It started with some trash talk and a broken swing set. In the summer of 2015, Tyrone Shoemake was in North Philadelphia, hanging out with his cousins. The one called Sultan was giving him a hard time, saying he'd grown weak since getting out of prison about a year before. Shoemake, who knew better, decided to prove Sultan wrong.
Across the street was a little park with some derelict playground equipment — "no swings, just the set," Shoemake recalls. He rolled his wheelchair up to a diagonal support pole, grabbed it, and scaled the set in a few quick motions. Dangling nearly 10 feet above the ground, he proceeded to do 14 pull-ups, the wheelchair hanging from his skinny waist. Then he did a 15th, for good measure. When he was finished, Shoemake descended the way he'd come, landing on the ground with a muffled clank.
Shoemake's cousin, Mel, captured the feat on his phone and posted it on Facebook. Eventually the clip found its way to the popular website, "I Love Being Black." Today it's been viewed nearly 10 million times.
It was clear right away that Shoemake's video was different from other videos circulating online of people in wheelchairs working out. It's the raw strength, but also how the footage shows him determining where the chair can go, instead of the other way around.
"This guy's in a wheelchair, and he got up all by himself and he got down all by himself," says Kumi Rauf, founder of the Oakland-based site. "If something bad happens to you, people mentally put you in a certain box. People think, 'You're never going to X, Y, and Z again.' And then when you shatter that, it's way more amazing."
Friend requests began to swamp Shoemake's personal Facebook page, to the point where he decided to make a public page where fans could congregate. He named it the Upper Body Boy, an alias he'd dreamed up while serving seven-and-a-half years in federal prison for possession and distribution of cocaine.
As Upper Body Boy gained followers, Shoemake gave them more videos and photos. In many he is seen sporting Upper Body Boy apparel — sweatshirts and T-shirts and caps bearing his self-designed logo, a figure in a wheelchair lifting a barbell. To watch them is to have your expectations smashed into ever tinier pieces. Here he is dancing — not bopping, not swaying, but genuinely shimmying — as he twirls a woman at a nighttime cookout. Here he is jumping into a pool and breast-stroking back and forth. Here he is dirt-biking through a park, smiling wide as his shirt billows in the wind.
The dirt-biking feels less wild if you've been in the passenger seat of Shoemake's beat-up Acura as he navigates Philadelphia traffic. He is an excellent, if distractible, driver. Where a non-disabled person would apply a foot to the gas, Shoemake uses his left hand to operate a lever system connected to the pedal. He assembled the device himself, from parts of discarded crutches and conduit pipe. With his right hand he steers, texts, and takes phone calls, often doing two of the three at once, always nonchalant. In the car, he is a maestro, directing his own symphony of movement — worrying a dreadlock, thumbing through a playlist, lifting an herbal cigarette to his lips.
Sometimes the Facebook messages lead to Shoemake visiting the people in wheelchairs who turn to him for advice. "My business is to get you out of the house, at least driving, going on a vacation," he said. "There's a lot of people in wheelchairs that really need my help."
More of them, in fact, than he bargained for.
'Rollers' and 'walkers'
Shoemake's fan base includes both what he calls "rollers" and "walkers" — people in wheelchairs and not. Many write comments or inbox him with messages of praise and encouragement. Some use the short medical codes that reveal volumes to the fellow spinal cord injury patients who know that a "T9," for instance, refers to an injury at the spine's ninth thoracic vertebrae, located in the mid torso.
"I'm a t8 paraplegic and was also shot my last year of high school. I know your struggle I live it daily," wrote Devin James, from North Hollywood, Calif.
"I appreciate you man you all the way in Philly and you made me realize it ain't over," wrote a Miami man who said he was shot last June.
"Love the message you are sharing. I've been a T2 paraplegic from a car wreck since February 20, 1988, tough reality to accept when you're 20 years old … A lot of folks just don't understand and never will. Keep up the good work," wrote a man from Graceville, Fla.
"I was shot on FB live nd now I'm in a wheelchair just seen some your stories nd there inspiring this wheelchair life is hard especially wen ur i'm not fit like I wanna be," wrote T.J. Williams, who was shot while recording on Facebook Live in Norfolk, Va.
There is no nationwide count of American civilian gunshot survivors with spinal cord injuries — one of many facets of gun violence lacking research — only estimates, which vary widely. The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, which houses the world's largest database on the subject, approximates there are between 243,000 and 347,000 people in the U.S. living with such injuries. Thirteen percent of them — or between 31,590 and 45,110 Americans — were injured as a result of violence, most frequently a gunshot. Overall, violent trauma, often from bullet wounds, is the country's third leading cause of spinal cord injuries, after motor vehicle accidents and falls. Among African Americans, it has been the leading cause over the past few decades.
Research suggests that gunshot survivors with spinal cord injuries are at elevated risk of developing chronic pain that can interfere with daily living. It's unclear exactly why, but Tobias Musser, a doctor who specializes in pain management at the Shepherd Spine and Pain Institute in Atlanta, speculates that the increased pain could be explained by two factors: the gunshot's "high-velocity ripping and shattering trauma to the bony spinal canal and cord," as well as the tiny fragments of bullet or bone it can sometimes leave behind. The result can be a Crayola box of hurt: shooting pains, insatiable itches, the sensation of bugs crawling on the skin.
Derek Maude, a 26-year-old from Lakeland, Fla., was shot two years ago during a drug buy gone wrong. The bullet shattered his T6 vertebrate, collapsed his lung, and broke five ribs. Because his parents are in the military, Maude says he had access to good healthcare. That included treatment at spinal cord rehabilitation hospitals in different states, such as the prestigious Shepherd Center.
The devastation that patients must cope with is often not just physical, but also psychological. Ruth Black, a social worker at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, likens recovery to waking up on a different planet.
"There are so many things that you have to learn about to keep your body healthy," says Black, who coordinates Magee's peer mentor program, which pairs newly injured patients with volunteers with similar injuries. "What does it mean that I have to empty my bladder with a catheter every four hours every day? What does it mean that my bowels don't work and I have a bowel program now that I have to make happen every other night?"
The medical challenges can bring shame and hopelessness.
"We know that mental anguish — if you have PTSD, if you're not coping well, if you're anxious — those things will amplify pain," says Musser, the Atlanta pain doctor.
Despite having access to extended rehabilitation services, Maude had a rough recovery. He developed blood clots. His stomach became inflamed, making him look "pregnant." Seeing himself in the mirror was unbearable. Being seen in public became out of the question. Maude took to drinking heavily. Weeks earlier he had been an agile young man accustomed to attention from girls. Now, his future seemed abridged, snapped off.
"I felt like I wasn't wanted, nobody would ever want to be with me, I'm going to be alone forever," he says.
Shannon Schneider, an occupational therapist at Shepherd Center, has worked with a lot of her patients who feel the same way when their injuries are fresh.
"You just think 'Life is over,' " she said.
Now consider people who suffer spinal cord injuries when they are already living on the margins. Staff at Magee note that many of the gunshot wound survivors they work with were facing challenges before their injuries, citing the importance of transportation, wheelchair-accessible housing, quality nutrition, health insurance, and a family support system in a strong recovery.
"It is an isolating lifestyle, especially if you don't have resources," says Black, the Philadelphia social worker. "If you're paralyzed and you live in a second-story apartment or something, and have no way to get in and get out, then social media is going to be your thing. That's going to be your lifeline."
Sonya Alexander of Philadelphia was struggling with that isolation two years ago when her sister suggested she call Shoemake. Alexander, a former nursing assistant, had been using a wheelchair because of neurosarcoidosis, a disorder that affects the central nervous system. After connecting over the phone, Shoemake and Alexander met at a park on the city's north side. He showed her how to drive a car using home-fashioned hand controls like the ones in his Acura. He now has a sideline in making and selling the devices, sometimes keeping spare parts in his trunk in case someone needs a repair.
The driving lesson from Shoemake freed Alexander, 43, to move about her city again. Before, she'd had to rely on her sister for rides to the ShopRite, and on a care attendant to do her laundry. Now, she says, she can't keep still.
"I can travel at night if I choose to," Alexander says. "I can go to the laundromat on my own. We'll go to the grocery store."
Recently, Alexander took her two sons on a road trip to Erie, Pa. It was a 12-hour drive, round trip.
Shoemake's wheelchair is not nearly as flashy as his online personality. Lightweight and collapsible, it has gray rubber tires and silver spokes. But when he's in it, the chair becomes an extension of himself. He'll often strap his waist with a seatbelt, sometimes binding his feet to the footrest — so wherever he goes, the chair goes too. He can jump a curb, turn a corner, and rotate in small spaces, darting and gliding between the city's walkers like a fish through water. "The chair is me now," he says. "The chair is my legs."
Spinal cord injuries can be broadly divided into two main categories: complete and incomplete. An "incomplete" injury means the spinal cord is not fully severed, and some sensation and motor function below the point of injury may be regained. Shoemake said his injury is "complete." He will never walk again.
Shoemake discovered he was paralyzed while he was in the hospital recovering from gunshot wounds two decades ago. A friend had just broken the news to him, but he needed to see for himself. He pulled himself out of bed, tried to stand up, fell right back down.
Shoemake was 17 at the time and several years into small-time drug-dealing and robberies. As with many gun violence victims, he was shot not over his illegal vocations, but a neighborhood dispute. There was a girl. "She said I got her pregnant, and I didn't," he says. During a dispute, the girl's brother pulled out a gun. Shoemake says he was struck by two bullets: One hit his arm. The other pierced his right side, exploded a kidney, punctured a lung, and ruined his legs.
A friend of Shoemake's remembers watching him traverse the stages of his recovery. "He was in denial about the legs and stuff not working," Lacy Ensley says. "Then it was sadness. Then it was, 'F— everybody! Then it really set in, like, 'I can't walk up the damn steps of my own ... house.'"
At times, Shoemake will slip out of character and let you know that everything is not fine. He will mention how being in a chair makes him more vulnerable to being robbed. Or how when it rains, he feels like a hand is gripping his spine. "People used to say, 'I know how you feel,' " he told me during one of our conversations. "I hate that. You don't know how I feel."
But those moments are few. In Shoemake's telling, for Upper Body Boy there is only forward momentum. His older sister, Quinetta Davis, said she sometimes wonders, "Do you ever feel down? Do you ever get where you just don't wanna do it no more? I never see that. I haven't seen it," she says. "It's like talking to steel."
During the first years of his recovery, Shoemake didn't want anything to do with other people in chairs. His focus was on regaining his independence. He learned how to transfer in and out of bed, insert a catheter, clothe and bathe himself. He was determined to make his graduation and prom, and says he attended both in his wheelchair.
Before the shooting, Shoemake had wanted to become a carpenter. That goal was dead. ("How am I going to come in and cut drywall?") He wound up back selling drugs. In 2006, he was indicted for dealing crack cocaine.
In prison, his disability took on a currency he had not really made use of before. He says he became the "go-to guy" for incoming inmates in wheelchairs, showing them where to watch television, when to get breakfast. As his new identity began to take shape, Shoemake decided to make it permanent. He had a fellow inmate tattoo his cheek with the Liberty Bell, its center stamped with a figure in a wheelchair. The guards were not pleased. "I lost my commissary, phone, visitation, and email for a whole year."
Now Shoemake is 38. He's been home for two years and is still under supervised release. "I just changed everything, everything — the way I think, the way I move, who I hang with, all of that," he says.
In parts of his city, Shoemake sees wasted potential and missed opportunities. He's critical of people selling drugs on the corner the way he used to, panhandlers asking for spare change, neighbors who don't recycle.
Acquaintances and relatives keep to their own neighborhoods, fiercely loyal to their section of Philadelphia. Around them, shootings rage on in the city whose murder rate per capita, 17.7 per 100,000 residents, was more than three times the national average last year. He's had friends shot and killed, friends shot and confined to a chair, like him. But as Upper Body Boy, Shoemake pushes on. "It's about growth," he says. "It's about building something."
What people see in Shoemake's life is movement. In neighborhoods where a car is a commodity, friends, often walkers, call him asking for rides. "I move around a lot," says Shoemake's friend, Hasen Rashid, who's been in a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident in 1999, and who now runs his own garage. "He do three times what I do."
"He's everyplace, honey," Shoemake's mother, Lennette Davis, says. "You may find him at the moon."
Advice for a gunshot victim
Early last year, still feeling depressed, Derek Maude, the gunshot survivor from Florida, was skimming Facebook when he stumbled upon Upper Body Boy's breakthrough video. He and Shoemake exchanged messages, then numbers. On the phone, Shoemake gave him some advice.
"He said, 'You need to stop worrying about what everyone else thinks. And please if you can do one thing for me, try to go out in public as much as you can,' " Maude says.
In a December phone interview, Maude said he had been trying to do just that. He'd been working out, trying to eat healthier and drink less. He still worries about his future — especially whether he'll be able to have children. But watching Shoemake move forward has assured Maude that it can be done, and that he is not alone.
Today, Upper Body Boy has more than 6,000 followers. Shoemake asked his sister Quinetta to help him run the page and keep up with the inquiries streaming in. She says that about 30 people a day reach out to him, seeking his personal advice or sharing their own stories.
It feels like a job, and like any job it gets in the way of personal life. There's an upcoming para-powerlifting competition Shoemake wants to train for; a basement remodel to finish; grown children to keep up with. The mounting attention also comes with increased scrutiny. His personal Facebook page has been placed in "federal Facebook prison," as he calls it, for reasons he wouldn't specify beyond, "'because I'm petty."
Originally, Shoemake conceived Upper Body Boy as a plural effort. "It's supposed to be the Upper Body Boyz," he says. He envisioned creating the Upper Body Beauties, for women, and chapters of both across the country: UBB Detroit, UBB Atlanta. "I want it to be about everybody that's in chairs."
It's just Shoemake who pushes up the hill, through the sliding doors of MossRehab rehabilitation center, and into the first-floor room of Rashaun Payne one December morning. The 20-year-old had been shot in the back by a police officer in November. Worried that Payne was depressed, his aunt called to ask Shoemake if he'd go see him. Shoemake said that family members will often contact him on a loved one's behalf.
Shoemake finds Payne lying in a hospital bed near the window, wearing gray sweatpants and a Velcro brace around his torso. On the opposite wall, a whiteboard showed a scale of pain from 1 to 10. The 8 is circled. Shoemake reaches to shake his hand. Payne meets the gesture with a wince. Both still have bullets — Payne's fragmented, Shoemake's whole — lodged in their backs.
Shoemake peppers Payne with questions. What's his injury level? What is he learning in therapy? Has he signed up for disability? What about wheelchair-accessible housing? Does he have a driver's license?
"Go down to Social Security," Shoemake instructs the younger man. "Get the ball rolling while you're here, so when you do leave, you are all set up." Payne nods, marveling at the stranger at the foot of his bed.
Two trim young doctors enter the room. They ask Payne about his nerve spasms, bowel movements, nausea, sleep. He is struggling with all of it. (At one point during Shoemake's visit, he vomits repeatedly into a plastic basin.) Shoemake sits in the corner, listening quietly. Once the doctors leave, he approaches Payne's bed again.
"I wanted to say something to them, because like, everything textbook," he says. "None of them been in this situation." He advises Payne to eat apple skins to help with going to the bathroom, and drink more water to prevent urinary tract infections, a common issue for people with spinal cord injuries.
Payne admits that his biggest fear is falling out of the wheelchair. "It's all about your upper body strength," Shoemake assures him. "You got the strength. You just not used to the strength yet. You got it."
Wheeling back down the hill to the parking lot, Shoemake reflects on the visit. He has been in a wheelchair for 20 years, as long as Payne's been alive. "He still in the first stages of being in a wheelchair, that's the hardest part," he says. "I boosted him up when I came in."
Before leaving, Shoemake had tossed a black T-shirt on Payne's hospital bed. Across the chest, gold letters spell out "Upper Body Boyz."
This article was orginally published by The Trace.