Yes, there really is a Vern behind the wheel
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Correspondent
Vern English has a way of endearing himself to others. So much so, in fact, that he has been honored by both a big-name Hollywood director and a local resident who considers him a hero.
Not bad for a guy who runs a small-town taxicab company. He’s the Vern of Vern’s Taxi Service, Inc., a fixture in Sonoma Valley for more than a decade.
Known for going the extra mile (in every sense), English runs a taxi company known for friendly, helpful drivers, prompt service and old-fashioned courtesy. That time-honored service starts with English, 71, and trickles down to every driver.
English so impressed John Lasseter of Disney-Pixar fame that he put a likeness of Vern’s into both of his animated feature films, “Cars” and its sequel, “Cars 2.”
“In the first one it’s a couple of frames. In the second movie it’s a lot more visible,” says English.
Yes, right there in Radiator Springs in “Cars 2” is a light-colored taxicab with the Vern’s logo on the trunk and a top light declaring “VERN’S.” The first “Cars” featured a red Vern’s taxicab, so likeable it was made into a die-cast toy car and sold to kids and collectors everywhere as part of the movie’s mass merchandising.
So how does a Sonoma Valley cabbie end up with his own Disney-Pixar cameo and toy?
“I got to know John Lasseter over the years,” English says, downplaying his connection to the Oscar-winning animator who lives in Glen Ellen.
English, it seems, is just as taken with his day-to-day customers as he is with the Hollywood giant.
Peek at online reviews of Vern’s or visit the company’s Facebook page and there are comments like, “Vern’s rocks!,” “a great cab service” and “can’t say enough good things about Vern’s.”
One appreciative customer even wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper a few months ago, calling English her “personal hero” for providing personalized taxi services.
In a town like Sonoma, there are few options for those who don’t drive. There is no mass transit system, so Vern’s fills the void for many senior citizens who otherwise have difficulty getting to medical appointments, the pharmacy or the grocery store.
“The bread and butter is the little ladies who go to the hairdresser or go shopping,” English says. “They’re actually the backbone of the business.”
English and his drivers are especially attentive with the elderly, many who use canes or walkers or need assistance getting in and out of the cabs. They’ll carry groceries and see customers to the door.
Although the fares are typically minimal for short trips around town, English appreciates his loyal customers.
“I have a lot of 70-, 80- and 90-year-old girlfriends,” he quips.
English began his taxi service in 2000 with just two cars, so broke he rounded up a small group of partners to invest in the business. Today he has 11 cars, an 11-passenger van, an office manager and 20 independent contractors as drivers, including English’s 23-year-old son, Charles, who attends Santa Rosa Junior College when he isn’t behind the wheel of a Crown Victoria or Mercury Marquis emblazoned with his dad’s name.
“I thought if we ever got four cars it would be a luxury,” Vern English says. “Needless to say, I have some very happy partners.”
As president of the taxi service, English is both dispatcher and driver. Business typically is brisk, but spring and summer months can sometimes get overwhelming, with 250 calls on a summertime Saturday not uncommon.
English is beyond retirement age, but he isn’t hitting the brakes.
“I work eight or nine days a week,” he says of his busy schedule. Vern’s never closes; the business is 24/7, 365 days a year.
English and his constant companion, a gentle chocolate Lab named Taxi, travel together from Schellville to Kenwood and points beyond. There are tourists traveling to wineries and weddings, plus locals who know better than to drink and drive.
Vern’s cabs make frequent trips to Sonoma’s historic downtown square, where the restaurants, taverns, wine bars and numerous Plaza events can flow with alcohol.
“I’ve had a lot of customers tell me I saved them from a DUI,” says English. “I take it seriously.”
For a fare ranging from $8 to $20, drinkers get a safe ride home without jeopardizing others or landing in the county jail.
On New Year’s Eve, Vern’s drivers will brace themselves for a repeat of last year when they provided 350 rides, the busiest night of the year.
The road to Vern’s wasn’t a direct route for English. The Sierra foothills transplant spent much of his career as a carpenter, then worked as a professional card player — “a proposition player” — at a popular poker club in Emeryville.
He left that job after he was seriously injured in a freak car accident while walking down a sidewalk, leaving him unable to sit and concentrate during the “high stakes” card games.
He landed a job with a taxi service in Sonoma, driving for two and a half years, only to be fired when a new owner took over the business.
Somehow, those challenges led to Vern’s Taxi Service, Inc.
Today he can claim a birth in a Vern’s taxi, and sadly, a death. A baby “popped right out on the floorboard” just before reaching the hospital, while another customer had a heart attack and died en route to the emergency room.
English once helped an older woman he spotted lying on a sidewalk at a busy intersection of Highway 12 — she had broken her hip and was down for 45 minutes before English happened upon her.
While dramas are rare, amusements are not.
“A guy or two has asked me where to get a good massage — at one o’clock in the morning. I tell them we don’t have that in Sonoma,” English says.
Cabbies make deliveries for customers hosting parties or date nights at home, picking up a few items like beer, wine, cigarettes or .<th>.<th>.
“If you can imagine it, we’ve done it,” English says with a knowing smile.
Come Sundays — but not too early — the cabbies go through the regular drill: helping one-way customers find their parked cars from the night before and sorting through Vern’s lost-and-found clearinghouse for misplaced cellphones and women’s shoes and boots, the typical items left behind.
Despite the rising cost of gas and escalating auto insurance — Vern’s paid an average $4,000 premium per cab last year — the taxi business remains stable. Even a competing taxi service that opened over a year ago put just a small dent in Vern’s business.
English prides himself in providing a small-town service that couldn’t be duplicated in cities like San Francisco or Oakland. The regular customers are now considered friends, the valley such a familiar place that English knows it better than any old-timer.
To book a ride, or for more information, call Vern’s Taxi Service, Inc. at 938-8885 or visit Vern’s on Facebook.