here are passive and active forms of all behavior. Prowling is no different. I’ve been a passive prowler of late, hiding behind deli counters, piles of dishes, anonymous country walks, and even behind the wheel of a large automobile (in the words of David Byrne).
Cowardice? Or just Mother Nature telling me to take it easy and re-familiarize myself with the family milieu before boarding the gypsy wagon once again.
Family road trips are perfect for passive prowling. You take a literal back seat and enjoy the ride, or try. My family’s recent trip north to visit my 91-year-old grandmother reminded me of the joys of family travel: the enforced bonding, the tight spaces, and the sudden presence, in one compressed place, of a band of characters that if not governed by family ties would never camp out in one vehicle for nine hours. Three words come to mind: Forced Family Fun.
Latter-day American pioneers don’t change their habits, duty-bound in their journey (to grandma or a theme park) and always convinced the latest trip is bound to be the one in which all involved decide to chirp, “We are Family” along Interstate highways.
Though much remains constant in my clan, the years have introduced a few variables. There are no more baby brothers uncomfortably wedged in car seats with goldfish crackers stuck to their arms, wailing; no more Walkman battery dilemmas; no more sibling squabbles, with Dad’s temper rising and Mom’s spirits crashing.
Presumably we’re older and wiser, as if eager to let the air conditioner cool us into a mild coma of denial and delirium as we sail northward at ramming speed. In years past, the AC would break down and produce a domino effect (anger + grief + agony). Someone would yell, then cry, after which the car would fall completely silent. I remember volunteering to sit in the “way, way back” of the station wagon seeking refuge from my three brothers. I also thought of holding up a sign that read, “Adopt me.”
The confusing joy of family vacations came flooding back as we plowed north. I recognized them as obligatory visits attempted as a loyal (and loving) unit notwithstanding the trepidation that surrounds them. I also saw them as harbingers of inner highs and lows that sometimes seemed to run parallel with the traffic. Arrival is a triumph, departure a draining defeat, all of which creates a strange longing for the next vacation.
What most struck me most — maybe because I hadn’t made such a trip in years — was how familiar roles remained unchanged. My Dad still drives a million miles an hour; my Mom still nervously sits by his side giving me glances that, translated into speech, might say: “How could he?” or “I hate him” or “do you want a tuna sandwich?” My brother, whose energetic youth has become more subdued, sleeps or quietly reads. When he talks, the car resounds with laughter. I sit, quietly watching the highway melt into a concrete haze of license plates and dotted yellow lines.
I now think these crazy road trips — these Forced Family Fantasies — probably cemented my early prowling streak, one that emerged from a desperate desire to remain anonymous, to hide, to run away, to be part of nothing. I wanted to start over, or at least take on a new role outside the family fantasy.
That’s not possible locked in a moving vehicle with a cast characters you usually see together only over dinner. Elbowroom vanishes. There’s no sneaking away.
Which means you might as well enjoy the view. Zooming up the New Jersey turnpike past the Molly Pitcher rest stop and countless tolls, it hit me that these trips are passive prowling in their purest form. I become an observer, seeing small changes as we cross state lines, hearing the difference in accents, staring at curious bumper stickers that read “Coexist” or “Wag More.” Passive prowling is when real prowling takes a literal and figurative back seat. You’re suddenly in the tall grass, immobile, as the world rushes by. You wonder when the car will stop or if maybe you sat on a chocolate chip cookie. And so much sitting ends up making your legs wobbly and your back stiff.
You listen to Mother Nature telling you to try to take it easy, to blend in, to appreciate life on the back seat, and, squirming, you do your best to listen.