“Boober Tours! The only way!”
Pedestrians stare at Kevin Spangler, the six-foot-five man wearing a long black jacket who is pedaling on a pedicab on a mid-afternoon day.
“Boober Tours! The only way!” Spangler shouts again, hoping someone will notice him. It’s a typical day for Spangler. He bikes all around Central Campus and downtown Ann Arbor, from the Diag to Rick’s to Blank Slate Creamery.
Some recognize him. A man in a red pickup truck rolls down his window at a traffic light and strikes up a chat. A group of men seated on the sidewalk outside Salads Up excitedly yells at Kevin: “Boober Tours!” followed by “What’s up Kevin?”
Others seem more mystified by the man peddling on the pedicab, but are friendly nonetheless such as the young couple pushing a stroller, or the elderly duo in matching Michigan gear.
To most Ann Arborites, Spangler is an omnipresent, optimistic feature of their downtown. Most don’t know of his multiple stints in prison, his struggles with alcoholism or his homelessness.
All they see is a man cheerfully laughing, sometimes wearing a banana suit as he solicits riders.
“For extra tips,” he explains to me.
Spangler grew up in Manchester, a modest township roughly 20 minutes southwest of Ann Arbor, as the son of a corrections officer and a nurse. From 5 years old until the time he graduated high school, he dealt with attention deficit disorder, taking Ritalin and Adderall throughout his education. Spangler developed severe anxiety and socially isolated himself. After serving in the military, he began dealing drugs.
“When you’re taking medication for ADD, it makes you into a robot,” Spangler recalls. “I never talked to anybody, I never really had any friends in school, and then it wasn’t until I quit taking the medication that I became this social butterfly. I got into dealing drugs.”
Joining the Navy straight out of high school, he was able to end his Ritalin addiction. However, alcohol became his new drug of choice. After leaving the service, he worked as a chef for the Washtenaw Country Club and became the locker room manager, a position he worked for a year. Because of his success in his position, he found himself traveling to outside of Los Angeles to work as a locker room manager at Moorpark Country Club — considered one of the best country clubs in the United States in 2002.
But then his drinking problem brought his fortunes down. He lost that job because of a DUI violation, the first of many.
By 2010, Spangler married, but soon divorced because of a “marijuana business that got out of control,” according to an article he wrote in Groundcover News.
As a drug dealer, he still grappled with alcohol addiction. By June of 2015, he had been given a total of five DUIs and a prison sentence.
In December 2015, he left prison for the final time. Although he had been in and out before, this time was different. He learned he would be having a son — named Romando — and he was motivated to change his life.
With few job prospects available because of his criminal record, Spangler needed to flex his creative muscles. As he emphasized throughout our interview, he remained undeterred.
“When you get in trouble, you lose your rights to get a regular job,” Spangler explained. “When they do a criminal check, you could be the best person in the world, but if you have a criminal record, you don’t get the job. I’ve had to struggle, start my own businesses, wait tables, anything I can.”
After prison, Spangler found a safe haven in the Robert J. Delonis Center, a homeless shelter on West Huron Street, where he lived for three months. While in Ann Arbor, he discovered Groundcover News — a community newspaper that employs local homeless people as vendors and writers — from existing vendors around town. Spangler wrote regularly for a year, according to publisher Susan Beckett.
“The thing that touches me most is how committed he is to his son,” Beckett said. “When he started (at Groundcover), his girlfriend was pregnant and he made it clear he wanted to turn his life around and be the kind of father he always wanted to be, and he’s doing that. He’s gone from living in the shelter to now having a place where his son can be with him.”
Though he no longer consistently writes for the paper, he often attends the organization’s socials once or twice a month, according to Beckett. During our ride last Thursday, he waved and exchanged pleasantries with a vendor on State Street too.
“I don’t regret anything I have ever done, as it has made me the person I am today,” Spangler wrote in the January 2016 edition of Groundcover. “I own it and I am using everything I ever went through as a tool to help me with future.”
Spangler enrolled at Washtenaw Community College briefly, but as was the case earlier in his life, classes proved challenging for him because of his ADD. Spangler realized that college wasn’t the path for him. Groundcover provided some financial literacy and budgeting courses, something that Spangler emphasized was essential to avoiding the plagues of drugs and alcohol.
Spangler explained that he had heard extensive complaints from Uber and Lyft drivers in town who complained about their experiences with their parent companies. If the drivers were unhappy, Spangler asserted, their riders were equally unsatisfied, thus opening the space for a pedal-powered on-demand transportation service.
By January 2016, he saved up to purchase his first pedicab, eventually buying it on February 29. Day and night, residents and citizens of Ann Arbor would begin to notice the tall man wearing a costume outside Skeeps at 2 a.m.
At first, he kept the pedicabs behind a bus station on the outskirts of town, underneath some tarps. Then, he expanded his fleet and moved them into a small storage unit, but that soon became too tight as well.
He initially intended to have three pedicabs by the summer of 2016. After finding large demand, however, he expanded it to 10.
Riding with Boober Tours is free, though customers are encouraged to give their pedalers tips, and they often do. Spangler’s company is funded by donations. Because of his work at Groundcover, Bennett explained that Boober is eligible for donation matches from Groundcover. Thus far, he’s received $5,000 in donations and $2,200 in loans. He additionally reinvests earnings from cab rides back into his company.
His first pedicab merely served as his first step. Spangler dreams of a ride-hailing app, of even adding cars and perhaps trolleys to his network. Presently, though, he focuses on his 14 pedicabs, manned by a pool of seasonal and full-time pedalers — only a year after he began Boober Tours.
While Spangler’s company has experienced tremendous growth in just over a year, he still sees greater returns on the horizon. As spring turns into summer, Spangler will look to hire additional pedicab drivers to expand his business.
In the winter, fewer people drive because of weather and reduced demand, but that doesn’t faze Spangler. He’ll drive rain or shine. He never wants to have a boss again.
But starting Boober Tours isn’t enough for Spangler. He seeks to additionally help those who struggled like himself, recovering drug addicts or those with ADD.
As a former addict, Spangler says he comprehends how an addiction can affect not only an individual but his or her family and social circle as well. He utilizes his business to find positions for those just out of rehab or struggling with drugs or alcohol. A handful of his current employees are recovering addicts.
“I want to inspire people,” Spangler said. He aims to create economic opportunity for those whom society — and many of its employers — has all but closed its doors on.
For Spangler, his own personal struggles with drug addiction are vital to his empathy with those who have gone through similar tragedies.
Walking into the warehouse where Spangler stores his pedicabs, there's a whiteboard filled with ideas: plans for Boober, plans for other businesses, advertising and for his personal future.
“I have a tiered process of how I’m going to get there over the next year-to two years,” Spangler said. “Back in December, I knew I was going to turn this company into a million-dollar company, but then I was like, ‘Why stop at a million dollars? Why not make this a billion-dollar company?’ ”
With 14 pedicabs, Spangler may well be on his way. Riding through the Diag on a Thursday afternoon, he seemed comfortable on the University of Michigan campus, waving to a number of students and even stopping to answer questions.
One man asked him about any events happening around Ann Arbor in the upcoming weekend. “Hash Bash,” he replied with a smile. “It’s a good day for business.”
Riding throughout the city, Spangler holds a smile on his face, complimenting the beautiful 55-degree weather, uncharacteristic for a March in Ann Arbor.
Spending time with Spangler, it becomes evident that he simply wishes to make the most of life. That sentiment is echoed by others, such as LSA sophomore Brendan Genaw, the incoming president of OptiMize — a social entrepreneurship student organization — who has spoken with him a number of times.
Genaw explained that Spangler came in contact with Jeff Sorenson — the founder of OptiMize and a University alum — who encouraged Spangler to attend a workshop. While at OptiMize, he discussed his business model and success. He even gave some of the students a ride home afterward.
At another workshop, Spangler became more personal. He told them his origin story, how he progressed from prison to his current position.
“That was something cool for our people to hear because a lot of them actually know what Boober is,” Genaw said. “It’s not like he’s the CEO of some super high-tech company that no one is ever aware of. He’s someone that’s in Ann Arbor and they’re constantly around him too.”
The positive experience that Genaw explained is a constant feature during a Boober tour with Spangler. He’ll ask customers about their goals, their motivations and their dreams. He’ll play music from an auxiliary cord, and he’ll do what he can to engage his riders.
This positivity radiates from Spangler not just on his pedicab but in conversation as well. His enthusiasm is contagious. You speak to him and he has such a joy, a passion for his work and for life.
“I just kind of felt when I was growing up as a child that I was going to do something massive to help the world,” Spangler said. “I always had that, but I feel like I had to go through the struggles I went through (in order to do it). To help somebody, you need to go through what they’ve been through. I’ve kind of mastered it and now in the future I want that for my company, since it’s second chance jobs for people in recovery.”
But Spangler wasn’t always this positive, happy-go-lucky individual. At times in his life, he felt depressed and at one point suicidal. Starting Boober Tours reversed his outlook.
He explains that, as a pedicab driver, he exercises every day and engages in breathing exercises such as the Wim Hof method and the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, a Buddhist breathing technique he learned from his aunt.
Now a year in and about 19 months sober, he reflects on how he began. His parents barely took care of him in prison.
“There’s a difference between Democrats and Republicans: Democrats take care of their kids in prison, Republicans don’t,” he quipped.
But they did send Spangler books. Anthony Robbins’s self-help book “Awaken the Giant Within” particularly inspired him. He set goals for himself, goals he continues to look at each day. Without these “massive goals,” Spangler explains, he would have struggled to accomplish anything. He says goal-setting is imperative for struggling individuals.
It’s likely you’ve seen the tall, lanky man on a Boober. Perhaps you’ve been slightly intoxicated at 2 a.m., or perhaps you’ve been walking in the Diag in the middle of a school day.
But maybe now, you’ll know why the man is wearing a ridiculous costume. Maybe, instead of shaking your head, you’ll ask him for a ride and ask about his story.
It’s safe to say, however, that no matter the time or day, Spangler wears a smile on his face. He’ll wave and exchange pleasantries with those he knows and make small talk with those who doesn’t.
It’s not weird, it’s normal. It’s how Spangler acts.
Like Boober Tours, it’s the only way.