Risky Business

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Father and son Bob and Clint Norris are not big businessmen. For the past two and a half years, they've arrived around nine in the morning, six days a week, at the corner of San Felipe and Bancroft, set up their small tent in a street easement, hung advertising banners, displayed their city-issued automotive repair facility mobile dealer license, unfolded a few footstools and lawn chairs, arranged several small plastic toolboxes, filled their spray bottles with glass cleaner, and gone to work repairing chips and small cracks in the windshields of passersby for 25 bucks a pop. The Norris men claim to have pulled down about $60,000 between them this past year, an income that keeps the elder Norris, a Vietnam veteran, from having to return to work in automotive factories, and supports Clint, his wife and their three kids. The business, inelegantly but straightforwardly named Chips and Cracks, may be small potatoes to most folks in the high rent, Galleria-area neighborhood, but the Norrises like to cast their entrepreneurial fortitude in the mythic terms of The American Dream.

So, about three months ago, when construction neared completion on the lot abutting the easement, and a tall sign was raised reading "Dream's & Bros. Hand Car Wash," it seemed like a good omen. The car wash's owner is Afis Olajuwon, 28-year-old younger brother of Houston Rockets center Hakeem, and a big businessman in every sense of the word. Afis, who played college ball as a guard at the University of Texas-San Antonio, stands about 6'4". In March of this year, he and brothers Akinola and T.J. -- as the heads of Olajuwon Holdings -- purchased 63 Denny's restaurants in 12 states for $28.7 million in cash, making Olajuwon Holdings the second largest Denny's franchisee.

Afis Olajuwon was also, by all early accounts, a gracious neighbor, asking his contractor and construction crews to avoid parking in the easement so as to leave room for the Norrises' two-parking-slot-sized enterprise. There were even preliminary talks about taking advantage of the obvious car care synergy and moving the Norrises onto Olajuwon's property to do business under the Dream banner. But those talks, both parties agree, broke down well shy of any agreement.

The Norrises say that Olajuwon decided he didn't have enough room on his lot for another business to set up shop, which was no skin off the Norris noses, since they'd already developed a substantial clientele on their corner, and besides, an earlier Norris attempt to work in conjunction with a car wash had not been terribly successful anyway. Olajuwon says he started hearing complaints from his San Felipe business neighbors about the low-rent look of the Norris operation, as well as some grumbling about whether they really had a right to be there or not. As the new guy on the block, Olajuwon decided he'd be better off keeping his distance, which he claims to have since done. But here, the Norrises disagree with Olajuwon. And the two businesses haven't agreed on a single thing since.

About a month before the car wash opened, the Norrises say, Olajuwon strolled over to the fence that separates the two businesses and told the father-son team that they needed "to be fair" with him. The Norrises asked what that meant. And what it meant, they claim, is that Olajuwon asked them for a 25 percent cut of their business. The Norrises -- a bit baffled, since they weren't doing business on Olajuwon's property and had struck no deal for business referrals or anything else -- let the request slide without an answer. Several days later, they claim, Olajuwon returned, wanting to know if they'd reached a decision, and when the Norrises declined, Olajuwon allegedly told them that he would make it so that they couldn't work on the corner anymore.

And suddenly, the Norrises say, they would arrive at work in the morning to find the easement packed to capacity with the cars and trucks of Olajuwon's construction crew blocking them out of their accustomed corner.

At this point, Bob Norris turned for guidance to his longtime friend Clint Bateman, a CPA who's known the Norrises for 20 years and has been in business in Houston for more than 30.

"He asked me to go talk to Afis for him, and I said, 'Not a problem; that's what I do for a living. I negotiate with people. I can handle this. Don't worry about a thing.' Well that was mistake number one."

"I did go have a meeting with him, and the essence of the meeting was I was trying to determine what it was that he wanted. He started out by saying well, he wanted 25 percent of what they did, and I told him that I personally felt that that was unreasonable, and I would recommend to them that they not do that, but whatever they decided was up to them. And I asked him, 'Really, what is it that you want,' and what it boiled down to was he didn't like their tent. He wanted them to have a tent that had his name on it, was the best I could tell. And he didn't like the way that they dressed. He wanted them I think to wear his T-shirts. And then he wanted them to give him some money. He said 25 percent. And I said, 'Well, perhaps they'd be willing to give three or four dollars a car,' and I said that I'd go talk to them about it, but I couldn't say what they'd agree to.

"And during the course of the conversation, he said that if they didn't agree to that ... he used the words 'crush them.' He said 'I will crush them ... I can have them removed with a couple of phone calls.' "

Olajuwon's remembrance of the conversation is different. He says that Bateman came into the picture to help negotiate a place for the Norrises on Olajuwon's property, because of problems Olajuwon says the Norrises have had going back two years with other business neighbors, specifically, according to Olajuwon, the nearby Target and Heritage Bank.

Building management for the bank confirmed that they do question the Norrises' right to do business where they are and have looked into the legality of their permit -- thus far fruitlessly. The store manager for Target, who has worked that position for two years, disclaims any knowledge of friction.

There would seem to be two possible explanations: This is either a business deal mangled in miscommunication or a blatant shakedown. Bateman's opinion is simple.

"I'd say there's somewhere between zero and none chance that this is a misunderstanding. I'd better not use the word, I don't want to be quoted, but it start[s] with an e and ends in an n and has an x in it. That's the word that I used talking with Mr. Norris. And when I was talking with Mr. Olajuwon, that's what I told him. I said, 'I don't see any reason why he [Norris] should pay you anything. He's not on your property. He was there before you were. He has an established clientele. He's within the law. There's no reason he should pay you anything.' And that was when he said well, he'd crush him if he didn't." And if the Norrises did pay, Bateman says, Olajuwon promised to make sure that they would have a place to work.

"During our conversation he said, 'Well, I'll have my people park over there every day and keep him from working.' I asked him, I said, 'If he pays you, would you ensure that your people don't park there?' And he said, 'Yes, I would ensure that they have that place.' So the payment was quid pro quo for them [Olajuwon's employees] not parking there."

It was then that Bob Norris took the extraordinary measure of setting aside five dollars per job to give to Olajuwon to keep the peace.

"It took us six months to build a clientele here," Norris says. "If we hadn't been here over two years we would have just upped and moved somewhere else."

At the tail end of September, Norris wrote out a check for $715 -- five dollars per windshield the Norrises had repaired during the month. The Norrises say that a car wash manager named Mark came to the fence to inquire if everything was going okay, and Clint Norris offered him the check.

"Well, we kind of wanted cash," Clint remembers Mark saying. Clint again offered the check and asked for a receipt. The manager allegedly replied, "Cash only; no receipt," and declined the check, saying he'd come back the next day and talk to Bob Norris.

The next day, September 29, it was Afis Olajuwon who came to the fence and allegedly asked for the payment in cash. Bob Norris again offered the check, but what he didn't offer was the information that he had purchased a small tape recorder, which was in his pocket, recording this conversation:

Olajuwon: "What is the deal that you guys offer to pay us with a check?"
Bob Norris: "That's the way we pay."
Olajuwon: "No, don't do that."
Norris: "Why not?"
Olajuwon: "Because I can't show. Can't show. Don't do that."
Norris: "Well how in the world are we gonna claim it on our income tax?"
Olajuwon: [unintelligible] " ... five dollars ..." [unintelligible]
Norris: "No no no no, we're paying you. Why are you acting like this?"
Olajuwon: "But, but, but, but ... "

Norris: "It's not simple. The total is $10,000 a year we're talking about. If you keep saying it ain't the money, what is it? You always leave here with a bad attitude."

Olajuwon: "Okay, I'll tell you guys something. I'm paying every time my guys get a ticket. Who's paying for it?"

Norris: "Well they're getting tickets because they're parking on the wrong side of the street. They double-park; that ain't your problem."

Olajuwon: "I keep paying for those guys because they don't make enough money."

Norris: "Well they don't get 'em if they park right. We're only talking about two parking stalls, and every time you come over here it's either this or that."

Olajuwon: "It's simple."
Norris: "What is simple?"
Olajuwon: "It's simple."
Norris: "We're trying to pay you, and you won't take the money."
Olajuwon: "I don't want no check."

Norris: "Well how are you going to claim it on your income taxes? How do we claim it?"

Olajuwon: "I don't want no check. You know why? [unintelligible]
Norris: "No you don't. How do I claim the expense on my income tax? How do I do that?"

Olajuwon: "You want to tell me you pay income taxes on all the cash you get here?"

Norris: "I sure do."
Olajuwon: "Awww ..."
Olajuwon refused to respond to the contents of the tape during four separate conversations with the Press, claiming that he was not in any way involved with the Norrises, and that their complaints would be better directed toward Heritage Bank, which, Olajuwon says, had been "fighting the guy for two years." He added, "I'm not the one that's fighting them. Don't try to get me involved in it."

But according to the Norrises, who continue to do their personal and business banking at Heritage without incident, it was two days after that conversation that Olajuwon hired a windshield repair worker of his own to set up shop on the Dream lot, an arrangement that lasted only a few weeks. And it was after that conversation that the Norrises say the car wash's double-parking blockouts increased to the point that Clint Norris started leaving his wife's car parked on the easement overnight to save the spot, and Bob started arriving at work at 6:30 a.m. to set up the tent while there was still room. And it was then that the Norrises arrived one morning to find Clint's wife's station wagon bashed in at three distinct points on the street side. And during that time the Norrises say they began to receive regular visits from a variety of Houston police officers and city building inspectors wielding vague threats that the Norrises needed to move. The Norrises even took down their tent for a few days after an unidentified building inspector told them that it violated a prohibition on permanent structures on city property.

However, initial Press calls to the Houston Police Department's Automotive Division, which issued the Norris permit, confirmed that as far as the city was concerned, the Norrises were operating with the city's blessing and within the law.

Afis Olajuwon, for his part, at first categorically denied having anything whatsoever to do with the Norrises.

"He has been trying to put my name there so he can get some kind of recognition; that's what he's looking for. Don't use my name; that's what he's trying to do. He's gonna use my name because I'm the one that people gonna look to get recognition. That would be unfair. And I'm not involved with him."

Informed of the tape recording of his conversation with Bob Norris, Olajuwon replied, "That's not true. Come play that for me. At my office. Come play it for me."

An appointment was set to do just that at noon on November 16, but upon a reporter's arrival, a manager informed the Press that Olajuwon had just been called away on last minute business. A subsequent phone call found Olajuwon combative and unwilling to reschedule an appointment to respond to the tape.

Did he remember the incident when the check was offered?
"I cannot recall that. He didn't come to my property [to work]. What do I want to take his check for? For what? What he want to offer me a check for?"

Well, Bob Norris said that you demanded the money.
"I cannot demand money for something I did not do. Yeah, he came up with a check. I said I don't want it."

Did Bob Norris ever say what the check was for?
"Did I take any money from him? That's the main question."
Olajuwon then insisted that if the Press wanted to ask further questions, to make an appointment and come see him, but declined offers to do so on two different days.

Later, sounding much calmer, Olajuwon called the Press to make a brief statement.

"I think he's [Bob Norris] trying to use me to get attention, and that is not fair. That's all I have to say. I have no more comment."

To which Bob Norris responded: "He's the one that instigated this whole thing. We haven't went over there and done anything to him. We haven't done anything to him or his people. We just want him to leave us alone."

And that, Olajuwon continues to insist, is exactly what he's done all along.
Which isn't to say that the Norrises are being left alone. Last Wednesday, as this story was being edited, Bob Norris and Clint Bateman called within minutes of each other to report that a plainclothes Houston police officer by the name of Luis Gonzales had just paid a visit to inspect the Norris business permit. Gonzales, Norris says, announced that his sergeant had dispatched him to Chips and Cracks in response to a complaint filed that very morning by Houston attorney and state Representative Ron Wilson. Gonzales opined that the "mobile" designation in the Norris license meant that they had to keep moving and couldn't keep working the same spot day after day. Norris responded that the city's legal department had already, and recently, considered that question, and had returned with a judgment that Chips and Cracks was operating legally. According to Norris, the officer said he would return the next day after checking into the matter.

Representative Wilson, contacted for comment, had no problem acknowledging his role in calling in the complaint. "I'm in the middle of it. Absolutely."

And how did a state representative come to occupy that particular --and arguably, particularly trivial -- piece of activist turf?

"Well, I go over there every now and again to get my car washed. And I noticed it on the side of the road; there was someone sitting over there conducting business."

Did Wilson ever speak to the Norrises or ask to see the permit under which they conduct their operation?

"I didn't talk to them. You can't do business on the side of the road. He has a mobile permit. I know. I found out about it. I'm a lawyer. That doesn't give you the right to set up and do business on the side of the street."

Informed that HPD's Automotive Permitting Division had only recently told the Press that the Norris business was in fact legitimately permitted, Wilson responded, with heat: "They're wrong!"

Wilson seemed worked up about the line of questioning and admitted as much, inexplicably playing a race card in the bargain.

"I am. Because you called. Because if he [Norris] had been black, there wouldn't be a question about this; you wouldn't even be doing the story. That's why.

"It's not small potatoes at all .... Matter of fact I know guys who are on the street trying to sell roses that get [harassed] by the police all the time. Because those folks don't have permits. And then I see this guy on the side of the road doing business in a permanent position, and nobody bothers him? That's wrong. Now I don't see you doing a story about little guys on the road trying to sell roses and stuff."

Wilson says that no Olajuwon ever solicited his involvement in the dispute, and that he came to his vehemence solely of his own volition.

Wilson claims he's called in complaints "three or four times" on the Norrises, but that otherwise he doesn't recall another instance where he's called in a complaint to HPD on a mobile vendor -- a fact he explains by saying, "I've never seen one like this before. That's the one thing that kinda set me off. To me this guy's blatantly flying in the face of the law and doesn't care. He had a tent out there at first."

Informed that the Norrises have a tent out there now, as usual, Wilson replied with the interesting disclaimer, "Well, see, I hadn't been out there lately."

Which raises one final question, one that's likely to remain unanswered: What exactly was it that got Ron Wilson -- perhaps coincidentally immediately after the Press began asking pointed questions of Afis Olajuwon, and oddly after Wilson "hadn't been out there lately" -- so worked up about the Norrises' little tent that he called in his complaint when he did?

In this sparring game of did-not, did-too, there's no way to prove who's leaning on whom and how hard, but Bob and Clint Norris have a pretty good idea how they'd answer that one. But then again, they're not really sure who cares what they think.

And to add alleged insult to alleged injury, it turns out that if the Norrises hoped to get attention for their business by attaching themselves to Olajuwon's name, the strategy may have backfired. The latest word from HPD media liaison Fred King is that the Norrises may in fact be in violation of their permit. Not for using a mobile license to do business in the same place day after day, as opponents including Wilson have suggested, but for listing the corner of San Felipe and Bancroft as a business address where the Chips and Cracks records may be accessed on a permanent basis. The Norrises could, says King, reapply with a permanent address such as their home, but even then, he says, now that HPD has taken a closer look, the department is taking the position that the street easement itself isn't a legal place for the Norrises to do business. Never mind that a mere two weeks before, HPD had informed the Norrises that everything was kosher. And never mind that a mere one week before, HPD had informed the Press of the same thing.

Bob Norris's response to the news is resigned. "I guess that's what we expected whenever this all started. We're not holding a grudge or anything. If they find a legal way to get us to leave, we'll just leave here and we'll go somewhere else. But for him [Olajuwon] to do what he's doing to us, like I always said, I just didn't feel like we were being treated right."

And son Clint too may finally be ready to pack up and move on.
"It's easy to find another place. We just didn't want to leave because of him [Olajuwon]. I just don't see how come if something is not supposed to happen, that they could let it happen for three years and all condone it. And the city and everybody has always told us that we have a right to be here. I don't know. It just doesn't seem fair."

But at the last minute, as the Norrises prepare to look for a new street corner to ply, some justice may have emerged after all, even if it's only the poetic sort. Turns out that the lube shop doing business under the Dream's & Bros. car wash umbrella is required to have an Automotive Repair Facility Permit from the same HPD division that permits "Chips and Cracks." And the Press has learned that as of Wednesday, November 19, Olajuwon has been doing business for more than two months without one.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad_tyer@houstonpress.com.

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