- Associated Press - Saturday, July 26, 2014

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - The smell of freshly brewed coffee and popcorn wafts into the first-floor hallway of the old brick building at Charles and Hackley streets.

The hallway is crowded on this late June morning. Seventeen men and two women form a line in front of the Harvest Soup Kitchen doors. Their clothes are outdated or ripped or stained as they stand with plastic bags in their hands, waiting for food to be dispensed at 9:30.

Social service advocates describe the average homeless person as male, middle-aged and suffering from a mental health or substance abuse problem. The men lined up outside the Soup Kitchen doors embody that description, and another middle-aged man, whose life is about surviving one self-induced setback after the next, soon joins them.

The crowd is relatively silent until Charles Peterson Jr. - known as “Peter Duke” since the early 1980s when he says a Delaware County jail cellmate nicknamed him that - walks in the building.

The 54-year-old Duke wears a white T-shirt from a fish-fry fundraiser along with camouflage shorts, a matching camouflage ball cap and off-brand black sneakers. A black goatee, graying on the bottom, hangs about 2 inches below his chin. He is muscular in his upper body, but his thin legs look ill-equipped to support his upper frame. There is a hitch to his gait as he slowly descends the stairs.

As he clears the last step, longtime friend Bruce Smith rushes over to greet him. Smith playfully throws a few punches toward Duke. The former prize fighter smiles at Smith and acts as if he is dodging the punches as the crowd laughs.

Duke then walks down the hallway into the Drop-In Center and returns with a cup of coffee in hand. He sits down at one of the small laminate-top tables pushed up against a drab yellow wall.

Sheryl Shields walks over, leans down and hugs Duke. The 48-year-old Shields wears a sleeveless yellow shirt and denim shorts, and her light-brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She sees Duke virtually every day at food pantries.

Duke flirts with Shields and says, “Why don’t you love me?”

Shields laughs and says, “You’re a handful. You’re ornery,” before returning to the food line.

There is a charming side to Duke. “He’s a sweetheart,” Shields tells The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1jTDTsa ) as he cackles and nods at just about everyone in the hallway.

The Soup Kitchen is one of the few safe havens for Duke and dozens of others there on this June morning. The final bell is yet to ring on Duke’s troubled life, but there is a sense he is living on borrowed time.

“He’s got to have nine lives,” says his father, Charles Peterson Sr. “The Lord’s leaving him for something. I don’t know what’s the reason.”

Duke says he is “punch-drunk.” He slurs his speech and walks gingerly, but he is still breathing after two gunshot wounds, half-a-dozen knife inflictions, hundreds of blows to his head and internal bleeding from a drunken accident in which he fell down a staircase while carrying a bicycle.

That only touches on his troubled life.

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