When I first met Duane Harris five years ago, he was an honors student by day and homeless at night. He slept in his 1995 Ford Thunderbird, a picture of his two young daughters taped to the steering wheel.
"It's like a La-Z-Boy," he said with a big smile, as he showed me how the driver's seat reclined.
These days, Harris is still sleeping in a vehicle. He's now a truck driver, and he spends most nights in his rig at highway rest stops.
"It's like a mansion compared to what I'm used to," he said earlier this week from Canton, Ga. "I've got a double-wide bunk bed, a microwave oven, a refrigerator."
Of all the people I've written about through the years, Harris is perhaps the most positive person I've ever met.
Or, as he put it in 2009, when he had a perfect 4.0 GPA at Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale as a 49-year-old computer programming student: "No matter how bad you think you have it, no matter how tough the economy is, there's no reason to ever give up."
"What happened to him?" Maggie Sherman, an English teacher at Plantation High, asked this month when I mentioned Harris during a talk to her journalism class.
I didn't know. I lost touch with Harris after 2010, when he graduated from Keiser, a for-profit private college, and was back living in his car.
Lo and behold, what turns up on my voice mail this week? A message from Duane Harris.
Harris, 54, said things have gotten better for him. He has a steady paycheck and a credit card. Every few months, he visits his daughters, who still live in Boca Raton with their mother and grandparents. Jada is 9, Ashley is 7. A few weeks ago, he took them on the Jungle Queen for a cruise around Fort Lauderdale.
Harris has been driving an 18-wheeler for the past year, making deliveries to Lowe's stores for a trucking company out of Eustis. "I go everywhere from northwest Wisconsin to southeast Florida," Harris said. He was in Georgia on Tuesday, Alabama on Wednesday. He said he could afford an apartment, but it would be a waste of money because of all the time on the road. So he lists Boca as his residence.
He went to Sebring a few years ago, when he couldn't find work as a computer programmer. "Nobody wanted to hire me at my age," said Harris. He got a job as a gas station clerk, and lived out of a storage unit for two years.
Harris befriended the trucking company owners, and got a grant that paid his $5,000 trucker school tuition. He said he likes the open road and the independence of driving. Even though he said he owes more than $30,000 in student loans for his Keiser education, he says that experience was worthwhile. It gave him discipline and a sense of accomplishment.
"After all I've been through, I've learned to see the bright side of things," Harris said. "My motto is, 'No excuses.' "
Still upbeat, he's ready for the long haul.
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