You know how sometimes, when you get into a taxi, you find yourself inexplicably in a conversation about the frustrations of your life, the city, the world? And how sometimes, it feels like the two of you could solve every problem there is, if only someone would listen?
Well, if you ride in Rob Connaire’s Rosemont taxi, that conversation might actually find an audience outside the confines of the vehicle. And who knows what might happen with your brilliant ideas then? That’s the impetus behind Connaire’s Politicab, a taxi service that doubles as a forum for political dialogue. (The Citizen is now sponsoring Politicab, whose videos will also appear on our site.) Customers in Connaire’s taxi get a ride to where they’re going. They also get the chance to talk about Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders on a video that Connaire later uploads to YouTube. It is grassroots political conversation of the rawest kind, from people who otherwise rarely have a chance to be heard.
“I’m talking to people anyway, helping them solve all the problems in the world, and no one ever knows,” Connaire, 51, says. “That’s a shame. The average bear knows a lot more than politicians give them credit for. Nether my customers nor I have a $10,000 check in our hand, but if we band together a series of conversations, who knows what we could do?”
To get people to talk, Connaire offers the Bernie Fare: Any riders in his cab who agree to talk politics can get a free ride up to $27, in homage to the average contribution to Bernie. (Connaire says he earns enough on his route to cover the costs of a few conversations a week.) He also offers them a mask, if they want to hide their identity. (So far, no one has.) He films the conversations with two iPhones he has velcroed to the back of his seat, prompting them with questions that range from specifics of the campaign (like, Clinton’s email scandal) to more broad opinions about politicians in general. He is genuinely curious, tweaking riders a bit to get their real story, but treading carefully to be respectful. “I don’t want to embarrass anyone, and I don’t want anyone to hang themselves,” he says. “I want to have real dialogue.”
A former Philadelphia school teacher (among several other occupations over his lifetime), Connaire says talking to people is the best part of his job—the thing that keeps him sane while driving a taxi, a temporary stop off until he finds his next regular gig. “I get a tiny sliver of someone’s life and feel compelled to put it together and fill the rest in,” he says. “That’s like teaching: I’m finding out how to get this person to a place where they can do what they need to do, even if it’s to a place down the street.” Connaire, a Boston native, says that he’s a baseball fan in an Eagles town, so can’t hold his own in sports talk here.
Instead, he has always had politics. He grew up in a family that—much to his horror as a boy—avidly discussed politics at the dinner table. He recalls his now 80-year-old father crying when Richard Nixon took off from the White House in a helicopter, and says he thanks him for teaching him to critically view politics, local and national. This election season, he easily gets customers who are fired up about Trump (usually against) or Clinton; but he also peppers them with questions about convicted former Congressman Chaka Fattah, and Philadelphia City Council. “Maybe someone in Philadelphia would actually care what my customers think,” he says.
In the last month, Connaire has interviewed and posted to YouTube about a dozen videos, from a variety of remarkably informed passengers, from students to campaign volunteers to disillusioned voters. That they all take the time to answer Connaire’s questions, to say (on camera) what they think about the political situation says something about what citizens want: To be heard above the cacophony of politics as played out in hysterical media. “Our political system is pay-to-play,” Connaire notes on his Facebook page. “So’s my cab. Since we seem to have no political voice unless we pay money, why not pay money (a cab ride) and get something off your chest?”
Need a ride and a rant? Call Connaire at 610-291-5618. And stay tuned for more Politicab videos on The Citizen.