Harry Truman wrote that he was "damn glad" to know him. A visitor from West Virginia wrote, "You have made this most beautiful spring day a little brighter and warmer."
For the last 45 years, anyone who has gotten into Percival Bryan's taxicab has been asked to sign an autograph book the cabbie keeps on his dashboard. The desk in Bryan's Anacostia home now overflows with 232 autograph books that he has filled during his years behind the wheel.
Bryan, 78, is a driving history of Washington. Buildings and street corners that flow past the windshield trigger anecdotes about the famous and the powerful, as well as the unknown and friendly, who have seen the city from the back of his cab.
The signatures and hometowns of the well-known and the unknown are recorded in the autograph books, which have a total of 157,000 entries, he said.
Truman was a senator from Missouri when he flagged down Bryan's cab in front of the Old Senate Office Building one day in the early 1940s.
"I remember where I met those wheels, those big shots. It comes to you where you met people," Bryan said recently as he sat in his living room. His latest taxi, Bell Cab number 67, was parked outside.
In the cab, passing the Howard Theater, Bryan remembered trips there with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. When he passed the Justice Department he recalled such passengers as J. Edgar Hoover. A glimpse of the Supreme Court recalled Justice Thomas Clark. Bryan recalled that Hoover and Clark were cordial but businesslike, not very talkative.
With a smile that almost reached to the long, silver sideburns extending from his blue chauffeur's cap, he remembered that he had not recognized a passenger who was going to the Pentagon until the man signed the book halfway through the trip. The signature read "Nelson Rockefeller."
Laughing in a falsetto that broke the cadence of his West Indian accent and shook his 5-foot-8-inch, 190-pound frame, Bryan recalled that he started to hustle Rockefeller for money to start a cab company.
"He said, 'Nice try, Bryan, but I've got to feed my family,' " the cabbie remembered.
"I rap with them," he said. "It isn't too hard to talk to people -- especially the wheels -- I ask them, 'Sign my book please.' They say, 'Does everyone sign it?' I say 'Just the good-looking ones. If they're ugly, I don't fool with them.' Right then they write something nice and all like that."
Sometimes, Bryan said, he talks about how he stowed away on a New York-bound banana boat when he was 18 because he wanted "bigger turf." Or about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who he said was the only man whose autograph he was afraid to ask for.
Bryan said that he got some of his better-known customers during the 14 years that he worked part-time as a butler at the White House, beginning in the 1940s.
He said that he would tell White House visitors, "I've got a cab out there, and you ought to see Washington some."
Bryan said the only fares that he collected for tours taken by Clark Gable and others were autographs.
During those days, he said, he would sometimes drive Eleanor Roosevelt to the home of black educator Mary McLeod Bethune at 15th and T streets NW.
"Mrs. Roosevelt used to sneak up the back and go rest and tell me what time to pick her up," he said.
Most of his autographs, however, are not from the famous but from ordinary tourists.
"We have an influx of people from all over the world," Bryan said. "I've never heard of a country that I haven't got someone's autograph from.
"Last week I had a couple from Germany in the cab that said I was like an ambassador, and that being in my cab made them feel right at home."
Other autographs echo similar feelings. "To the nicest cabbie I have met in all my travels," wrote a visitor from Memphis.
"I thank you for being on hand this afternoon to share the afternoon with us and to show us the light of the city of Washington," wrote Howard McElery, hometown unknown.
But Bryan's charm is good for more than putting people at ease.
Once he convinced two armed robbers not to take his money. The men left the cab, throwing a five dollar bill on Bryan's seat.
Another time, Bryan was able to calm labor leader John L. Lewis after inadvertently infuriating him by telling him he needed to shave.
"He left me a big tip, too," Bryan said.
Although a handwritng analyst once offered him $200 for one of his autograph books, Bryan plans to keep them all.
He said he will leave the collection to the Smithsonian Institution. He calls the planned donation "giving the collection back to the people" of the city in which it was compiled.
Bryan still drives his cab about five hours a day. He has been through eight cabs during his years on the streets.
"I tried to retire 40 times and always came back," said Bryan, who is separated from his wife of 20 years. He has two sons, both of whom live out of town.
"I need the contact with the people," he said. "The people are my life."