Years ago, while driving for Checker in Detroit, he dropped off a passenger at the downtown Greyhound station—and was attacked with a knife by a stranger lurking nearby. He fought him off, but he’s still got the scars. About a year later, a passenger unhappy with the fare shot him as he exited the car. “If I hadn’t hit the gas, I would have been dead,” Wade recalls. The bullet ripped through his leg, but fortunately did no permanent damage.
Wade, fifty-four, moved to Ann Arbor in 2006 to start the company that’s now Ann Arbor Cab. Eight years later, the Uber-Lyft invasion hit the local taxi business.
The giant Yellow Cab, fifty-some cabs strong, went out of business in 2016. (Wade bought the name—which is why, if you Google “Yellow Cab Ann Arbor,” his website comes up first.) Several smaller firms also folded.
Wade cut his own fleet in half, to five taxis, but was later able to bring back three. Today, his eight Prius hybrids make Ann Arbor Cab one of the largest of the dozen or so surviving local taxi companies, some of which have just a single car and driver.
Wade says he didn’t do anything better than the businesses that closed, he’s just “more stubborn.” He says he’s taken just four days off since the start of the pandemic, and he hasn’t raised his fares—$3.50 to start and $2.75 a mile—in eight years.
When the lockdowns began he stopped meeting his drivers in person to reduce the risk of infection. When he couldn’t find masks locally, he drove to Ohio to buy painters’ respirators. Even so, the spring of 2020 was a horror.
“I had a construction business running,” he says. “Took all the money from that and subsidized my drivers.” One of their few passengers in those early months was a Canadian hockey player whose parents weren’t allowed to enter the U.S. Sympathetic border guards waved Wade and the kid through to Windsor.
Things have gotten better since, but it’s still nothing like the pre-rideshare era. Wade can no longer promise an immediate pickup—at night, it can take him an hour to find a willing driver—so most runs are scheduled in advance, over the phone or online.
Finding drivers is a constant headache. He has a couple of long-term guys, but others come and go, and he drives twelve hours or more a day himself. “I’ve been to Pontiac and I’m in Monroe now,” he announces during a December phone call. He can then be heard telling a departing passenger, “Goodbye, young lady, and have a pleasant day.”
A robust guy with a shrewd gaze, Wade prides himself on customer courtesy, but he expects respect in return. “Passengers can be very condescending or very abusive,” he says. “These people [the drivers] work very hard.” If he thinks they’re being criticized unfairly, he says, “I can get pretty blunt.”
Wade figures he gets about half his income from hospital runs, mostly taking patients to or from the U-M or Trinity Health Ann Arbor/St. Joe’s. Turns out hospitals and health insurance companies would rather pay to send patients home, no matter the distance, than keep them in an expensive hospital bed. “One time I had to take a poor old man home to Chicago,” Wade says. “He didn’t speak a word of English.” Uber and Lyft drivers, he says, balk at those long drives.
Wade grew up in Detroit, and, as a restless young man, hung out a bit in the early Detroit rap scene. He stopped driving professionally for a few years after he was shot, worked in a suburban grocery store and then started his small construction firm. (He’s an expert on concrete.)
When he decided that Ann Arbor was a good place to reenter the taxi business, he and his wife settled in Tecumseh with their five children, now ages sixteen to twenty-four. They’ve since divorced, but “are still friends,” Wade says. “She dispatches at night.” More recently, he was briefly engaged to a Chinese citizen whom he met online; the wedding was called off when she was locked down in Wuhan.
Running a cab company is stressful, and as he ages, Wade finds himself more frequently feeling overwhelmed. And while Ann Arbor Cab has beaten the odds so far, he doesn’t take for granted that it will do so indefinitely. “I’m trying to come up with a backup plan,” he says.
Still, Wade likes being his own boss, and one of the last people standing in a shrinking field. “I’m a big pebble in the pond kind of guy,” he says.