“C’mawwwn in,” Johnny Wilson says in a cordial Southern drawl. He sits behind the steering wheel of his GMC van and imparts his first lesson of cab driving.
“You don’t have to buckle if you don’t want to,” he says. “It’s not a law in Ithaca that cab passengers have to wear seat belts.”
His is a North Carolinian accent to be exact: faster paced and gentler than twangs heard farther south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but charming with its clipped gerunds. A native of Durham (and curiously both a Duke and a Tarheels fan), Wilson is a warm man with slicked-back pewter hair and round wire-rim glasses. Stick a porkpie hat on him, and he could be the bassist in a 1930s jazz band.
He waits in marigold streetlight in the muddy gravel parking lot, listening for a fuzzy call to come from the dispatch. The windows are rolled down, letting in the temperate air on an unseasonably warm night.
Wilson has only driven taxis since September but could lecture on the subject better than any professor on either hill can theirs. Pulling out a 3-inch binder from the left side of his seat, he launches into a crash course of Taxi Drivin’ 101.
“I made this special book for myself because the other [books] aren’t as easy to read,” Wilson says. “The fares for every street in Tompkins County are in this book.”
Inside are lists of how much it costs to go nearly anywhere in Tompkins County and beyond, whether it’s only from Zeta Psi to Kappa Delta on the Cornell University campus ($5.10), or from the Ithaca airport to Pittsburgh ($650).
After working in the restaurant industry for 35 years, Wilson decided he needed a change. So the 54-year-old quit his job as a line cook at Smart Monkey Café and switched to driving. Drivers work on commission, which he says can be a blessing some nights. But in the last few nights, it has been a curse.
“Last night I made $130 bucks for 13 hours work,” he says. “Some nights, we’re as busy as a one-legged man in a butt-kickin’ contest. But tonight, as you can hear by the radio, we’re doin’ diddly-squat.”
Wilson would only make three trips in a 2 1/2 hour span that night. In the first, he took a mousy-looking gentleman from Kmart to a mobile home park on a deceptively quaint road called Babbling Brook Drive. On the second, he took another passenger from, as the rider described loudly into his cell phone, “one chick’s house straight to another’s” in Collegetown. The third run was from the John Thomas Steakhouse to the Statler Hotel at Cornell.
Only the intermittent squawk of the two-way radio breaks the silence as Wilson waits for this third set of passengers to emerge from the steakhouse. The restaurant’s manicured lawn and the two Mercedes sedans in the parking lot are a stark contrast to the barren yards that line Babbling Brook Drive.
Wilson says the slow nights he suffers through are offset by the excitement supplied by chauffeuring unsavory characters and hoards of partying college students around town. One night he had to herd a group of soused Cornell students back from the middle of the road so he could pass.
“When they get drunk, they’re worse than deer,” he says. “They run out backwards into the street. It’s ridiculous.”
Ithaca College senior Anthea Barnett worked with Wilson at Smart Monkey Café. She said she can see how his personality would help him handle the legions of college students he picks up.
“He deals with kids very well, because he has that Southern ‘boy, don’t mess with me’ thing going on,” she said.
Wilson says he likes his frequent student passengers, despite the few problem customers.
“As a group, the students are pleasant to deal with, and I can relate to them,” he says. “I acted like a college student ’til I was 40.”
Wilson’s boss Tom Halton said Wilson’s patience and charm make him a shining example of success in the trade.
“Johnny is top-notch, a natural,” he said. “He has just the best people skills.”
Though he’s a relaxed driver, probably by nature, Wilson’s cab does have some rules.
“No smoking and no being mean to the driver, of course,” he says. “Oh, and if you throw up in the cab, it’s a $60 fee.”
Wilson won’t be driving taxis much longer, he says. In August, he and his wife, Dansintree, will move to South Africa, where she is from. He will return to the food service business in an administrative position at a restaurant in Cape Town.
“I keep jokin’ with her that I’ve finally found this great job, and now we’re movin’’,” he says.
It’s a job that Johnny not only has fun with, but is proud to do.
“There’s no such thing as a not-honorable profession,” he says. “In this country, we’re taught to be ashamed if we’re not wealthy or trying to be wealthy. I like to drive, and I like to b——t. With this, I get to do both.”