwich — Alexander Grillo recalled riding a school bus in his hometown of Preston when he was about 12 years old and telling friends: “I want to buy one of these someday.”
The comment no doubt drew a few laughs and some teasing by friends, followed by immediate dismissal.
On Monday, Grillo and fellow 2012 Norwich Free Academy graduate and now business partner Raymond Nystrom of Norwich will board their 2004 Bluebird retired school bus — now painted white and converted into a camper/RV — for a trip across the country. They will see the sights while promoting their new business venture that matches this freestyle spirit. A third man will accompany the two but he wished to remain anonymous, they said.
The two 24-year-olds have turned Grillo’s creative logo featuring a black and white image of a gas mask with the Chinese yin yang symbol seemingly dripping with black paint into the brand name: “Dropout.” The message, they said, has nothing to do with dropping out of school but instead refers to dropping the mask of conformity and leaving fears behind as you find your own path.
“Drop your mask and be yourself,” Grillo said. The dripping paint symbolizes taking off the mask to let your true colors show, he said.
They wood-burned the image onto skateboard platforms and printed it on T-shirts, tank tops, hooded sweatshirts, baseball caps, stickers and other items for sale. They enlisted Norwich T-shirt designer Rachel Thayer to produce some of the apparel and gear.
Grillo started the company in 2015 in his parents’ basement in Preston with a heat press, selling items in person and by direct mail through social media contacts.
While visiting Washington, D.C., he said he had an interesting conversation with a White House security guard before he stood and posed wearing the gas mask and a “Dropout” logo hoodie with the White House in the background. Flanking him in the photo, turned into a poster for sale, are two anti-nuclear-weapons signs that Grillo said were not his.
He said they now have about 30,000 followers on social media, as much for the positive “be yourself” message as for the merchandise. Since the word “dropout” was taken on Twitter, the company’s Twitter handle is @drlpouts.
The company website, www.thedropouts.vision, went up about two months ago and features the group’s message prominently, along with the merchandise. Sales are arranged by contacting the company representatives.
“Dropout means to drop your fear,” the homepage message states. “Everyday when you wake up, you put on a metaphorical mask out of fear and compliance. Dropout encourages individuals to be themselves and remove the mask. Dropping out can mean something different to each individual, but the rest of the site will explain what it means to us personally. We encourage the idea of ‘dropping out’ from society because that is what we enjoy doing having dropped our fear, but the message applies to whatever your fears may be.”
Nystrom said most customers range in age from 16 to mid-30s. Some have asked to use the logo for a tattoo, which Grillo has permitted at no charge.
Grillo and Nystrom both stressed that while sales have been going well, the focus is on the message of dropping facades, having self-confidence and pursuing individual goals. Grillo said some youths have contacted them saying they have experienced depression and even suicidal thoughts and said the “dropout” message has helped them. Others have said they, too, have purchased a school bus or van to travel the country.
“I’m sure we’ll meet some of them on our journey,” Grillo said.
They will post blogs on the website throughout the trip, hoping to inspire others to launch their own adventures.
Nystrom said website sales will be shut down during the trip, because they don’t want customers waiting for weeks or even a couple of months to receive their orders. Grillo said orders will resume once the group ends the nationwide tour and figures out where they want to set up shop — literally. The entire country is under consideration, they said.
Grillo said they bought the bus for $4,500 and spent more than that for renovations. They removed most of the seats, installed a kitchen sink, 35-gallon clean water tank, a second “gray water” tank, and a couch opposite a 57-inch TV with X-Box. They built a storage area for camping gear and food in the center and six narrow sleeping bunks in the rear.
The bus doesn’t have air conditioning, but has an RV battery, generator and “a lot of fans,” Nystrom said. Grillo has been across the country twice already and has visited nearly all 50 states. Monday’s departure will mark Nystrom’s first such adventure.
“I’ve never explored my own country before,” Nystrom said. “I want to see the sights.”
To avoid the hassle of vendor permits and dealing with tax laws in each state, they will not sell gear on the trip. Instead, they hope to trade items for a driveway to park, a plug to recharge the RV battery or a spot to set up camp.
They will depart early Monday following a family party Sunday at Nystrom’s home in Norwich. He is the son of Linda Nystrom and Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom. Grillo said his parents, James and Georgia Grillo of Preston, also have been supportive of their message and business venture.
“Both sets of parents are our biggest supporters,” Grillo said.