Days are unpredictable in the cab business. If cabbies are lucky, they’re also busy. Hobbies and friends fall to the wayside—sometimes Mom does, too.
“We’ve tried to make arrangements to go see my parents like three times in the last month, including Easter,” said cab driver Doug Armour. “We went to the airport five times on Easter. I keep having to tell mom, ‘Just wait, maybe Mother’s Day, can’t guarantee it though.’”
Luckily, Armour’s parents understand.
Armour, 46, and his girlfriend Debbie Rogalski, 45, started Across Town Cab in 2009 after Armour, who was working for a cab company, decided he loved the cab business but not the company he was working for.
Armour and Rogalski began their business in the summer, a time when Ann Arbor is less populated because there are fewer students. More experienced cab drivers encouraged them to wait it out, for the students to return—and now they’re happy they did.
In the beginning Armour was the company’s sole driver. Because she worked days, Rogalski rode with him at night so they could spend time together. Within three months though, Rogalski was driving her own cab.
“I got overwhelmed; I had so much business that I couldn’t handle it, so she quit her job and we got the second cab,” Armour said. “She was basically just supposed to help out a little bit and we’re growing so exponentially… She’s now started to build her own clientele, which is beginning to be a problem. I’ll call her to give her a run and she’ll say, ‘Sorry, I’m already on my way to get one of my own customers.’”
Ann Arbor is a bustling college town, and therefore not lacking cab companies. The owners of Across Town Cab don’t mind the competition, though.
“We’re getting places that have been calling us because they’re fed up with the service they’ve been getting,” Armour said, pointing out that they’ve recently been getting calls from hotels and various University of Michigan departments that want to use their service. “The one good thing is that the competition is making it easy for us. It’s not hard for us to be better than them.”
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Eventually, the pair hopes to hire a dispatcher, buy another vehicle and find another driver. No matter how successful the company gets though, neither thinks they’ll ever stop driving.
“I thought eventually I’d just be in the office full-time, but I don’t want to stop driving,” said Rogalski, who’d only ridden in a cab once before starting the business.
Before driving a cab, Rogalski worked an office job in Ann Arbor for six years. She’d worked similar jobs before, but now she says since she’s felt the independence of driving and having her own business she wouldn’t be able to go back to an office job.
Being a woman in a mostly male-dominated field has its advantages, Rogalski said, noting that some customers take her more seriously and see her as a mother figure.
Both Armour and Rogalski are aware that dangers lurk, though, especially since the cabs are often on the road until 2 a.m. or later on weekends.
“I do the dispatching with my cell phone, so I try to always give her either girls or regular guy customers that we know, or groups of people,” Armour said. “I try not to let her drive one or two men by themselves.”
Armour’s previous jobs make him grateful for how appreciative most of his customers are.
“I used to be a mechanic. People would come in the door angry and you’d fixed their car then you’d give them the bill and they’d leave even more angry,” he said. “When their car was done, it wasn’t like it was any different than it was the day before it broke, only now they had less money in their pocket.
“Then I became a roofer, and it was totally different because people would save up for it and they were prepared for it. When we got done with the roof, it looked beautiful and they were so appreciative of it; it’s the same thing for the cab business. They thank you when you pick them up; they thank you again when you drop them off. Just knowing that you’re doing something that someone appreciates is worth a lot.”
Their business is really just getting started, but already Armour looks forward to the day it’s successful enough that he and Rogalski can travel during the summers, especially out West to places like Mt. Rushmore and the Mammoth Caves.
It’s about time, they said. Rogalski and Armour were high school sweethearts. They dated their last three years of high school and lasted for two more years after graduation.
“We were engaged, but we were young,” Rogalski said.
They kept in touch for a few years, calling each others on birthday, but then they drifted apart. Both married other people. When Armour contacted Rogalski about five years ago, she was in the midst of getting divorced.
“We’ve always just gotten along really well, it was always like that,” Rogalski said.
Both say the cab business isn’t “rocket science.” And both agree that sometimes it can be rather lucrative, despite the $4,000 per year, per vehicle they pay on car insurance.
“I got a call about midnight; some guy in Barton Hills wanted a couple packs of cigarettes,” Armour said. “He said he’d give me a hundred dollar bonus. I said, ‘I’m on my way!’ I get there and he gives me a $200 bonus.”
Carting around often alcohol-influenced customers leads to some pretty good stories for the couple.
“We get calls about once a week to see if we found something in the back seat, a cell phone or whatever,” Armour said, “and we’ll say, ‘We didn’t; are you sure you were in our cab?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, I can’t really remember.” We’ll say, ‘we can at least try to help you narrow down what company it was. Was it a car or a van you were in?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘What color was it?’ ‘I have no idea.’”
Even though their customers might not even remember riding with them, Rogalski and Armour do their best to be on time, dress well and be courteous. And they actually enjoy the people they get to know.
One customer, Jennifer Lill, a former graphic design and lifelong learning instructor at Washtenaw Community College, knew Rogalski as a student. Now when she and her husband are able to get out, they use Across Town Cab to take them around downtown.
“They’re both super duper nice people,” said Lill, 32, of Ann Arbor. “The cute thing is that they’re giddy about it. You can’t help but get excited, too.”
Some regular cab customers even sit in the front, which Rogalski said she finds really “neat.”
“The cool thing is most of our customers are from New York; the vast majority are from New York City—UM students from Manhattan, Long Island,” Armour said. “There, they spend their whole lives riding in cabs and rarely see the same driver twice. Here, we develop relationships with them.”
At least that’s something Mom would appreciate.