The face commanded the television screen nearly all day -- the blue eyes, the trimmed gray hair, the earnest expression.

In Woodward & Lothrop's downtown store, customers stared at 50 new color sets blazing with the face of Lt. Col. Oliver North in shades of orangey pink to yellowish white. On the Vienna Metro, an investment vice president listened intently to his Sony Watchman, losing reception as the morning train sped underground. At the corner of 18th and Vernon streets NW, two homeless men snorted with laughter as they sat on a curb and watched a tiny battery-operated set.

During his first day of testimony in the Iran-contra hearings, the fired National Security Council aide sparred with congressional lawyers, tried to recall dates and times, and, at one point, reminded everyone that the Soviets were listening. It was the first chance for the viewers to judge for themselves the mystery man, the ultimate Marine, the central figure in the nation's biggest scandal since Watergate.

"He looks like a little puppy dog," said Sage Cater, a film editor who was watching the hearings over a BLT at the Childe Harold bar in Dupont Circle. "He doesn't have the bravado . . ."

All over the metropolitan area, people did without soap operas and other fare to watch the hearings. They settled in at restaurants and bars, paused at their dry cleaners or liquor stores, lingered in the office lounge. For most, it seemed, the details that emerged from the day were less significant than the chance to study North for a long moment and wonder: Is he a liar? Is he a hero? What are his secrets?

"He fascinates me," said Police Det. Pam Reed as she watched a suspended television screen over the old, oak bar at the Fraternal Order of Police at 512 Fifth St. NW. "I think he just may be a hero. But as you get older, you find that your heroes don't always live up to your expectations. He still has a lot of hard questions to answer."

The hearings forced Barry Segel, owner of Congressional Cleaners on Capitol Hill, to bring out the five-inch TV that hadn't seen duty since football season. Some of his customers ended up joining him for brief segments of the testimony.

"I'm the average person who knows very little about anything," he said. "I think North is making every attempt to let the American people know he is trying to tell the truth. But I'm not saying he is telling the truth."

Down the street at the Brass Dolphin liquor store, owner Ray Sauve was more favorably inclined. "I am impressed with the man," he said, after a morning vigil. "He seems to have things together. He is very dedicated and single minded."

Some viewers watched North and immediately felt they understood him. Others, like John Thrasher, an offduty waiter eating lunch at a 20th Street bar, were as confused as ever.

"I think he was doing his job and he's going to take the fall," Thrasher said, then paused and looked up at North's image on the television set in the dim room. "He's cool, though. Look at him. He's cool."

At the offices of The Diamondback, the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, College Park, 10 students huddled around the black-and-white set in a corner.

"I think, for us, it's our Watergate," said Managing Editor Janet Naylor, a senior. "We were too young to pay any attention then. And most of us were not born when they were holding the HUAC {House Committee on Un-American Activities} hearings. Cynical is the general term. It's easy for us to make jokes."

Not everyone, however, had the option of watching the six-hour proceedings live.

Roy Hedgepeth, a retired lieutenant colonel who now works for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said television was banned in his office, although he did manage to hear several radio reports.

"They won't allow it," he said. "So I will go home and watch the tape tonight."

There is an advantage to doing it his way, he said. "I can fast-forward past the junk."

Staff writers Dan Balz and Karl Payne and special correspondent Glenn Dickinson contributed to this report.