As he bicycles from office to office during this time of war, David Stevens feels like a town crier.
"People see that I have the headphones on and ask, 'What's going on in the war?' " said Stevens, a PDQ Delivery courier who finds a voracious appetite for war news and a seemingly unlimited capacity to discuss it along his Washington route. "The talk is not, 'We should kick their butts,' but, 'The strategic advantages of delaying the ground war' or the 'Radar-jamming capabilities of the F-4 Wild Weasel.' "
On Stevens's delivery route, as in many places around the country, a new phenomenon has arisen since the war with Iraq began Jan. 16. People who once thought an emir was a furry animal now talk about the Al-Sabah dynasty. Scuds and Patriots are discussed like the Bills and the Giants. And lunchtime conversations revolve around the muscle of the Iraqi Republican Guard rather than what's up with Erica on "All My Children."
Suddenly, everyone's an expert. And people who didn't used to pay much attention to world news now have opinions on foreign policy, high-tech weaponry and the roots of the Palestinian homeland question.
People interviewed about the war -- on Metro trains, on the streets, and in cafeterias and offices -- said that the Persian Gulf War has broadened their understanding of the Middle East and expanded their vocabulary. Some said they suddenly have found themselves talking about the Geneva Convention as though they recently attended it.
Before this war, Lawanda Johnson, a receptionist for Planned Parenthood, didn't know that Iraq and Israel don't get along. She's also learned where Tel Aviv and Riyadh are, and about the precision of an F-15's bombing.
"Vietnam seemed to happen more quietly," said Johnson, of Temple Hills. "This war is everywhere, on every channel, in normal conversations. If you go to dinner parties, you get into some pretty heated discussions."
Douglas Paynter, a producer at National Geographic who reads two newspapers a day and watches the evening news, talked over his morning coffee yesterday of "smart bombs" and "neutralizing Iraq's nuclear capacity."
In 1988, National Geographic commissioned a Gallup survey that showed 75 percent of Americans were unable to locate the Persian Gulf on a map. Times have changed, said Paynter: "Nothing like a war to get people to know their geography."
Several Jewish leaders have said the gulf crisis has made many Americans more aware of Israel's vulnerable location, an insight, they say, that makes them more sympathetic to its plight.
At the same time, Arab leaders say the war has focused more attention on the long-festering Palestinian homeland question.
"The Jews are going to have to sit down at the table and talk about the Palestinian issue, or this war is going to go on a long, long time," said Floyd Fanning, a cosmetologist at Expressions beauty salon in the District. "The Palestinians want their piece of the desert, and until we address that problem, Saddam will dig in and try to wait and wear us out. He's counting on our lack of stick-to-itiveness."
Fanning, who listens to the radio at the salon and skips his favorite shows to watch the news at night, said that the conversation under the hair dryers these days is all about the "Stealths: They're gas-guzzlers, but boy do they work; and B-52s: great storage capacity."
As he spoke, his customer, a woman getting her gray roots dyed velvet black, nodded. "Saddam and Scuds is what everybody talks about now," she agreed.
"I can't remember people getting so much into the specifics" of war before, said Doris Dietrich, a folklorist who lives in the District. "You hear people talking about strategy and whether launchers are mobile or stationary. It's techno-euphoria."
Nancy Suzich, press secretary for Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), said the congressman's recent mail has been particularly well-informed. "Even the people who are against the war are stating the reasons and show they understand the other side," she said.
"Ordinary people are coming in and saying 'What should I read?' " said Carla Cohen, an owner of Politics and Prose bookstore, which is seeing unprecedented sales of books on the Middle East. "I can't remember anything like this."
Sebastian Cokley, a District home improvement contractor, said so many people are taking an exceptional interest in the war because so many people have a stake in it. Many have relatives and friends there, he said, "and ultimately, the taxpayers are going to pay for it."