ELM CITY — You could smell the burned house from a block away – even after a hard rain.
All day Friday, people rode past to look at it. Elderly women stopped with church music playing in the car. Young men in baseball hats stood and stared at the wreckage. They left roses and Jesus candles on what remained of the front steps.
The young man they eulogized was Naquane Farmer, 28, who didn’t make it out of the house when a propane heater caught fire in his room.
As a younger man, Farmer aspired to be a rapper. He liked to read and draw.
About two years ago, he broke his neck while break dancing, falling in the middle of a handspring.
For the rest of his short life, he rode in a motorized wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down. Until the fire took him Tuesday, he inspired his neighbors in this blink-and-miss-it town just north of Wilson. You’d see him sitting in his driveway, face turned into the sun, enjoying a pretty day.
“He was always positive, always upbeat,” said his neighbor, Russell. “Some days, he could make me feel a little bit guilty. It seemed like my little problems were bothering me more than his. If a person in a (wheel)chair is happier than you, you need to do some deep examination of your life.”
I rode out to Elm City on Friday to try to make sense of these circumstances, to understand how a combination of break dancing and portable heaters could snuff out a life.
It sounds almost comical to say out loud: paralyzed in a break dancing accident. But it happens. I found this in The New York Times in 1984, the same year “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” came out:
“ ‘In the worst injury reported, Efrain Arreola, 25 years old, broke his neck trying a difficult stunt with no training,’ said Nadine Filipiak, a spokesman for Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital in Chicago. ‘Mr. Arreola was left paralyzed after attempting a flip to a handstand, followed by a headspin.’ ”
In 2009, The American Journal of Sports Medicine interviewed 40 professional break dancers and 104 amateurs who listed 1,665 injuries including thighbone fractures, slipped discs and concussions. Its authors concluded that break dancing is a potentially high-risk dancing sport.
Down East Wilson Street, where Farmer lived, every neighbor described him as friendly and untroubled by his accident, though he could only move his head.
No one nearby had known him for more than a year or two, and they couldn’t say what Farmer had been like in earlier days. Clearly, though, just from glancing at his record, he’d had trouble as a younger man – even doing a short stint in prison for communicating threats.
I wish I’d found someone who knew him better. Both Farmer’s mother and grandmother were injured in the fire, and you don’t get much sense of people’s lives by knocking on their neighbor’s doors.
But Elm City is small enough to see every street inside of 10 minutes, from the rusty tin-roof houses to the 19th-century mansions. There’s a basketball hoop in the street by Farmer’s house and a white clapboard church with peeling paint called Everlasting Tabernacle – a building which leans slightly to the left. Farmer would have passed them every day in his chair.
It all looked familiar because over the years I’ve visited at least half a dozen houses where somebody died in a space-heater fire. The worst: two children in a mobile home outside Vass in Moore County.
I don’t know the circumstances at Farmer’s house, which was built in 1925. But often, these blazes break out in old houses where there’s no furnace or ductwork, and a space heater makes inexpensive heat.
In the end, I didn’t find any moral, lesson or glaring truth in Elm City.
I just stood in the rain at the charred doorway where a young man used to live, wished he’d had a better go at his short life and tipped my hat to eternity.