It would be easy to miss The Golden Ram Barber Shop if you were walking by it, which is not something that you’d be doing. There are sidewalks along the stretch of Goldenwest Street in Westminster, Calif., but they are underutilized even by the standards of the greater Los Angeles metro area and dwarfed by the loud lanes of busy traffic rushing between them. Goldenwest splits a sprawling moraine of low-slung commerce—little one-off fast-food pillboxes and rectangular strips of two or three unglamorous storefronts and the odd A-frame Weinerschnitzel franchise and other bigger malls backing off the road into lagoons of parking lot bordered by Vietnamese groceries and Vietnamese restaurants and blinking cellphone stores and outposts of your more practical-minded national retail chains. Goldenwest runs into the Pacific Coast Highway six-and-a-half miles away, in Huntington Beach.
The GPS told us that we were at The Golden Ram when we were very clearly not; it is easier for a person to know when he is circling a Jack In The Box than it is for a phone. We were close, though: The Golden Ram was just down the road, hard to spot in a narrow storefront between a liquor store and Dollar Day Auto Supply. A molded fiberglass chair that looks like a Los Angeles Rams helmet sits just inside the door and is visible from the sidewalk, but just barely. And yet people find it, people from Westminster and the towns nearby and also from St. Louis and other places where people have cared about the Los Angeles Rams, and they have been finding it for 25 years. It’s easier to understand when you get closer.
Sal Martinez opened the Golden Ram in 1994, which is unfortunate timing for a barber shop that also doubles as a shrine to the football team that was, in that year, sleepwalking through its last season on the west coast for two and a half decades. The Rams had, at that point, been in and around Los Angeles—in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, and then on a gridiron painted over the diamond at Angels Stadium in Anaheim—for fifty seasons. The Rams’ first star in Los Angeles, quarterback Bob Waterfield, dated the film star Jane Russell; Norm Van Brocklin, who replaced Waterfield under center, won a NFL Championship before the merger with the AFL. Martinez hadn’t been born yet, but he calls Waterfield his favorite player.
Martinez was drawn to the Rams as a kid by the horns on the team’s helmet, and lashed himself to them for all the usual reasons that lead otherwise reasonable people to give over a chunk of their emotional wellbeing to sports franchises. Martinez watched some very good teams that were blocked by great teams during more or less the entirety of the 1970s and the later part of the 1980s, and those teams really were a part of the city’s broader landscape. Vince Ferragamo drank with the team’s beat writers at an Italian social club in Anaheim; a customer in Martinez’s chair remembered being dragooned into designated-driver duty as a teenager so that his father and his friends could get a load on during Rams games at Angels Stadium; the 1985 Rams cut a brash and cheerfully horny novelty single called “Let’s Ram It” that rivaled the Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle” in quality much more closely than the team did when the two met in that year’s NFC Conference Championship. “Some losses,” Martinez said of the 24-0 loss, “time just seems to stretch out. That game felt like it took six hours.”
The Rams were good and bad during Martinez’s lifetime, fun and less so, but “they were never really a popular team,” he told me. “Kids at my school cared about the Dolphins or the Cowboys.” In the 1980s, the Raiders came to town and won a Super Bowl in fairly short order; their fans burned police cruisers and NWA wore their hats in videos. The Rams were competitive and sometimes almost cool during that period—“the fluorescents are hard on the posters,” Martinez said by way of explaining the fade and flare that fuzzed the framed Costacos Brothers poster commemorating a notably shiny Jim Everett and his 1988 offensive line—but also they played in Orange County and proved easy to forget even when they won. By the time Georgia Frontiere succeeded in moving her team from Anaheim to St. Louis, right around when Martinez was opening his shop, the organization had spent five seasons doing its best to make sure that no one would care if the team stayed or left. Martinez has a framed t-shirt that reads “Keep Our Rams In Orange County” on his wall, but he remembers the rally as bleak. “There were like 500 people there,” he recalled. “People had just given up by that point.”
Other people, anyway. Martinez stayed with the Rams even after they blew town; the first time he ever felt snow on his face was when he traveled to St. Louis to watch the Rams play the Packers. He did that regularly, a man getting on an airplane in sunny Southern California on a Friday and stepping off hours later, completely of his own volition, in fucking St. Louis for a long weekend built around watching Mike Martz blink or Jeff Fisher fume or Marc Bulger overthrow his tight ends. There are signed letters of thanks and signed game jerseys from players and coaches throughout the shop, and framed photos of Martinez and his children with various Rams personages; he is in a photo with Charles White and a photo with Todd Gurley.
His small shop is filled with the Rams stuff that Martinez has accumulated over the lifetime he has spent inside that decision. If it is not quite cluttered—clutter implies haplessness and piling, and the tops of Martinez’s various frames align in a way that suggests they were hung by someone paying very close attention—it is also true that, wherever I sat or stood, I would find myself staring at a poster for Shane The Barbarian Conlan, or looking at a London Fletcher jersey draped over a mannequin, or considering a milk mustachioed Kurt Warner in a promotional poster for America’s dairy farmers. Martinez estimated that what’s in the store about 30 percent of his collection.
There are other photos on the wall, too, of Martinez with the various local and national media people that started coming to the shop to talk to him when, after 25 years, his Rams improbably came home. He says that he always expected it—“on a 3o-year road trip,” he likes to say—but also that the team’s return and rapid rise over the past two seasons was like a dream. Fandom works, when it works, right along the seam of that contradiction: the feeling for the team, whatever team, is both excruciatingly real and blessedly not, it could be turned off but also not really. The experience is subject to things you can’t change, various decisions and their results, hirings and firings and tipped balls and blown calls and the rest. But, depending on how bad you’ve got it, even what you theoretically can change—the decision to give up on a team that bails on your hometown being one obvious example—isn’t really changeable. You just choose to keep caring, and the fact of it settles like the weather, and then it’s just there wherever you are. That’s seldom as literal as it is on the walls of the Golden Ram, but it’s not much less concrete.
Whether any of this is smart or justifiable is immaterial. It’s like this with a lot of things that people start doing as kids and that eventually become component parts of the person you are. Martinez fell in love with a cool-looking football helmet when he was a child and then just never fell out of love. He’s 57 now, and his team is in the Super Bowl, and he seemed very happy and somehow both confident and nervous about it. He said that he expected his Rams to beat the Patriots, and not by a little, and while I believed that he meant it, I also sensed that it didn’t really matter. His decision was made for good years ago.
When the unpopular team that Martinez chose as his own was off going 7-9 halfway across the country, he would reserve a “Rams Room” at a local bar, where he would watch their games with a select group of friends and family. He was choosy about who was allowed to enter the Rams Room, Martinez told me, which surprised me given that he seemed otherwise to be an open and welcoming person. The issue was that some people didn’t get it, he explained. They brought the wrong type of energy or didn’t understand why everyone was there in the first place. “Some people would come in and say ‘oh,’ you know, ‘the Rams are going to lose,’” Martinez told me. “Well? Why would you bring that in here?”