Dogged Pursuits | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Dogged Pursuits

A homeless Vermonter pens an autobiography to fund a Buddhist temple in Asia


  • Matthew Thorsen

Doug Rose has logged more than a quarter-million miles on America’s highways, yet he’s never driven a car. The Brooklyn native has worked countless jobs in more than a dozen states, but he hasn’t had a permanent address since 1972. Rose has raised tens of thousands of dollars on behalf of orphaned children in Mexico, homeless people in Massachusetts and famine victims in Africa over the last 30 years. Yet the 56-year-old Vermonter has never had a bank account or credit card and, right now, probably has less than $500 to his name. Rose often tells people he meets that he’s attended eight different colleges and universities in his life, “but I got most of my real education in other people’s cars.”

If self-contradictions were legal tender, Rose would probably be one of the wealthiest men alive — until he gave all his money to charity, which he’d likely do. For sure, Rose describes himself as “the luckiest homeless man in the world. I’ve got a lot of people who are glad to see me, and a lot of homeless people, nobody ever wants to see.”

Rose certainly has a knack for being seen — and heard. In the early 1980s, he spent two years living in a cardboard box on the streets of Northampton, Mass., to raise public awareness about the plight of America’s homeless. Out of that experience, he launched a nonprofit called Legion of Volunteer Enterprises — or LOVE — which had as its honorary director then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Rose never took a dime for that work.

Over the years, Rose has devoted himself to other philanthropic causes, almost always as an unpaid volunteer and while sleeping on other people’s couches or floors. Rose spent several years as a juvenile counselor for at-risk youth, while also fundraising and community organizing for Greenpeace and the New England-based Citizens Action Network.

In October 1985, Rose was praised on the floor of Congress by Sen. John Kerry for his work in organizing “Massachusetts for Africa Month,” a statewide campaign that raised thousands of dollars for international famine relief. Impressive, especially for a former drug dealer who ran away from home at 15, dropped more than 500 hits of LSD before he was 30, did time in jail and mental hospitals, and survived bruising bouts with alcoholism and heroin addiction.

It’d be easy to write off Rose’s life story as the tall tales of a street stoner were it not for the ample paper trail left in his wake. That trail includes a copy of Kerry’s speech about Rose, published in the October 24, 1985, issue of the Congressional Record. It’s one of several personal artifacts Rose included in his first book, Fearless Puppy on American Road, which came out late last year. The self-published autobiography, which Rose describes as “pretty much a true story,” covers the 35 years he spent hitchhiking across the United States and the unusual, dangerous and inspiring characters he encountered along the way.

Rose is currently staying with his girlfriend in Brattleboro while promoting Fearless Puppy in his typically unconventional way — by thumbing rides around Vermont and asking local storeowners to stock a few copies.

Rose is a bear of a guy whose pronounced eyebrows, intense blue eyes and mischievous smile give him a slight resemblance to Vincent Price — that is, if the late horror actor wore hippie garb and had a long, graying ponytail. The day we meet, Rose is wearing black corduroy overalls, a black hoodie and a frayed red bracelet that looks like it was fashioned out of an old shoelace.

Though Rose has the self-confidence of a seasoned politician or a door-to-door salesman, it’d be a mistake to write him off as egotistical or deceptive. “Honestly, I don’t want anyone to care about me. I’m nothing. I’m a dog who rolls in his own crap,” he says, without a hint of false modesty. “I hate fame. Fame without fortune sucks! I would just as soon have nobody know who I am and just get the money to the right place.”

For Rose, the right place would be a Buddhist monastery in Asia. He now goes by the first name “Ten” — short for Tenzin Karma Trinley, which he translates as “The Activity of the Buddha Teaching.” He claims an 82-year-old monk bestowed that moniker upon him in 2002, when Rose spent six months recovering from alcoholism and a failed marriage at a small Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand. Rose spoke only a few words of Thai, and the Buddhist monks and nuns knew virtually no English. But the experience radically altered his life. As he puts it, “You cannot be so dense as to be surrounded by seven or eight monks for six months and not have it influence you.”

Rose isn’t actually a Buddhist himself, and he doubts he could ever cut it as a monk. “I’m just not temple material,” he confesses with a sheepish grin. “I like to smoke weed and get laid too much.”

In fact, whenever Rose explains his newest altruistic effort, it’s like listening to George Carlin channel Baba Ram Dass. “The idea of this project is to increase the number of ‘wisdom professionals’ on the planet, because we’re all a bunch of dumb motherfuckers,” he says. “Nothing personal against you — some of my best friends are humans. But I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”

In a chapter entitled, “The Distance Between Bullshit and Me,” Rose writes: “Most folks are great — but chances are you’re going to meet, at the very least, a dozen or so during your lifetime who will make you wonder if God had a sharp stick up his ass during creation.” In another, he asks, “Why do dickheads who support bombing villages full of innocent goat-herding/rice-growing civilians — many of whom couldn’t find America on a map and wouldn’t give a shit to do so if they could — think that they have the moral authority to tell me to not smoke a joint? Kiss my ass.”

Fearless Puppy is equal parts diary, road novel and confessional that exudes Jack Kerouac’s restless optimism, Deepak Chopra’s spiritual insights and Hunter S. Thompson’s bottomless appetite for chemically induced mind alteration. But while the book offers an unpolished account of Rose’s extended excursions to the dark side — including close encounters with neo-Nazis, angelic hookers, Hells Angels, highway evangelists and smack dealers — the author insists it’s not meant as an apology for decades of self-destructive behavior.

If anything, Fearless Puppy is a cautionary tale that begins with his troubled upbringing in an uptight, working-class, ’50s household a stone’s throw from Coney Island. Rose’s father was an electrical inspector for the City of New York, his mother a schoolteacher with a penchant for popping prescription pills. “She’d hold it all together real well in the classroom,” Rose recalls. “Then she’d come home and beat the shit out of us and stomp on us with high-heeled shoes.”

As a teenager, Rose dealt drugs on the streets of Brooklyn, peddling many of the same pills his mother was taking. No surprise that he never gave much thought to what the future held. “I was just a pissed-off kid,” he says, “because I knew everything my parents ever taught me was a lie.”

Rose hopes that Fearless Puppy will be the first in a trilogy he calls Dog Soldier. It should be noted that he had no prior experience or training as a writer, and in some places in the book, it shows. But part of the pleasure of reading Fearless Puppy is imagining Rose working on it, often in public libraries or college computer labs he snuck into around the country. The manuscript was edited pro bono by a Native American woman in Norfork, Ark., whom Rose has never met; she agreed to work on the book via email and helped him through 30 different edits over two years.

Rose borrowed $7000 from his childhood friend, Bryan “Patty” Ayers, to publish Fearless Puppy. Thus far, Rose has recouped about $3000 toward paying him back. Ayers, 58, who now lives and works on Staten Island as an information technology consultant, says he loaned Rose the money because he’s been pushing him for years to write down those stories.

Asked how his childhood friend manages to get so much done for others yet does so little for himself, Ayers responds with a sigh, “He’s been like that his whole life. I’ve tried to read him the riot act about that: ‘It’s OK to gain from this yourself and make a buck and get yourself a decent place.’ But Doug is always putting himself second.”

Rose gets people to support his idealistic and occasionally wacky ideas through sheer determination, Ayers says. “People who rally around him know that if Doug says he’s going to do something, you can bank on it. It’s amazing how he can make do with nothing and make nothing last.”

If there’s a central theme to Rose’s book, it’s his fearlessness and undying faith in the power of believing in oneself. “Fear is the biggest detriment to humanity,” he says. “Trace back greed, avarice, insecurity, any negativity. They all have their roots in fear.”

And yet, interwoven in all his idealism is a healthy dose of skepticism. “I really don’t have any delusion about making a dent in the mentality of American society,” Rose admits. “If somebody gets some helpful information out of this book, that’s a good thing. And so far, a few people have.”