Left to right, Nate Smith, an instructor at Avara's International… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
Super Bowl Sunday arrives, and Nate Smith has an important message for his girlfriend, Darlene Griffin. It goes like this: "Don't be wearin' my slippers."
That's a warning Nate uttered the other day, after cutting my hair in the West Baltimore shop where he styles and teaches the tonsorial arts. He seemed to be asking me to convey the message for him, though I'm sure he's delivered it directly by now:
"Don't be wearin' my slippers, Darlene."
Those are Nate's 'Niners slippers, see, a gift from a customer. Nate is a native Baltimorean and San Francisco 49ers fan — more on that incongruity in a moment — and he's got a thing about wearing the red slippers on game day.
Darlene is a Ravens fan, as a Baltimorean should be. But she briefly wore Nate's 'Niners slippers — "They feel real good," she says — during the Ravens' exciting run through the NFL playoffs.
That's got to stop.
"We've been on a good path the last few weeks," Nate said of his relationship with Darlene. "But now it's gonna get serious. … Don't be wearin' my slippers.' "
Nate plans to wear red on his feet today, along with his 49ers wristwatch, also a gift from a customer, and one of his 49ers jerseys.
"Nate, what's your connection to San Francisco? Rice-A-Roni?"
That friendly trash talk comes from Keenan Powell, one of the student stylists in Avara's Academy of Hair Design, at West Pratt and Stricker streets. They're all Ravens fans here — Powell and Nate's other students, William Bond and Brian Green.
Darrell Gross is a bit suspect: He drinks from a Dallas Cowboys cup.
But there's no question that Ravens loyalty dominates among the cutters and customers in the chairs at Avara's.
It's only Nate who has this thing for the 49ers.
And why is that, given the Ravens' appeal and success?
The answer takes us back to a time that a lot of people around here would like to forget — when Baltimore didn't have an NFL team.
After the Colts left town for Indianapolis in 1984, there were all those years when this crazy-for-football town went a little stir crazy. Post-coltspartum depression was probably the formal diagnosis for the most serious cases.
People who liked the NFL started looking elsewhere.
Baltimoreans of a certain age — born after 1984 and before the Browns moved here from Cleveland and became the Ravens — grew up without a hometown team. During that time, many became attached to an out-of-town franchise.
Nate liked the 49ers because that was the Joe Montana era in San Francisco, and the 49ers won four Super Bowls in the 1980s, a fifth in 1994. Montana was the quarterback through most of that time. "He was the greatest quarterback under pressure," Nate says.
The 49ers had a lot of great players: Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig. "And don't forget my man Charles Haley," Nate quickly adds, referring to the only NFL player to win five Super Bowl rings.
"Would you call the 49ers a dynasty?" Nate says from behind his chair. "I would."
The successful teams of the Montana-Rice era — and the one that followed with Steve Young at quarterback — had appeal well beyond San Francisco.
Ravens running back Ray Rice, born in 1987, grew up just a few miles from New York City. But he said this week that he was a 49ers fan as a kid.
We assume Ray is a Ravens fan now.
But Nate's first choice is still the one that wears red and gold.
"It's loyalty," he says. "The 49ers are my team."
"Everyone can't be perfect," ribs Natalyn Edwards, a customer and Ravens fan.
"I just believe you stay with your team," Nate says. "You got to be consistent — consistent in your team, and consistent in cutting hair."
I tell him I appreciate that view, especially the hair part.
Darlene, his girlfriend, accepts that Nate was a 49ers fan before they met, and there's not much she can do about it.
"It's not like he's a Steelers fan," she says. "I would never date anyone who's a Steelers fan."
When it became clear that the 49ers and Ravens would be Super Bowl opponents, Darlene and Nate held hands at Zen West, the bar and restaurant on York Road, and agreed: "May the best team win."
There will be no hard feelings, she says.
And Darlene won't be wearing Nate's red slippers.
She bought a pair of her own, and they're purple.