Chastain was standing outside the coffee shop, beside a table decked out with charts and statistics to support his latest (read: fifth) petition drive for a new-and-improved public transit system. He wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt buttoned to the top and a straw hat, looking like some 1940s pontificator who wipes sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and offers conservative takes on crop yields or a baseball prospect's throwing arm.
"Their plan lacks the spark, the spice, the passion that transit needs to thrive," Chastain said of the ATA's blueprint for Bus Rapid Transit (a bus-based, dedicated-lane fast-transit system that won't require a tax increase to build). Chastain proposes raising the city's sales tax by a half-cent over twelve years to pay for a $500-$600 million package that includes light rail, BRT and streetcars.
Chastain calls it "the perfect plan," one that corrects the mistakes of his past failures and absorbs their good points. He insists it will succeed with voters and quash the city's BRT boondoggle.
We told him why we didn't share his optimism: Despite a pathetic public transportation system, Kansas City voters have rejected such plans five times since 1998; the economy sucks; and Chastain's name elicits more opposition than support.
"That is the thing that I fear most, that some people will focus on Clay Chastain and not the issue," he said. "This issue is bigger than Clay Chastain."
Clearly not. Although he credits his sabbatical in Tennessee for giving him a new perspective -- chiefly, that the business community's support is vital -- there seems to be nothing different about the way he's conducting this grassroots campaign. So we began to see him as Lane Myer, the well-intentioned, slightly pathetic, harmlessly creepy boyfriend who just won't accept that he's been dumped in the classic 1985 movie Better Off Dead.
But then this impression began to change because of what his very presence seemed to conjure. At one point, a goofy-faced man in a Royals cap walked by, glanced at Chastain's petitions and then repeatedly encouraged the activist to "Push it."
"People are bonding with this plan -- they're connecting with it," Chastain said.
We wondered whether this had been staged. No sooner had we discounted that notion when a different man walked out of Muddy's and turned an enthusiastic eye toward Chastain's setup. "So you are Clay," he said. "Welcome back to town."
Welcome back to town? Was this Mayberry? Had this stranger missed Chastain? Had he observed a dearth of petitions in Kansas City and rued the day Chastain left? And why didn't he walk 5 feet closer and sign the man's petition?
At our request, Chastain discussed his celebrity, which he said had brought occasional death threats. He spoke of September 11 and the Iraq war, which he believes have so changed the American attitude toward foreign oil that even Kansas Citians will now vote for light rail. Almost as he said this, a Hummer H2 rolled past, soiling Chastain's claim. "That's what we don't need right there!" he shouted.
Equally massive and somehow more offensive than the H2 was an overalls-wearing man who scored a buck off a too-generous Chastain. The man claimed to have fathered seven sets of identical twins, a preposterous statistic considering the likelihood of someone having had sex with him seven times.
Three days later, Chastain announced that he'd collected enough signatures for his petition to appear on the November ballot. Now he'll plead for voters to focus on the message, not the messenger. Trust us: It's a tall order.