A few days ago I was caught up in driving that endless oval roadway around Dulles airport. You know the one. You’re waiting to pick someone up. If you don’t time it exactly right, then you have a “grace period” of about two minutes to idle near the Arrival doors until, sure enough, a security guard starts to approach you from a hundred feet away. He gives you the international sign for “move on, pal” with an abrupt arm-pumping gesture, suspiciously staring at you and the golden retriever in the back seat as though you could be Saddam’s two sons, if they weren’t already dead and buried.
So you begin to circle, driving as slowly as possible without coming to a dead stop, and with each new pass-around, a few new passengers straggle out to the pick-up zone just behind the hideously ugly cement barricades, even at 7 a.m. on a Friday. Each passenger has a cell phone glued to his ear, looking anxiously around, obviously wondering where his ride might be.
International airports may the best spot in the world to people-watch, and with each slow crawl around the airport, I began looking forward to what the next batch of weary passengers might look like – staggering into the sun’s early rays, zombie-like, perhaps after long overnight flights from Brussels and Buenos Aires, Madrid and perhaps Sydney, maybe even Kampala in darkest Africa.
One tall, young Asian woman was dressed all in red from head to toe, her ear clamped tightly to a red cell phone. She looked a bit frightened, despite her decor, and I imagined she flew in from Hong Kong or Singapore and this was her first visit to the “America.” My initial reaction was positive. I would have liked her had I known her, which I didn’t. By the next round-about drive around the airport, the lady in red was replaced by a content-looking woman with white hair, maybe 60, maybe 70, with a black knapsack propped up in front of her on the concrete barricade.
Her head moved back and forth methodically, looking for her ride, a patient, pleasant smile on her face as though she’d been through this ritual many times before. No doubt she had. Again, my immediate reaction was positive, a feeling that she would have been among the more pleasant companions to sit next to on a 14-hour flight to Rio, under other circumstances.
On my fourth pass around the oval, I pulled the car past the first set of doors and again let it idle, glancing back and forth for the peek-a-boo security guard. There were now only a couple of people waiting for their rides in the August haze – a man and woman just a few feet from my passenger-side window. Despite the humidity, the man wore a black business suit and typical white shirt, with a shiny belt buckle that seemed somehow out of place with the rest of his attire. Shielding my eyes through the early-morning glare and still dealing with far too little caffeine, I did a double-take and then recognized him, although not immediately.
The man was distracted, frowning, one hand shielding his eyes from the early sun as he searched for the ride that wasn’t there, as a harried woman standing next to him spoke urgently into her cell phone. It was just a snapshot of a few seconds, hardly a fair analysis, quickly scanning their body language and demeanor.
It was an uneasy reaction I had, watching them. Uneasy because it felt a bit odd to have a negative reaction towards him, all things considered. She I did not know from Adam, and likely never will. I had no reaction towards her one way or another. I had once done what she was doing now, urgently searching for a boss’s ride on an early weekday morning at an out-of-town airport. If anything, I felt sympathy for her. He, on the other hand, I couldn’t forget if I tried. I’m reminded of him every time I’ve picked up a newspaper since last Friday. His face is also on the covers of Time and Newsweek this week, his image inescapable for the moment.
Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, who currently leads all other Democratic contenders in several categories for his party’s nomination for President of the United States, did not strike me as anyone I’d go out of my way to meet, given a choice. (Or, as it turns out, did I.) He seemed arrogant to me, cocky, hands on his hips, unfriendly expression on his face, a bit too self-important and preoccupied – and all this from 30 seconds of people-watching through an open car window from 10 feet away at Dulles International! Perhaps just tired from a late-night flight, as we would be. Still, I don’t think I’d vote for him. Don’t ask me why.
First-impressions do have their impact on all of us, for better or for worse. But are they really accurate tell-tale signs of what people are really like? For this one guy in the dark suit, hurried and hassled, impatiently waiting for his ride on a muggy August morning, I would hope not. But I think before next summer’s conventions, the rest of the country will get the same impressions I got last Friday morning, only it won’t have to drive around Dulles all morning to get there.
John Merli has been a Prince William County resident since 1984, and a Potomac News columnist since 1985. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years. E-mail him at: [email protected]