How a small act of kindness in Kansas on Election Day gave me hope for America

A bald eagle in a tree near the Emporia State University campus at dusk in 2016. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

It was chilly in the shade here in Emporia on Election Day. I know because my wife was on her way to teach a masked and socially distanced class at Emporia State at about 10:30 that morning when she found an old man shivering in the shadows of the porch at an empty house on Merchant Street, not far from campus.

We had already voted by dropping our ballots off at the box in front of the courthouse downtown so there wasn’t really anything for us to do, other than school obligations. I had given my reporting class a field day, but Kim felt obligated to walk to school and meet with her mass communications class. It was the only time either of us would be out, and it was just by chance that she walked by the house where the man on the porch called to her.

“Ma’am, ma’am,” he said. “Can you help me? I’m disoriented.”

The man appeared to be in his seventies. He was wearing jeans and a yellow T-shirt and yellow socks. Tennis shoes. No mask. He didn’t know where he was, he said. He asked Kim to call the police for help.

She called the non-emergency line for the police and waited with the man. It’s not unusual for Kim to be asked for help by strangers in distress — people on the sidewalk and at gas stations will approach her, at ATMs and in the grocery store. They seldom ask for money, but they often ask for help in solving some problem, some insight as to who to call or what to do.

Soon two officers were on the scene, a man and a woman. The old man could tell them his name — which I won’t repeat here, but let’s call him Shane — but said he could not remember where he lived or why he ended up on a strange porch.

The male officer seemed to have dealt with Shane before.

He asked Shane if he was wet or cold, and then moved him into the sunlight.

The female officer asked if he was hungry, and gave him a bag of cashews she had.

They took Kim’s name and some brief information, and then told her they’d take it from there. She told me the story when arrived home, a few hours later, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

The historian Howard Zinn once said the First Amendment is whatever the cop on the beat says it is — meaning that, for citizens, the law often is interpreted by those enforcing it. And, it’s not just the First Amendment. It’s the entire Bill of Rights and all of the state and municipal laws to boot. On Election Day, when the hinges of history were turning, Kim and the cops took the time to offer a lost old man safety and comfort.

It was proof, I prayed, that America was not irrevocably broken.

Now, the old man was white, and it was in the middle of the morning. But I’ve seen the city and campus police show the same level of compassion at other times, to other ages and races.

In June, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, more than 400 people marched in protest from the campus to a parking lot across the street from the police department here. It was a 90-degree day, and the law enforcement presence was heavy. Cops, members of the Chamber of Commerce, folks from the university and others offered protesters bottles of cold water. There were at least 65 officers present, and they stood calmly by while student after student, most of them Black, and some of them climbing on Dumpsters to be better seen, used a bullhorn to list their personal and social grievances. My photos from that day suggest that the cops might have even supplied the bullhorn: it had “Lyon County Emergency Management” in black Sharpie.

Representatives of Emporia Main Street hand out water bottles during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

I’m not saying that this proof that systemic racism isn’t a problem. I’ve been a journalist for long enough to know otherwise, and I’ve had my share of differences of opinion with cops over interpretations of the First Amendment right to gather news, including one that left a scar on the back of my right hand.

What I am saying is that allowing people to share their stories and to protest in support of change is a start, that hearing the other side is good, that giving people water on a hot day is the right thing to do.

Sometimes, overwhelmed by the challenges that face us, doing just one small right thing is the only thing we can do. If all you have to offer is a bag of cashews — well, offer it. You never know how it might help someone.

Sometimes my students ask how they should behave when the world is obviously such a fudged up, unfair place. You can’t change the world, I tell them, not by yourself. But you can change how you react to it. You can treat others as fairly. You can undertake some work, no matter how small, that might help others. You’ll fail sometimes, I tell them, and you’ll probably never know in your lifetime if you’ve made a difference, but still you have to try. Otherwise, what’s the point? God knows I’m not a great role model. I’m given to impatience and arrogance. Sometimes I’m overtaken by depression and burdened with despair. But how we treat others matters. Our common welfare depends upon it.

The question isn’t just what we owe others, it’s what we owe to ourselves.

It’s easy to take things for granted. If there’s a benefit to the anxiety we’ve experienced during 2020, it might be the lesson that we take too many things for granted.

The very foundations of our communities are all the people who do the right thing while nobody is watching, day in and day out, whether it’s responding to a police call or working the checkout at the grocery store or sanitizing a restroom outside a classroom. The list goes on, from those who work in our hospitals to those who keep water coming out of the kitchen tap. During an election season, add to that list all of the election officers who performed their jobs calmly and competently, and all those who volunteered at the polls, in order to count the votes accurately and impartially.

The election is over, but the real work continues for all of us. It was hard before, it’s hard now and may be hard forever.

As a nation, we face challenges more formidable than at any time since the end of World War II. We are disoriented. We are entering a dark winter, besieged by a global pandemic and beset by social unrest. Our national debt is at record levels and our economy has been crippled. It’s still chilly in the shade, and things are likely to get worse before they get better. Yet, there is reason to hope. Classes are being taught, the sick are being cared for, and the lights are still on for now in our democracy.

And a cop on Election Day shared her cashews.