So I’m at D.C.’s Dulles Airport tonight, waiting for my late-night flight to St. Louis and looking for an airport bar to watch the first half of the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier. The bar near my gate is full and showing CNN, so I keep moving, down Dulles’ interminable Terminal B, an inexplicably long tunnel of white that may or may not explain the title of the new U2 album. The next bar is down at the other end of the terminal, about a 5k away. If I’m going to catch any of the game and make it back for my flight, I’ve got to hurry.
So I’m in full stride, pushing past the B gates when I notice a bald, Irish-looking fellow on the steps near one gate. He’s got a standard carry-on upright in front of him; he’s thumbing through something on his iPhone. And as I cruise past him at Olympic-qualifying speed, I start to recognize something in his face. Maybe it’s the jut in his chin, or maybe it’s the way the top of his forehead slopes forward with all the slickness of an Augusta National green. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, that’s so familiar.
About five steps later, I realize that I may have just walked past Ben Bailey.
For those who don’t flip anywhere north of MTV on their TV guides, Ben Bailey is the cab driver-cum-host of Discovery Channel’s “Cash Cab,” which is basically Trivial Pursuit on wheels. Contestants enter his New York City cab, ambushed by a disco’s worth of lights to discover that they’re on a mobile game show. They’re given a series of questions to answer during the ride to their destination. Miss three questions and Bailey tosses you out on the street. Keep answering right and you might end up with a few hundred dollars in winnings.
I come from a game show obsessed family. We were huge “Supermarket Sweeps” fans as kids. We were that family watching Regis each night on “Millionaire.” We’re the ones who plan our runs on the treadmill around “Price is Right” or “Wheel of Fortune.” “Cash Cab” is one of my most recent finds, and it’s quickly become one of my favorites. There’s just something about seeing New Yorkers struggling to remember what a quadratic equation is, all while fearing that they’ll be booted out in the rain 15 blocks too soon.
I watch the show casually, maybe once or twice a week in the early afternoon, but enough that I’m certain that the guy I’ve just passed at Dulles is Bailey. I stop and look back at him. He’s wearing a blue shirt with the word “STAFF” in huge, white block letters. It looks like the kind of shirt that you’d see TV tech guys wear.
I walk a bit farther up the terminal to a monitor with gate information. I scan for his gate number. A few columns over, I find it: a JetBlue flight direct to New York’s JFK International Airport. I’m no Clouseau, but I’m feeling confident so far that that guy really is Bailey.
Now, I should explain something here: for the last week or so, one of my closest relatives was in the hospital. On Monday night, she died. So I’ve spent much of the last week shuttling amongst Columbia, Mo., St. Louis and Washington, D.C. I’ve spent enough time in the air that I can probably recite line-for-line this month’s American Airlines in-flight magazine. (The profile of the gritty, resilient, never-say-die Paula Abdul is particularly nauseating.) I haven’t been sleeping much at all. So I’m slower than Don Adams to realize most obvious sign that Ben Bailey is sitting in Terminal B:
Three days ago, my parents – also huge “Cash Cab” fans – went to see Bailey’s stand-up set at the D.C. Improv. He was at the Improv all weekend.
I spin around. I know that Bailey’s coming to Columbia in about a month to do stand up. Suddenly, I’m struck by the urge to schedule an interview with him. So I come up with a plan. I’ll walk up to him and casually ask if he knows where I can find a bar to watch the game. And then, just before I walk away, I’ll do a little double take, play dumb and ask, “Hey, do I know you from a TV game show somewhere?”
It’s a flawless plan. I’m thrilled with my brilliance, even in the face of sleep deprivation. And then I turn around and realize that he’s on the phone with somebody else.
So I get take out my phone, call anyone who’ll pick up and explain that I’m basically stalking the “Cash Cab” guy, all while occasionally glancing back down the terminal to see if he’s done chatting. Soon, we’re essentially pacing in simultaneous loops around the concourse, Bailey just a hundred yards away from me, an unknowing partner in the evening’s cell phone walkabout pairs competition.
I keep circling, twenty minutes worth, waiting for Bailey to hang up. The gate agent for JetBlue starts to board the JFK flight. I make my move, down the hall, just idling while idly hoping that whoever Bailey’s on the phone with disconnects. I pass him, still waiting. I stall near the TVs showing CNN, only half watching whatever wall of monitors Wolf Blitzer’s standing in front of.
I stand and I wait, and wait. I wait as Bailey switches his phone from his right hand to his left, as he reaches for his carry on, as he wheels it toward the gate, as he hands the gate agent his ticket, as he boards the plane, phone still in hand.
I wait as Bailey disappears down the jetway, wondering how the $100 question I wanted to ask got away.