Coss Marte, 29, is going to get his hair cut by the man who helped him run a drug empire. He’s walking south on Forsyth Street, on the edge of New York’s Lower East Side, on the eastern side of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where he used to play soccer and baseball. A few inches of fresh snow cover the sidewalk and street, and the flakes are still falling, but not fast enough for Manhattan. The snow on the street stays muddied by a million boots.
Coss stamps off his shoes before walking inside, joining a half-dozen or so other men, most of them black or Hispanic like Coss, Dominican. He blends in, smaller than most of them. He goes to the far chair, third from the door, pulls off his knit cap and his gray coat and his scarf, lays them across another chair nearby, and, while waiting for his barber, grabs a broom and a dustpan and sweeps up yesterday’s hair.
“Man, what are you doing?” says the barber, Pilo, a slender guy with some facial scruff and short hair, walking in from a back room, wearing a big smile. They’ve known each other forever. “Put that down.”
Coss laughs and shrugs and keeps sweeping, cleaning up the mess. “Just felt like helping out.”
Coss introduces Pilo to the reporter who’s been following him around all weekend — the only white guy in the whole shop. “He wants to know about before.”
“Back then, our lives were like ‘Grand Theft Auto.’
Except without killing people.”—Pilo
“He’s got a wire!” Pilo says, spotting a digital recorder. He throws up his hands. “I don’t know anything!” He flashes a big, eager smile, like he wants everyone else to smile, too.
Pilo clicks on an electric trimmer and cuts Coss’s hair, and they talk about what their lives were like before — as in, before they both got out of prison just over two years ago.
For a long time, there was only one thing people knew when they heard the name Coss Marte: By age 19 he was making $2 million a year as a drug kingpin, selling weed and ecstasy and cocaine and crack on the Lower East Side, right around the corner. “Man, back then,” Pilo says, “our lives were like ‘Grand Theft Auto.’Except without killing people.”
That’s a perfect way to put it. Their lives were like a video game, and they lived like characters in one.
“But that’s not what he’s known for now,” Pilo says.
No, now, Coss Marte is building a fitness company that he hopes will take over New York City, and then, sooner than later, the world. Coss Athletics, beloved for the bodyweight-only workout its CEO designed in prison has already made Marte one of the fitness world’s fastest rising stars. Coss Athletics is already attracting wealthy and even famous investors, and Coss has high-profile entertainment agents pitching him.
He doesn’t even look like a former video game character. Five-foot-eight, around 165 pounds, clean-shaven, short-cropped hair starting to recede a bit, Coss looks like an average 29-year-old, only in amazing shape. He doesn’t even have the swagger, chest all puffed out, like many fitness trainers. He walks with a little hunch to his shoulders, just another guy trying to make his way through the city. He has a good time when there’s a good time to be had, and he smiles and laughs easily enough, but rarely big. He doesn’t seem depressed, exactly, just heavy, like he’s always carrying something.
“Got a new studio,” Coss tells Pilo. “Just signed the lease yesterday. Start there March 1.”
It’s on the border of Manhattan’s Chinatown and Lower East Side, at the corner of Delancey and Forsyth, in a new building, almost shiny compared to the rest of the block.
“For how long?” Pilo asks, like a man who used to be a boy who once thought everything would last forever, buzzing Coss’s hair short around the ears.
“I don’t know,” Coss says, shrugging and grinning a little. The landlords at the place love him. “For as long as I want. For, like, ever.”
Pilo’s smile goes from a performer’s beam to a slack-jawed, in-awe grin, someone so proud of his friend. “No way, man,” he says, almost like he’s going to cry, for joy and for hope. “That’s amazing. And they know about you?”
Coss shrugs again, then up-nods at the reporter and says, “Sometimes I don’t like telling people my story, because they discriminate.”
What Coss is really known for now, at least to Pilo and others who know him best, is for what they talk about next: how, over the past two years, he has made himself human again.
“Sometimes I don’t like telling people my story, because they discriminate.”—Coss Marte
Photo: Brian Ferry
Part 1: The Prisoner August 2012 Lakeview Shock Incarceration Facility, Brocton, N.Y.
In the visitors’ area on a Sunday morning, wearing his military-green jumpsuit, standing up, saying goodbye to Cathaniel, aka Lil’ C, his 4-year-old son, Coss thought, This is without a doubt the worst part of prison.
The hardest part, he says, was tolerating the guards. If he, if any prisoner, moved wrong, crack! followed by two choices: fight the guards, or fight his survival instinct. If he retaliated, or if he even looked like he thought about retaliating, they’d sound the alarm, and other guards would come, and they would beat him too. And then he’d go to the hole, where hearts and minds and dreams all die.
The Shock program was brutal, too, a six-month long military-style boot camp, run by ex-Marines. “Fucking dudes are crazy,” Coss says. Open to inmates with no record of violence and three years or fewer left on their sentence, it’s hell by design, to hammer discipline into the inmates’ heads, and provide the full military experience — beds made just so, clothes worn just so, everything done just so, even conversation, all in that rhythmic hoo-ah cadence. Up at 5 a.m. every day, eight minutes to dress, seven days a week. Often they were woken for surprise runs in the middle of the night, in winter and the snow, in nothing but boxers and bare feet. But the inmates who make it get to go home early, so Coss suffered Shock and the guards.
They were nothing compared to leaving Lil’ C.
The boy was only 18 months old when Coss went into prison. He had to watch Lil’ C grow up across from him, at this table, whenever his mom would bring him. He wanted to take him to Yankees games, the way good fathers do. He wanted to tuck him into bed at night and tell him stories that made him feel safe enough to go to sleep.
Sometimes, when it was time to go, Lil’ C just cried. Those times were easiest.
Sometimes, Lil’ C climbed on the table and stretched out his arms and screamed, Daddy Daddy! and his mother had to hold him.
Other times, especially when Lil’ C was bigger and stronger, he ran after Coss, and the guards had to stop him.
But the worst times were when the guards couldn’t stop him. Like that one Sunday morning. As he went through the door and down the hall and back into prison, Coss watched Lil’ C fight the guards, Let my Daddy go! hitting them with his little fists. Coss wanted to shove the guards off and run to his son and hug him — but that would just mean a guaranteed beating and then trip to the Hole, which meant getting kicked out of Shock, which meant no going home.
Coss called out, “It’s OK! Just a few more weeks, buddy! Just a few more weeks, then I’ll be free!”
The next day, Coss went to the medical unit of the medium security prison for a dental exam, where an officer handed him a pee cup. Surprise drug test. A dirty trick, but Coss knew he was clean. He hadn’t smuggled in weed since transferring from the Greene Correctional Facility to Lakeview for Shock.
But it was taking him a minute, and the officer snapped, “Don’t waste my fucking time.”
Then Coss was on the ground, his glasses flying across the floor, his head ringing, the back of his head stinging, already starting to swell. He turned around and saw the officer shaking his hand like he just hit something.
“You turning around on me?” the officer barked. “You gonna do something?”
“No, no!” Coss said, lowering his head, spreading his hands. “I don’t want any problems, please.”
The officer flipped a switch on his radio. The prison alarm went off. Then there were more officers in the bathroom, all of them beating Coss. And then they sent him to the Hole — solitary. The officer wrote Coss up for “refusing a drug test” and “fighting an officer.” A Tier 3 ticket. The worst level. Prisoners have done full years in the Hole for Tier 3s.
All he had in the Hole was paper and a pen and a Bible. Coss wrote a 10-page letter for his family, telling them what happened, telling them he wouldn’t be home, telling Lil’ C he loved him and he missed him — but then he had no way to send the letter home because he didn’t have a stamp.
Thomas Ino/Getty Images
Five days later, he received a letter from his older sister. She wrote about Psalm 91. Please go read it, she wrote. Read it, and pray.
Coss tossed the letter aside, ignoring it. His sister, like most of his family, was a devout Roman Catholic, but God felt like a hoax to Coss. He had his own Scripture, spoken by Biggie in his song “Things Done Changed”: “If I wasn’t in the rap game / I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game / Because the streets is a short stop / Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”
That was his religion, and he had been one of its greatest acolytes and reaped its rewards, ruling the Lower East Side, everyone calling him Coss the Boss, or, sometimes, Coss the Motherfucking Boss.
A few days later, he was so bored he opened the Bible, anyway.
At Psalm 91, a stamp fell out from between the pages.
He went cold inside, his skin flooding with goosebumps. And then he read.
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you …
Next thing he knew, he was somewhere in the Psalm 100s.
He took a nap. When he woke up, when he stood, he saw himself on the ground, lying on his side, still asleep. He felt like something was pulling him out of his body, taking him out of this world.
He saw Lil’ C running for him, hitting the guards who stopped him, Let my Daddy go!
He jerked awake, back in his body, sweating, heart pounding.
A few days later, he’d read all of Psalms and Proverbs and half the New Testament. He read I Timothy 6:10. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
Then he remembered things he learned in psychology classes: A cluster of cells in the center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, gets dosed with the neurotransmitter dopamine when we do something fun, like have sex or eat a doughnut. This is what makes you feel so good.
Drugs, particularly crack and cocaine, trigger the same response, only with insane intensity, flooding the nucleus accumbens, making you feel good faster and for far longer than normal. That is getting high.
But if someone gets high all the time, he or she wears out the nerve cells until the brain has to shut things down, damming its dopamine flow, and not just from drugs but from everything. Thus nothing makes addicts feel good except their drugs.
Making things even worse, addicts usually use so much that they end up killing some receptors through overuse. Then they need more and more of their drug to breach the brain’s dopamine dams, until they finally need so much that their body can’t handle it.
For the first time, Coss looked at the truth of what he’d been doing. Living life like a video game character meant he had treated everyone else like video game characters, too, manipulating them to meet his goals. Here, give me your money, you may have your drugs, then you may feel free, until you don’t again. Then I’ll be here waiting.
“I really understood the body effects I was causing to other people,” Coss says. “That I was damaging other people’s well-being. Just for the dollar.”
And now, with nothing but time and his heart and the truth, he realized something else: He was an addict, too. “Money was the drug that I was chasing,” he says.
He wanted to run to his wife, his parents, his brother and his sisters, his neighborhood, tell them, I’m sorry, tell everyone, I repent.
Photo: Brian Ferry
Part 2: The Millionaire
Coss grew up in a tiny apartment in a ragged building on Rivington Street. His parents saved for years to move there from the Dominican Republic, and his mom arrived already six months pregnant with him. She worked in a factory, Coss often sitting at her feet. His father followed and ran a grocery store for a while, then drove a cab, and his older sisters came a few years later.
By all accounts, Coss was a good kid. Innocent. He made good grades in school and he was a kind and respectful young boy. His transformation began around age 8, when he noticed that every other kid in his building, all his cousins and friends, had an Atari or a Nintendo, and they had clothes that weren’t old and secondhand, like his.
He wanted what they had and went door-to-door with a big black garbage bag at the end of every weekend, collecting empty beer cans and liquor bottles and taking them to the recycling center, to make a few bucks. He liked working for what he wanted.
when he sold cocaine for the first time, he didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t even have a scale.
Coss smoked weed for the first time at age 11, on the roof of his building with a cousin. He liked how weed made him feel, sure, and same for acid and ecstasy when he tried those later — but he really liked how much people would pay him for the stuff.
He was the first kid in his class to smoke weed, and when classmates started asking for some, Coss realized they’d buy whatever he could get. He saved up $100 when he was 13, bought an ounce from his cousin, and next thing he knew, he’d made the easiest $200 of his life.
A few months later, when he sold cocaine for the first time, he didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t even have a scale. He bought an eight ball, got some little plastic baggies, and divvied out the coke until the bags looked right. He made $300.
Within a year, he was making $100 a day. He’d get caught sometimes, but he was a smart kid, and he knew how to hide his stashes, so he never got into real trouble.
Plus, he was an honor student — ”I love education,” he says — and one of his school’s best soccer and baseball players. Coss loved running fast, making crazy plays, diving for balls in center field and at second base, even when he played on gravel in Roosevelt Park. He saw his name in papers, saw himself playing in Yankee Stadium, with that perfect grass and dirt under his feet, and making plays to the “SportsCenter” soundtrack, da-na-na, da-na-na! “That was a dream I’d have,” he says.
His sophomore year, a nice boarding school, St. Andrews in Rhode Island, gave Coss a scholarship. He wanted to see what that sort of life was like. He wanted to make a lot of money, and he figured that going to school with rich people might teach him something — maybe he would find some sort of secret.
Instead, he learned that rich white people were some of the hungriest addicts he’d ever seen, same as the crackheads back home, all trying to escape something. The only real difference was that these kids had more money, so they could buy better masks and spend more on drugs. Coss was back in business, making more money than ever.
“I thought selling drugs was not a bad thing,” he says. “I thought it was just a way of living. And people do this as a job.”
He was kicked out after a year when someone in charge found ecstasy and weed in his room. He was given the choice to either fight the charges or go to rehab for 30 days.
In rehab, the only thing that changed was that he became a better drug dealer, because his rehab roommate taught him how to cook cocaine into crack.
Paul Howell/Liaison/Getty Images
Coss quit playing soccer and baseball. “I knew, I’m good, but I don’t think I can be elite.” Maybe, if he put in the time and worked hard enough — but looking at the numbers, he doubted he’d ever make in sports what he was making right now, on the street. “So,” he says, “I just gave up that dream.” And Roosevelt Park was an even better spot for dealing than it had been for games.
His parents and sisters begged him to stop. You don’t need to sell drugs, you can make a good living, and you can live a good life, the right way. So he gave the right way one last try. He did love to learn, so he finished high school and went to SUNY-Albany. But once he got to college, all anybody seemed to care about was partying, and so a party he provided, whatever you wanted, for X amount of dollars. He got kicked out after just a semester.
He decided the right way was ridiculous, as were his sisters and everyone like them. “I thought their whole view of life was stupid,” he says. He already knew how to make a living, and how to live like a king. He was beholden to no man, his destiny in his hands alone, and so he seized it.
He wasn’t an outlaw, not in his mind. He wasn’t living a life of crime, he was just living life. He was just meeting a need, same as a million businessmen before him. The drugs, the crackheads, the hustling, the hiding from cops — it was all just part of doing business. He grew up watching people take drugs like they were aspirin. He’d lived across from a half-burned-down high-rise that had become a massive crack house. Even as a little kid, he passed crackheads on the street all the time. They weren’t crackheads to him. They were just people. They were his neighbors.
Soon he was making $3,000 a day just hanging around Roosevelt and standing on the corner of Eldridge and Broome, under Chinese-Hispanic Grocery Store.
Then a cocaine source he’d known for years told Coss he was “retiring,” and asked him if he wanted to take over his business.
That’s when life became a video game.
“He dealt like nobody around here ever had before,” Pilo says. “He did things most of us only heard of from movies.”
Coss worked like a maniac. He partnered with other dealers. He jerry-rigged his whole building — he modified mailboxes and stairwells so they’d pop open and slide out of the wall, to hide stashes. Police raids never turned up anything. He used a trash chute like a drive-thru window — someone on the ground floor would call up to the roof when a customer placed an order, then someone on the roof would drop down a bucket, reel up the cash, then deliver the product. One ounce of weed, that’ll be $200. Would you like crack with that?
“He dealt like nobody around here ever had before. He did things most of us only heard of from movies.”—Pilo
He became a delivery service, and hired teams of dispatchers. He first bought them bicycles, then upgraded to rental cars — but always rental cars, to keep the cops guessing. He printed up 10,000 business cards. He called his “business” Happy Endings, a nod to a bar where they all hung out. We Deliver 24/7. All customers always satisfied.
The neighborhood’s other dealers were scared to sell to white people, believing whites might be undercover cops, but Coss remembered the white kids at St. Andrews. He soon cornered the white people market and took their money, too.
Pilo says, “You know those ‘50s newsboys, standing on the street corner, ‘Extra-extra! Read all about it!’ That was us, man, except, ‘Extra-extra! We got blow!’”
Coss put his guys in suits, because they looked good, and more importantly, cops never stop-and-frisk guys wearing suits.
Eventually, he was selling a kilo’s worth of cocaine every two weeks, making $2 million a year at age 19.
With that kind of money, they all played as hard as they worked, partying every day, in every way. Coss drove a 1993 Fleetwood Cadillac with 22-inch gold rims. They once went to Central Park and hired a carriage driver, for $250 an hour, to drive them all over New York, all the way back to the Lower East Side, where horse-drawn-carriages weren’t supposed to go. They gave the driver weed. They even found the only McDonald’s drive-thru in Manhattan and ordered the horse an apple pie.
He organized a fight club, took bets, circled off the fighters in the middle of the street. Spectators flocked by the dozens, even dressed up for the occasion. The cops showed up, but when Pilo apologized to them, they said, “We just wanted to watch.”
Coss never slept, “because you might miss something,” he says. He’d take 20-minute powernaps, usually sitting on a milk crate in a stairwell. He once told Pilo, “When you’ve been awake four days straight, that’s when you start hearing shit.”
He had more money than he knew what to do with, so he did whatever he and his friends could think of, a video game character leveled all the way up. He bought Jordans, clothes, cars, all the best name brand everything. He ran red lights, parked on sidewalks. He hired hookers for himself and his friends, and kicked them out of the back of the car when they were done. He sometimes spent $30,000 a day without flinching. He went to Puerto Rico and to the Dominican, and he took everyone with him.
“People loved Coss,” Pilo says. “Still do. But I mean, back then, it was crazy.” Pilo compares him to Kanye and Jay-Z. “Kanye’s not really people-friendly, but he’s driven, he’s talented, he’s successful. So is Jay-Z, but Jay-Z is more people-friendly. He’ll deal with his business, but people also like him. That’s Coss. He was like our Jay-Z.”
Coss called his customers “my crackheads,” the way a bartender might call his loyal customers “my regulars.” During one of his milk crate powernaps, Coss dropped a bag of crack. One of his crackheads picked it up and woke him up to make sure he didn’t lose it.
And maybe the craziest thing? Coss didn’t use; he never did coke or crack himself. He once put a dab on the tongue, didn’t like it, and then never wanted any more.
He was delivering to a crackhouse one day when cops came in behind him. His crackheads braced the doors with their bodies, and when the cops beat them back and broke through, the crackheads rallied and tackled them, fighting the cops for Coss, taking Tasers and beatings so he wouldn’t have to.
But the cops won, and they found dozens of bags of cocaine and crack in the lining of Coss’s jacket, and Coss got seven years.
It didn’t matter.
Coss coordinated with Pilo and another partner to run the business from prison. He served four years, entered the Shock program for the first time, and worked his way out.
When Coss went home, Pilo and their friends showered Coss with cash in the middle of Eldridge Street, raining $10,000 worth of $100 bills all around him, then they handed him keys to a brand-new Lincoln Navigator.
Coss almost became human again when Lil’ C was born a short time later. He was 22. The mom was a girl he’d dated on and off for awhile, “Vicky.” He didn’t want kids yet, but then he saw the boy come into the world naked and screaming and scared, and he loved him.
But that only slowed him down for a few months. Then he had his knees a key deep again, back to slinging crack, with no idea that a partner was leading the Feds right to them.
The guy was just greedy and careless, using a burner phone Coss had given him to steal Coss’s clients. He didn’t know the Feds had it tapped, or that he had unwittingly hired their undercover agents.
The Feds busted Coss in a sting on March 31, 2009, indictment in hand, district attorney on standby. They charged him as a drug kingpin, for organized crime and everything else they could. In its annual report, the NYPD named Coss’s arrest one of their most notable cases of the year.
Coss got 12 years, later reduced to seven when New York drug laws changed. While fighting the case, Coss asked Vicky to marry him, so he’d know she’d be there for him when he got out. Also: “Because when you get married, in prison, you get trailer visits,” Coss says. “So I wanted that. Twelve years without any pussy? Fucking went four years without pussy before. Couldn’t do that.”
They had the wedding at Riker’s Island. She wore a simple white dress. He wore a gray jumpsuit.
When they transferred him from Rikers to Greene, Coss had an entrance exam. The doctor told him he was going to die in five years.
It was hard to believe he’d once been an accomplished athlete. He’d gained a ton of weight when Vicky got pregnant, and he never did anything to get rid of it. On top of that, living life like a video game character also meant absurd levels of stress, always deals to be made, shoulders to look over, sleep to be missed. Coss weighed 230 pounds, his blood pressure and cholesterol somewhere in the stratosphere, like life had taken all his sins and packed them into his gut.
The doctor said to start walking every day. All his life, he’d moved fast, and Coss handled this the same. He didn’t walk, he ran in the yard the next day. He lived off canned tuna. He worked out in his cell, doing what he could remember from Shock, jumping jacks, pushups, pull-ups, dips. Then, needing more, he combined Shock’s workouts with anything else he could come up with using his body weight to invent new, even more difficult workouts. He came up with moves like T-Bones, hands on the ground holding himself up while extending his legs, spreading them, bringing them back together, tucking them in, doing it again. Toe Touches, hands and feet on the ground, like he was going to do a crabwalk, then alternating touching opposing hands and toes. Back And Forths, starting same as Touch Touches, extending his legs, bringing them back in, moving into the pushup position, then resetting and doing it all again. Up And Downs, starting the same way, standing up, going back down, extending the legs, repeat. Smurf Jacks, squatting like a catcher and doing jumping jacks in said squat. Gravity Push-Ups, Seated Up And Downs, Hello Dollies, Hello May Wests, dozens and dozens of whatever made him sweat. The whole idea was to trick his body into doing more work than it thought it was. “You don’t actually do a thousand crunches or pushups or squats or whatever,” Coss says, “but you feel like you did.”
He lost 70 pounds in six months.
Every time he left Lil’ C, he thought, I am messing up someone’s life, a little flash of feeling human again.
But just a flash.He still lived life like a video game. He had friends sneak in weed, and he ran a hooch business, stealing what he needed from around the prison and making the stuff in his cell.
No, all that flash did was make him determined to be more careful when he went home. Until he went in the Hole and discovered the truth.
Coss spent 30 days in the Hole with nothing to do but think and work out. Then the warden gave him a second chance at Shock, but he had to start all over, from day one.
Coss talked with all the guys about what he’d do when he got out. While in the Hole, he wrote out all of his exercises and sketched out which ones to do what days, how many reps, how fast, as detailed as could be. When he got back on the outside, he said, he would take all that and turn it into a big, fat successful fitness business. “I still wanted to be wealthy,” he says. “Only the legal way. And I wanted to help people, sort of pay the world back for what I’d done.”
“You’re fucking crazy,” his fellow inmates told him. “This is never going to work.”
They knew the cold dark truths of the outside. The world’s not the same for felons as for everyone else, especially felons who aren’t white. It’s a world they can only hope to survive.
“Just watch me,” Coss said. “I started with an ounce of weed for a hundred bucks, and built a multimillion-dollar organization. I know how to bust my ass. I know how to make shit happen.”
On March 21, 2013, he finished Shock and went home.
His parole officer recognized him from being his parole officer before. “Oh, come on,” she said. “How the fuck are you on parole again? I trusted you before. You fuck up this time? I’m gonna fuck you over.”
“I know,” he said. “I really fucked up. But …” And he told her what happened to him in prison, about his change of heart, about his new vision. “I promise,” he said. “I’m totally changed.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve heard all that before.”
“OK,” Coss said, smiling. “That’s fine. Just watch me.”
“Just watch me.”
Photo: Brian Ferry
Part 3: The Entrepreneur
The problem with getting out of prison is you come out with nothing. All his money was gone. What Coss hadn’t burned through himself, the cops found or others spent.
Coss had to live with his mom because Vicky’s place in the Bronx was subsidized housing, which parolees are not allowed. He also had to buy new clothes, secondhand, like when he was a kid. He had lost so much weight that all the clothes from his kingpin days no longer fit. His old drug partners barely even recognized him.
As part of parole, Coss had to work with Fortune Society, a nonprofit that showed him how to apply for jobs. They connected him with Career Gear, a nonprofit that gave him free tailored suits for completing career workshops. That led to a Brooklyn Goodwill internship that became a full-time job, helping others write résumés, the least Coss the Boss job ever.
Pilo got out of prison two months later. As soon as he did, they both went to Roosevelt Park together, right back where they’d always been, but not to sell drugs — although they could have. Coss had plenty of old connections, and plenty of people were asking him for this or that, wads of hundred-dollar bills in hand.
But no. They wanted to live the right way now. They were at the park to work out, to be more human.
Photo: Stan Wiechers
It was warm and they went to the part of the park that was gravel, where Coss used to tear himself up making slide-tackles and diving for baseballs. They wore T-shirts and basketball shorts and running shoes, like what Coss wore when he used to play, when he used to dream about Yankee Stadium and achievement.
They did jumping jacks first. Then pushups. Then they did everything in Coss’s workout plan, all of it to a military count, one-two-three-one, one-two-three-two. When they needed a pull-up bar, Pilo found a rusty metal pole and they slid it through the links in the corner fences. They went to the nearby playground, with its bright blue and red and yellow railings and bars and slides, and used railing corners to do dips.
They went hard. They didn’t look like two bros just working out. They looked like soldiers. They drew crowds — even in New York, where sometimes simply walking down the street can seem like performance art, they stood out.
They started talking to people, Pilo flashing his smile and cracking his jokes. Coss said everyone should join in, said he’d train them.
And they did. He started training a group in the park every day. And for a long time, the money addict did all this for free.
Through Career Gear, Coss connected with Defy Ventures, another nonprofit with the goal of ”turning illegal entrepreneurs into legal entrepreneurs.” Its founder, Catherine Hoke, has said, “If you weren’t any good at selling crack on the street corner, we probably don’t want you.”
Coss was their kind of guy. He applied, and he had to sell himself, tell them his business ideas, tell them his story, and tell everyone the worst things he had ever done.
They accepted him in May. Like Shock, Defy’s program, teaching the ins and outs of legal business, lasted six months. At the end, Coss created and incorporated Coss Athletics. He entered a Defy competition wherein the entrepreneurs pitched their businesses to grant givers and could win up to $10,000 — and Coss won.
He used that to design a website, make some Coss Athletics swag, and get his business in order. Then he hit the streets, handing out flyers, telling them he’d lost 70 pounds in six months working out in a prison cell, telling them he could help them get out of their own prisons. Extra-extra! We got fitness!
In mid-2014, he got his own apartment, right on Eldridge, just a couple blocks from Roosevelt Park, maybe three blocks from his mom’s place.
After a million phone calls, he found studio space to rent. He walked there every morning, a mile from his apartment, sometimes at 5 a.m., to lead a session or two before work, then he’d shower, put on his work clothes, and take the subway to Brooklyn. He’d put in his 9-to-5, then return to the studio for as many as four sessions a night. Rinse, repeat. On weekends, he’d hold as many sessions he could.
He’d go see Lil’ C on Sundays, taking the train to the Bronx, and it was beautiful, even after things between Coss and Vicky deteriorated and they split up.
In June 2014, Career Gear called Coss and said the Yankees had invited him to Yankee Stadium — and Lil’ C could go, too.
The Yankees chose Career Gear that year for what they call HOPE Week, an event in which, according to the ball club, “the Yankees shine a spotlight on a different individual, family or organization worthy of recognition and support. Each day is designed so honorees can share their inspirational stories with Yankees players, fans and the media, while being surprised with the day of their dreams.”
Coss and Lil’ C went into the locker rooms and the dugouts, and they met Derek Jeter and all the Yankees, and they walked on the Yankee Stadium grass. “Like, pinch me,” Coss says.
That June, he also met Jenn Shaw, who would help him in countless ways. It started with a Tinder date. He liked that she was a redhead and she liked that he claimed to be an entrepreneur with an inspiring story. They became one of the world’s most unlikely couples. She’s the founder and president of Bella Minds, a company that empowers women by teaching them new technology, helping them learn the skills they need to remain relevant in the workplace. She is also the stepdaughter of a police chief, and she’s from the small town of Alliance, Neb.
The felon won the police chief’s daughter’s love. Now they live together in Coss’s place. Jenn helped Coss with his business plans, website, branding, everything. “He’s built for speed,” she says. “He just goes, goes, goes. I’m built more for, let’s think through things.”
Coss added speaking engagements onto of his already insane schedule, speaking wherever people would take him, putting himself out there however he could.
Coss spoke at a Career Gear event, telling his story to a room full of more than 200 people and several business executives. One of them invited Coss to give a TedX talk in October 2014.
On stage, under the spotlight, Coss told his story again, and he asked the audience, “What if you were only known for the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
Someone from the Young President’s Organization heard that talk and invited Coss to their upcoming Shark Tank-style competition, wherein entrepreneurs competed for a $100,000 investment from Shark Tank’s own Barbara Corcoran.
Weeks later, Coss was in the final round. He pitched Coss Athletics to an audience of 50 people and a panel of judges, including Corcoran herself. The other two entrepreneurs had already made lots of money, and one even had a whole team from MIT. Both received more than 60 percent of the audience vote.
Coss received only 49 percent.
“Oh come on!” he remembers Corcoran saying from the judges’ table. “Someone change their vote! Someone tell him yes!” She saved at Coss and shook her head and said, “Don’t worry, you’ve got my vote.”
The judges went outside to deliberate. Coss hung his head, ashamed and feeling unworthy to be there, sensing this signaled his true future, where people never believe in him now because of who he used to be.
The judges returned. Corcoran stepped up to announce the winner. She saw something the others overlooked. She saw who Coss used to be, yes, but also what he hoped to become. And so she called Coss’s name.
Photo: Brian Ferry
Part 4: The Boss
Right now, Coss is still waiting for the investment to come through. Such things take time, but it’s due any day. In the meantime, he keeps fielding other offers and pitching other potential investors, jetting to California one week, Utah the next, netting another $50,000 worth of promises along the way. But as with Corcoran, he will have to wait a little longer, so for now it’s been back to the 9-to-5.
One day at the Brooklyn Goodwill, a coworker brought someone to his desk and said he and Coss should talk. The man, named Sultan, was 6’4 with dreadlocks and the body of a comic book superhero.
“OK,” Coss said as Sultan sat down. “What’s your story?”
Sultan was nervous. He was just out of prison after serving 14 years, a boy of the streets who never knew any other life and went away at 18 for armed robbery, assault, kidnapping, spending half that time in and out of solitary. He knew what people said about life for felons on the outside.
After seeing Sultan’s heart, Coss saw that Sultan too hoped to become something better than what he was before. He hired him as a trainer.
Same for Ray, another felon, with short hair and an intense, refreshing earnestness. Ray grew up in a well-off home but chose the streets, believing he had something to prove. He made $250,000 selling drugs before he caught felony charges for breaking and entering. That scared him straight, and in the meantime, he started working out again after an old man beat him at one-on-one basketball, and he lost 60 pounds. At the gym, he met someone from Defy, and during the Defy program, he met Coss.
“I’m not out here trying to change people, but if people are trying to change their lives, then I do want to help with that.”—Coss Marte
Coss pays Ray and Sultan $50 an hour, more than they’d make at most gyms, and they say he gives them much more than just a paycheck. “Coming out with a felony, you just feel helpless,” Ray says. “But now? It’s like, Oh, there’s actually people out there that can still care about us. It makes me feel valued — it makes me feel like a real person again. People have no idea what something like the means. The way we were, that’s not the way to live. It wasn’t right. We just thought it was. We were dumb, man. Just dumb kids. But dumb kids grow up sometimes. Most people just don’t get that, but Coss does. He gives us that chance.”
“The thing is, we want honest work now,” Sultan says. “But we have a prison record. And plus, we’re colored. So you have to be self-sufficient. Coming from the world we come from, you don’t have many people you can trust.”
Asked about such things, Coss shrugs and says, “I’m not out here trying to change people, but if people are trying to change their lives, then I do want to help with that.”
It’s a Saturday morning in late March, a few weeks after his haircut with Pilo. Coss is in the new studio, on a second-floor corner, with blue mats on the floor and COSS ATHLETICS signs on the wall, giant windows overlooking Roosevelt Park, a sprawling space.
This was where Coss Athletics was going to boom. The building is just three blocks from his apartment, it gave him his own studio, his own elevator, his own outdoor terrace. He and his clients were already in love.
Wearing thin gray sweats and a white COSS ATHLETICS tee, Coss talks quietly, heavily, with some of the dozen students, most of them white and wearing nice workout clothes, the 20-something girls wearing their hair and makeup just right, and their outfits mixed and matched into perfect neon ensembles, ready for this cool new workout they’ve been hearing about. “Seems like something fun and different,” says one chatty brunette, more makeup than face, her hair in a high ponytail, wearing black yoga pants and a bright-pink tank top matching pink sneakers. “Prison-style boot camp! Sounds almost dangerous. I wonder how he came up with it!”
He asks them how they’re doing — Good, tired, nervous — and how they heard about the class — ClassPass, NPR, some flyer. He seems heavy, as always.
He goes to the front, orders everyone — a dozen students total for this 10 a.m. session — into two lines of six across. “I’m Coss Marte,” he says, “and this is a prison-style boot camp I developed in my 9-by-6 prison cell and that I used to drop 70 pounds in six months.”
Flashes of anxiety flicker across some of the girls’ faces. Coss laughs and waves. “Not for anything dangerous. Just sold a lot of drugs is all. You all ready?”
Nervous nods, anxious smiles.
“All right, so listen up,” he says, standing up straight, his voice suddenly sharp and loud and crisp and echoing. “A hundred jumping jacks — and we do this on the military count system, so you count, one-two-three-one. Let’s go. One!”
Then mountain climbers, then crunches, then Hello Dollies and T-Bones, then more, then “The Card Game,” where how much you’re going to hurt falls on luck as you and a partner draw cards to determine what your next workout is and then more and more, then more and more, relentless.
Coss is a beast throughout, doing everything with everyone, like he did the session before and like he’ll do the session after, precise and graceful and strong and indefatigable, like a world-class athlete. This Coss is not Heavy Coss. This Coss is bouncing around the room, electric,barking out orders. And he’s not like some hyper-intense, trying-too-hard ex-con. He makes you laugh as he calls you out for slacking, he high-fives everyone, he smiles real smiles. He’s more like your friendly neighborhood drill sergeant, pushing you through a workout that makes you feel like you’re dying but in a good way, like you’re seeing parts of you you’re just now realizing you never really needed and cutting them away.
Photos: Brian Ferry
If only he could stay.
This was where things were supposed to take off, where his story is supposed to have its uplifting ending, but in mid-March, not three weeks into his lease, the landlord who loved him at first told Coss he had to leave. It’s complicated. Basically, another tenant in the building with more money and a longer lease considered Coss a competitor. Coss had only a monthly lease, and when the other tenant complained to the landlord about that and about working near a felon, and the property owner told Coss he had to be gone when his lease expired at the end of April. Coss Athletics would be back out on the streets.
“Fucking sucks,” he tells the barbershop reporter later over the phone, his already heavy voice further weighed down by anger and hurt. Once again, he had been judged by the worst things he has ever done, and not by what he has become. That’s half the reason it took Coss so long to find such a nice studio. Landing this spot felt like a miracle. No matter who you know you are now, and who you know you want to become, when you’re a former felon, most people never hear “former” in the first place, and they are afraid.
He wishes he had been smarter, or signed a longer lease, or something. But he also understands. “Just gotta deal with it,” he says. He’s dealt with worse. He’s been worse.
Coss isn’t sure what he’ll do come the end of April. He really had planned to stay at the studio forever. Losing it — it’s the sort of thing that would have made Old Coss say the right way isn’t really worth it, made him stop straining against all the fear, stop trying to become someone better, someone that so many people will forever deny he can be.
But not this Coss, not anymore. “No,” he says. “I’ll figure something out. Might have to go back to the park for a little while. But I won’t stop. I can’t stop.”
Brandon Sneed is a writer based in eastern North Carolina. He's the author of an untitled narrative business book with Hwy 55 founder Kenny Moore (coming winter 2014) and the forthcoming novel "The Making Island" (spring 2015). He also wrote the book "The Edge of Legend" and has written for Men's Journal, GQ, ESPN The Magazine, Outside, SLAM, and more. He blogs at brandonsneed.com and does Twitter as @brandonsneed.