Loads of Dirty Laundry

Bounced checks, phony documents, multiple bankruptcies, countless lawsuits, burned business partners, and an army of avenging attorneys might discourage most entrepreneurs. But as far as Mohamed Ibrahim is concerned, it all just comes out in the wash.

This past April, after Taylor had provided city officials with a 1980 deed to the land and tax records in an attempt to verify her ownership, Ibrahim brought in his own deed. It was a "corrective quitclaim deed" prepared by the office of Charles Neustein, Esq., Ibrahim's attorney, signed by Marcel Stein (who had owned the property for about six months back in 1994, when Ibrahim's Avalon Properties deeded him the title) and duly recorded in the county plat book. Sure enough, the five-foot strip was part of the land deeded to I Have a Dream Shopping Center, Inc.

City officials took note of the two conflicting deeds and couldn't judge which was valid, so they decided to wait on the outcome of the civil lawsuit Taylor filed in May against Ibrahim. The suit asks the court to determine who owns the disputed parcel. In the meantime, Ibrahim had finally secured a temporary operating permit for the laundromat on the condition that the two other shops in the mall besides his brother's grocery -- the salon and the travel agency -- not open because of the insufficient parking. They opened anyway, until Taylor got the police to come by several days later and close them.

In depositions taken in August and September by Taylor's attorney, Charles Neustein said he had known nothing about the corrective quitclaim deed until Taylor's lawsuit was filed. (The lawsuit names as defendants Neustein and Stein, as well as I Have a Dream Shopping Center, Inc.) Ibrahim testified that he'd typed the deed himself on stationery he computer-generated with Neustein's name and office address on it. Neustein, who had threatened to file a bar complaint against Taylor's attorney if he didn't drop Neustein from the lawsuit, disavowed his client's use of his name.

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At one point in his deposition, Ibrahim rose from his seat at a conference table and offered to purchase Taylor's land. "I'll write you a check right now," he declared. When she declined, he offered to sell her the shopping center. She wasn't interested.

"I can't believe this," Ibrahim says later, leaning back in his desk chair in the laundromat office. "Five feet! This is so silly. She can't claim that land. She's just using that in her plan to destroy me. It's been hell from day one. She's paid off a lot of people with the city. I can prove it." (He has so far produced no proof of payoffs. Taylor calls the allegation absurd.)

The man seated behind the counter at My Dream Coin Laundry is wearing an almost-clean plaid shirt, jeans, and an annoyed expression (although most of the attendants, who are neighborhood people, are unfailingly helpful and pleasant). His face, what isn't hidden by a baseball cap, is a quagmire of broken capillaries, sun-baked creases, and matted beard. He looks as though he might belong to the group of homeless men and women camped out under a tree about a block northeast of the strip center.

He might live on the street, or he might be one of the lucky workers Ibrahim sometimes allows to sleep in one of the vacant apartments at his recently acquired Viking Motel apartment building. Despite the poor condition of most of the apartments, almost all of them empty now, sleeping men can be seen through holes in walls or behind blankets covering smashed-out front windows. The buildings have been cited for leaking sewage and garbage and condemned, but everyone is going to have to leave anyway, sooner or later, because this is where the big new day-care center is supposed to stand.

Ibrahim often gets homeless people and poor immigrants to work for him. He is proud to be bringing jobs to the neighborhood, he says, though not all of the workers feel so privileged. Sometimes they end up making only one or two dollars per hour, according to current and former employees, their relatives, and acquaintances. Sometimes the arrangement works well, especially if they're undocumented or accustomed to living on the street. But a lot of people who say they've worked for Ibrahim, for cash handouts, are as angry as the big investors who lost money. They just don't have the means to sue.

Take Ana and her husband Jairo, for example. The immigrant couple (they asked to use pseudonyms) had been renting an apartment in the Viking since before Ibrahim bought it. Jairo did construction work at My Dream Coin Laundry, but after seven weeks, he says, he was fired after having been paid only $200. The couple got two months behind in their rent. "When Mohamed came by for the rent, I told him I don't have the money," Ana recalls. "He said, 'Next month you either move or pay.' I told him my husband hadn't gotten his money, but he just said I had to have the rent next time."

Then in mid-August they found an eviction notice on their door. Their neighbor Sylvie, a single mother from Haiti who says she had worked two weeks at the My Dream Laundry for $5 per hour but had only received $75, also faced eviction. "Three of us went to the judge, and we told him we couldn't pay the rent because the landlord wouldn't pay us," Sylvie explained. "He said he was sorry, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. Now I guess I'm going to have to move into a shelter."

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