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INTERACTIVE – Clam Diggers and Mussel Suckers

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City Island: A Coastal Community in the Bronx

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Former Champ Looking for Boxing’s Future

John’s Gym buzzed with young fighters on Monday while New York public schools were closed for Passover. Two teenagers sparred in the smaller of two rings, taking swings at each other with misguided hooks. One punch finally caught the taller of the two.  He spiraled to the ground. Dazed, he got up and grabbed the ropes, staggering off to his trainer who fixed his headgear.

Edwin Viruet, 59, a retired professional boxer, trains fighters six days at week at John's Gym in the South Bronx

Edwin Viruet, 59, a retired professional boxer, trains fighters six days a week at John's Gym in the South Bronx. (Michael Ratliff/ The Bronx Ink)

Edwin Viruet, 59, sat in his “office,” a ringside table plastered with photos from his professional lightweight career. With glasses and permanent grin, he doesn’t look like much of a fighter. But every boxer that entered the gym offered Viruet a handshake. He critiqued the boxers and their trainers, and pointed out that the kid who was getting beat was wearing heavier gloves. The first thing Viruet does with a new fighter is make sure the gear is right. Then he moves into the basics. Jabs, footwork and defense.

“I love teaching,” Viruet said. “I get fun out of it. It is like watching them learn to walk.” For a retired fighter, one of the few ways to stay in the game is to train a promising member of the next generation.

Viruet learned to box at 10-years-old at the Boy’s Club in the Lower East Side. He went 18-0 as an amateur, and turned pro after winning the New York Golden Gloves for the second time in 1969. Viruet fell a few points short of becoming the World Lightweight Champion in 1977. He now trains amateur fighters six days a week at John’s Gym, though most of his money comes from managing and arranging fights.

Big things have been happening at the small gym. Joshua Clottey, a boxer from Ghana who trains in the Bronx, fought world welterweight champ Manny Pacquiao on March 13. He lost by unanimous decision, but was watched by millions in the pay-per-view fight. Stivens Bujaj, another John’s Gym regular, won the 2010 Daily News Golden Gloves heavyweight title. Neither fighter, however, trained with Viruet.

He contends that they would be even better if they had. Viruet’s favorite tool is the double-end bag, an inflated red ball that hangs from the ceiling from a thin rope and is attached to the ground with a rubber cord. Unlike a traditional punching bag, the double-end hits back.

“It teaches you to move your head,” said Viruet, working with a new boxer. The novice was stalwart, powerful and quick, but lacked coordination. Viruet saw his potential and quickly picked him up. His first fight is in a month, and Viruet said he would be ready.

“The way I prepare, you are going to have a hard time with my fighter,” he said.

Viruet is the most accomplished trainer at the gym. During his prime, Viruet was known for his footwork and classiness, and was even compared to a young Muhammad Ali. He is the only man to have gone 25 full rounds with Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Durant, one of the best fighters of all time. Their genuine rivalry was one of boxing’s best.

Viruet first met Durant in a 1975 fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. The crowd was shocked, as was Viruet, who thought he had won. The two met again at the 1977 World Lightweight Championship title fight. Durant retained the belt after 15 rounds. Viruet blamed promoter Don King for swaying the judges and in turn ruining his career. In spite of the loss, Viruet reveled in the experience, knowing he gave Durant the fight of his life.

“When you get to fight the biggest man, the champ of the world, it is like going to the moon for the first time,” Viruet said. “I played with him, he couldn’t knock me out.”

Not many boxers could. Viruet went 37 professional fights before being knocked out. He was only knocked out twice; they were his last two fights. Viruet retired in 1983 with 31 wins, six loses and two draws. He went on to train Wesley Snipes for a 1986 boxing role in ‘Streets of Gold’.

Viruet plans to continue training at John’s Gym for now. If he gets bored, Viruet might move back to Puerto Rico to spend time with his 90-year-old father and start up a gym. When he is not looking for a champion, Viruet tries to keep up with the ladies the best he can.

“I have fun, I look for girls,” Viruet said, letting out a gruff laugh. “I am a bachelor here! But, it’s not easy, you got to make sure you got the right one.”

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VIDEO – After Two Year Effort, Street Renamed for Fallen Soldier

Produced and reported by Michael Ratliff, Eno Alfred and Jennifer Brookland.

In Parkchester, a street is dedicated to a soldier killed in Iraq in 2007.

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A Mother Keeps the Memory of Her Soldier Son Alive

Reported and written by Jennifer Brookland, Eno Alfred and Michael Ratliff

The florist on the corner of Hillside Avenue knows that on Sunday mornings he will see Emily Toro. She will buy three dozen roses, for which she will not have to ask. She will place the roses in her car and drive to the Long Island National Cemetery, make her way to Section R Site 2827-O and, depending on the time of year, place either a blanket or a folding chair beside her son Isaac’s grave. And then she will start to talk to him.

They talk about the weather. Emily gives Isaac updates on Cheyenne and Chance, the two nieces who kiss his picture every night before they go to sleep. She tells him how his grandmother’s health is, and how she bought him a cake to celebrate his birthday. She begs him to visit her in her dreams so she can see him again. She tells him that two years of calls and letters have paid off, that she has finally convinced the city to name a street in his name. PV2 Isaac T. Cortes Street will be unveiled in Parkchester on Saturday, right next to the fountain he grew up looking at from his window.

She lays a dozen of the roses on his grave, and places a single rose on the grave of the other soldiers she visits. There are 27 of them, young men who were killed in the same war her son was, whose mothers come on other days. She leaves trinkets on their graves, too. A Yankees hat. A greeting card. A little red heart. She knows the graveyard workers will take it all away and throw it out. So before she leaves, she goes around the cemetery and collects it all again, squirreling it away until they’ve gone.

Emily Toro holds a sign commemorating her son, Isaac Cortes, who was killed in Iraq in November, 2007.

Emily Toro holds a sign commemorating her son, Isaac Cortes, who was killed in Iraq in November, 2007. Photo by Michael Ratliff

Emily will drive back to her apartment in Queens where she lives by herself, surrounded by the objects of her son’s service. She’s careful not to bang the door open into the tile mosaic on the wall that the Bronx borough president gave her to commemorate her son’s sacrifice. She steps past Isaac’s two black military issue trunks, full of his combat uniforms and undershirts. Sometimes when she needs to be close to him, Emily takes out his desert camouflage boonie hat and breathes in Isaac’s scent.

At the archway that leads into her living room, she lingers over the five-shelf bookcase full of the things she’s collected after her son’s death. His Bible and a pack of his Marlboro Reds sit next to a few bullet casings from an M-16 assault rife, the kind of weapon Isaac was so proud to show his dad and brother before he left. A G.I. Joe figurine stands valiantly in 10th Mountain Division regalia on the fourth shelf. He comes equipped with a rifle, a grenade launcher, a helmet and a pair of skis.

On the far wall of the living room hang the medals that Isaac earned in his 10 months of military service, including his bronze star and purple heart, the last two he was awarded. They hang behind glass next to the brass casings that were shot in a three-volley salute at his funeral.

Pulling her plush armchair up to the small makeshift desk she calls her office, Emily checks her Facebook page for updates, and navigates to the tribute page she has made in Isaac’s honor. She scrolls through the pictures she’s uploaded with a small smile, remembering. Isaac playing with Cheyenne and Chance, whom he called his little hippo because she was such a chubby baby. Isaac giving his mom a kiss on the cheek, her brown eyes brimming with tears, at his 2007 swearing-in ceremony. And one of her favorites, Isaac and Chris as kids, their foreheads pressed together, their hands on each other’s shoulders caught between an attack and an embrace, both of them grinning.

After almost two and a half years, Emily can look at pictures of her son without crying. But it’s hard to stay dry-eyed when she watches a slide show of Isaac that her friend helped put together. Maybe it’s the music he picked out, the fitting Jo Dee Messina song.

“I guess heaven was needing a hero. Somebody just like you. Brave enough to stand up for what you believe, and follow it through.”

Emily lowers her head and wipes her eyes, but she watches the slideshow to the end.

In a way, Emily knew she’d end up here.

A week before Isaac deployed with his infantry unit to Iraq Emily had a dream. She saw the humvee that Isaac was in explode. Then, two military officers were knocking at her door, holding a white sheet of paper. One began to read, “I’m sorry to inform you…”

She woke up crying and called Isaac even though it was four in the morning. She told him to be careful. He brushed the vision off, told her not to worry, and said nothing would happen to him.

Emily never thought her oldest son would end up in the military. He was a stubborn kid from the Bronx, and didn’t like to follow rules. When Isaac was about five years old, they went to Orchard Beach. Emily told Isaac and his younger brother Chris to stay under the blue and yellow sun hut so she could see them, but within five minutes Isaac had vanished. Emily panicked, and asked everyone around if they had seen a chunky little kid. Soon, she saw a policeman coming down to the beach with Isaac in tow, his fat belly hanging out over his green Speedo. Isaac had told the officer that his mother was lost and was waiting for them to find her under a blue and yellow hut.

Emily was used to dealing with his mischief. When she put hot water on the windowsills to kill the ants that invaded their Parkchester apartment, Isaac would sneakily scoop the bugs into a cup and hide them under a piece of linoleum in the floor so they’d be safe. He loved all the animals that found their way to the apartment- the parakeets, the turtles, the ferrets, the parrots, and the 18 or 19 baby hamsters he would put into toy cars and zoom around on the floor until a fat one got stuck, and required a makeshift jaws of life to extract it.

But he always knew how to cheer Emily up. It was something small, a wiggling of his fingers up by his chubby cheeks, a scrunching up of his face and a goofy phrase that no one could remember where it had come from. “Fiddling you say!” It made her smile every time, and even when he was grown, Emily would plead with him to say it for her. But he wouldn’t.

Isaac wasn’t a child anymore. More and more, he wanted to be a father. When he started dating Lamonica Williams he was only 18. But he knew he wanted to help raise her three month-old daughter, Amaria. Isaac became a dad to her. He watched her grow, took her to the aquarium and the zoo and even to get her hair done. Amaria called Emily “Nana” when she visited, and called Isaac “Daddy.” He cared for her as he held a series of odd jobs; working as a ride operator at Playland Amusement Park in Rye, and as a security guard at Yankee Stadium. But Isaac wanted a job that Amaria would grow up to respect, a job he could feel proud of. He wanted to be a New York City police officer. But without any college credits, he’d have to find another way onto the force.

Emily was upset when Isaac told her he was joining the military. She asked him why, why now? He said there was no better time. It was early 2007. Emily and Isaac both knew there was a good chance he’d get shipped out to Iraq as part of the surge of troops sent to combat sectarian violence.

“Just be proud of me, Mom,” Isaac said. She was.

She watched in admiration as Isaac dedicated himself to losing 80 pounds so the Army would take him. Isaac walked anywhere he had to go, even if it took him hours to get there. He went from a size 40 pants to a 32, and one day as Emily waited for him in front of a club, a handsome young man stepped in front of her. She couldn’t believe it when she realized it was her own son.

Emily was the last mother standing by the bus that would take Isaac to Fort Hamilton for basic training. He begged her to leave. She was embarrassing him in front of the other recruits. They took one last picture together, the one of Isaac kissing Emily on the cheek as tears filled her eyes, and Isaac whispered in her ear that he had signed up for the infantry. That’s when she knew in her heart that her “gentle giant” wasn’t just getting onto a bus. He was going to be sent to Iraq. It was the last picture they ever took together.

Emily wrote to Isaac every day while he was in training. She covered the post cards she mailed with cartoon character stickers even though she knew his drill sergeant forced him to do extra pushups every time he received one. They sent him on 12 and a half-mile marches with a heavy rucksack until he bled through his boots. After one march, the platoon medic Andy Brooks said the front half of Isaac’s foot was practically ripped off. Isaac and another soldier, Specialist Benjamin Garrison, tried to take a shortcut but were caught and forced to do the whole march again. Isaac wrote to Emily three times a day, homesick. He asked her to send him something from home, something that belonged to his “little hippo,” Chance. Emily sent him Chance’s bib. He kept it in a Ziploc bag in his combat pants pocket. When training got really hard and he needed a reminder of home and the people who loved him, he would take out the bib and breath it in.

At his graduation ceremony at Ft. Benning, Georgia, Emily saw a different man. He stood in formation, straight and stoic in his dress uniform, his eyes fixed ahead. At first he didn’t notice Emily standing five feet in front of his face. It wasn’t until she coughed that his concentration broke. Isaac glanced over and knew she was there. After the ceremony, he showed her the ribbons he earned in training, and proudly explained how to wear the rank and insignia. He was so worried about creasing his uniform that he wouldn’t sit down. Isaac told his mom he had changed his mind about becoming a cop. He said the military was his calling.

Isaac came home to say goodbye before he went to Iraq. He said goodbye to his father, to his brother Chris, his daughter Amaria and his friends. Emily waited and waited, but Isaac never showed. Finally, she got a call from her son saying he wasn’t coming to say goodbye. She was hurt and upset, and couldn’t understand why Isaac had done that to her. It was Chris who told her later that Isaac just couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to his mother. This time there would be no sticker-covered post cards and letters. Emily could not bring a pen to paper knowing her son was in a danger zone. She needed to hear his voice to know he was okay.

He called every weekend. Emily waited by the phone and wouldn’t leave the house until he had called. It didn’t matter what time it was. Emily asked Isaac what it was like over there, but he wouldn’t tell her. He didn’t want her to know what he was seeing.

“You showed me how to see with my heart,” he said, “not with my eyes.”

Their squadron was doing a lot of combat patrols. They brought military leaders to meetings with Iraqi officials and escorted the teams who destroyed weapons caches. They had been on three or four raids even though most of the guys had never deployed before. They were all nervous and scared but they didn’t talk about their feelings. Instead, they joked around and made fun of each other, talked about sex and the zombie apocalypse, harassed Isaac for drinking Corona beer and making “fifteen-point turns” in his armored humvee. Specialist Benjamin Garrison put mousetraps in their beds.

On Thanksgiving, Emily waited all day for the call she knew was coming, and when Isaac finally called around 8:00 p.m., he said he was going to tell her something and she could never ask him to do it again. It was something she’d longed to hear for years, something that always made her feel better.

“Fiddling you say!” Isaac said for her, one last time.

The next day, Isaac called back unexpectedly. He sounded tired. Emily knew there was something wrong when Isaac said over and over again that he loved her, and told her to take care of herself. He asked her to look after Cheyenne and Chance, to make sure his dad took his medication, to tell his daughter Amaria and his brother Chris that he loved them. Emily could hear the concern in her son’s voice. It sounded like a goodbye call.

In her heart, she knew it was.

Isaac’s troop hit improvised explosive devices often, but usually the blasts just spider webbed the glass and rattled their truck. On November 27th, Isaac was driving the third of four trucks in a convoy near Amerli, Iraq, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, when an IED exploded underneath them.

It was the first mission that medic Andy Brooks hadn’t gone out on. He was supposed to go on leave, and Private Robert Pinkham took over that day as the convoy medic. But before Andy left, he heard a report over the radio that one of their trucks had been destroyed.

“Two litter, two expected,” he heard.

Two wounded, two dead. Isaac and Benjamin had been killed instantly.

Finally, one of the soldiers who survived the attack made it back to camp. Another stunned sergeant ran up to Andy with blood on his pants. They hurried back to the platoon tent where everyone was in shock.

”Some guys were crying, some just staring off into space, everyone smoking cigarettes. Private Pinkham came up to me and said I’m sorry man, I couldn’t save them,” Andy said.

A few days later when she was at home, Emily heard the doorbell buzz. She opened the door and saw Chris coming up the stairs. A few steps bellow she saw the hunter green of an Army dress uniform. It was a military officer, just like in her dream, holding a white piece of paper. The casualty notification officer began to speak: “I regret to inform you…”

Emily barely remembers the day she buried her son. Isaac had told Chris before he left that if anything happened to him, he didn’t want their mom to see. But when everyone but the family had left and Emily opened the casket, it looked like Isaac was just sleeping. All she saw was a little bruise under his eye.

Back in her apartment, Emily waited for the phone call from Isaac that she knew would never come. She felt like he was giving her the silent treatment. Isaac knew she hated the silent treatment. She needed to hear his words one more time. And then she realized, she already had them. Isaac had sent her a card a few weeks ago that she hadn’t understood.

“Why are you sad?” it read. “You have me.”

Now Emily felt that Isaac had meant for her to read the card after his death. Another greeting card addressed to her came back with Isaac’s things, along with the care package she’d sent full of Yankees memorabilia and lemon pies. The pies had turned rotten and green. On the cover of the card was a rainbow arching up to the heavens over a rolling green mountainscape. It read, “I can C U already, I love you brighter than any color of the rainbow. – Ur soldier son. P.S. I am always here.”

Emily vowed she’d make it so. She started researching the explosion, trying to find out every detail about that day in Iraq. Isaac’s obituary appeared in a Puerto Rican newspaper and showed the mangled remains of a humvee, the driver’s side crushed and bent. She made call after call to the military, trying to find out if that was really the truck her son was driving when he was killed. Finally an answer. It wasn’t. She started contacting people he might have known in Iraq, anyone that could give her information. She spent 12 to 15 hours online a day. She emailed over 100 soldiers from his regiment. She made the tribute page on Facebook, and one on,, and another page that plays the song “Unforgettable” as the flag of New York and Puerto Rico ripple over Isaac’s serious face. Even with all the pictures of her son online, it took her a year to be able to hang anything of his on her walls.

Chris couldn’t bring himself to touch anything in Isaac’s Bronx bedroom. He won’t even clean it. Now everything in it looks grey, covered with two years of dust. He refused to throw anything out either, even a little button of Isaac’s that he keeps in a box. An old battered table that Isaac gave him became the centerpiece of a prized workbench in his new home in the Poconos. He decorated his basement ‘man cave’ with every piece of memorabilia he could find, from Isaac’s boots to military buttons.

Isaac had told Chris that he wanted to be cremated, his ashes spread at a campsite on the Delaware River they used to go to as kids. The first time Isaac went camping he was just six months old, a fat-cheeked baby in a stroller beaming up at his mom and dad. The campsite was right on the water, by rushing rapids, where the boys used to cut down wood and build fires, go swimming and roughhouse. They’d practically grown up there. But Emily couldn’t bear to have Isaac scattered to the wind, out of reach. She needed her son nearby, even if it was just a slab in the ground. She needed to be able to talk to him.

After the street has been renamed, and the friends and family have left, Emily will return to the florist on Hillside Avenue. She’ll buy three dozen roses, and she’ll drive to the cemetery to talk to Isaac. She’ll tell him about the ceremony, which of the guys from his squadron showed up in uniform, the buttons she handed out, the problems getting the city to provide a public address system. She’ll tell him about the donated pizza she served at the party she threw him afterward. And then she’ll start dreaming about the next thing she can do for him. She wants to do something else, something even bigger to make sure he’s remembered. She promises him she’ll come back next Sunday.

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