Drive-by wording: The man behind the maxims

By Elizabeth Kiem

Without getting into a debate on service, speed, or the use of rear-view mirror air fresheners, it's safe to say that Charlottesville's Yellow Cabs are a breed apart. Each taxi in the company's 54-car fleet sports a bon mot on its trunk.

Sometimes hilarious, usually clever, occasionally clich├ęd, these messages personalize the taxis and give folks following behind a little extra food for thought, especially at lengthy stoplights.

Jay Graves is the owner of the Yellow Cab Company of Charlottesville, which was started in 1933 by his grandfather, Julian Graves. He's at his post five days a week from 8 to 3. In his down time, he tweaks a 1946 Plymouth that his late father drove or climbs on his riding mower for a little proverbial inspiration.

When a saying comes to him, he tries it out on his daughters at the dinner table. "Sometimes they just roll their eyes at me," he says. But if there's a positive response, Graves has the motto made up by a local sign-maker and sends it out onto the byways of Charlottesville.

Most of his offerings are familiar humorous observations, like the laconically cynical "Trust everyone, but cut your cards," or the sage "Older folks tell it like it was."

"The older I get, the better I was" undoubtedly has a certain fan base nodding in agreement.

Graves claims that the bulk of the sayings are original, although he admits he did plagiarize one from the marquee of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Aside from an occasional anti-politician adage, which once drew public comment from local pundit Larry Sabato, the mottos are as unlikely to offend as they are to inspire. Some offer important public safety tips, such as the "El Paso, El Crasho" diagram on the back of car 40.

Some of the slogans date to the late 1960s when Graves' father owned the city buses as well as the Yellow Cab franchise. When the advertising space on the sides of the busses went empty, Graves senior began the moving soapbox legacy.

"For whatever it costs to do it, the advertising is priceless," says Graves, "and some of them make you think, and that's good."

Sure, as long as you're not thinking How much longer am I gonna be stuck in traffic staring at the observation, "To belittle is to be little"? Imagine if you had to be the driver of "Failure to plan is planning to fail."

But Graves contends the drivers don't pay much attention to his slogans. "They just want a car that runs, with good air conditioning," he says.

Now 55, Graves has no plans to retire. While his daughters in the area are old enough to take over the family business, Graves says, he's the end of the three generations of cab moguls.

"I have bigger plans for them," he says dismissively.

Surely there's a slogan there somewhere.