“The Mayor” of Woodland Hills

Glinting, the Southern California sun pierces smog-stained glass, its mottled rays reflecting the polished sheen of a flaming-red Maserati; smugly situated in the middle of a high-ceilinged showroom—empty at this hour—the Maserati slumbers, its smooth, sensual silhouette, sparkling.

The refracted sunlight shoots a penetrating laser beam back through the glass, striking a man sprawled on a nearby bus-stop bench, skipping-distance from the store—square in his face.

He squints. Grimaces. Sloth-like, his body shifts almost imperceptibly on the still-cold and unforgiving aluminum slab—his only respite from the daily toil of living: The never-ending quest—while pushing a squeaky shopping cart overfilled with all his earthly belongings—looking for sustenance, for shelter, for safety; it’s a desperate search for humanity, for some sign of sympathy from a world that sees him only with suspicion—and disdain—even ugly shame.

Sighing heavily, his chest rising slowly like the crest of a wave, the man sleeping with the Maseratis blinks, awakened to a dystopian country that hates him; hates his soiled, too-ripped Good Will-jeans, and his oily, odiferous, hooded-Yankees sweatshirt; hates his unevenly shaved and dirty, deeply lined face (lines borne from stress, the stress of living while poor).

“Trump 2024” blares a mammoth billboard across the street; at night it lights up gold, gaudily raining a stark and snide light on the man sleeping—or maybe awake and just trying to survive, unnoticed and unseen—waiting for a bus that’ll never arrive, an “American Dream” for him too.

He would go back to sleep if he could—he could use the beauty sleep enjoyed by the Maseratis he beds with—but he can’t: The “Mayor” of Woodland Hills is awake and wheeling down the sidewalk; maneuvering mechanically, The Mayor’s automatic chrome chair whizzes purposefully, creaking down the sidewalk, echoing loudly in the wind.

The “Mayor of Woodland Hills” is self-elected, but a deserved title of respect. After being wounded in combat—his legs blown off by a mine while serving his country—The Mayor was flown back to the sun-soaked valley of his youth, a shattered family, unemployment, a too-high cost-of-living, substance abuse, and sadness.

Separated by dysfunction from both his family and the military, his service and suffering exchanged for a severance barely enough to cover the little blue pills, the only respite from shooting pain saturating where his limbs were savagely severed—he elected himself “Mayor.” He figured, honestly, that he’d earned the honorific.

The Mayor scoots by the man still supine, but squirming underneath the overhang of the graffiti-covered, garbage-strewn bus-stop, nodding knowingly at his squalor. The Mayor’s been roaming this section of the boulevard in his chair for so long—sequestered in this small segment of the city by fate and misfortune for so many sun-drenched years—he knows its every square-inch, and all its new arrivals.

The Mayor also knows today—Friday—is payday. Today, more than on any other day, men and women confident in their next fulsome meals, rested from the pampered swaddling of caressing linens, will, with clean and expensive, starched dress clothes, withdraw grubby fistfuls of pressed bills from the ATM adjacent to the Whole Foods.

Long ago the Mayor learned to wet his beak at the fountain of their richness.

Sure he got his share of insults and threats—animalistic looks of disdain. But what look—even the most dreadful, even the most accursed—can injure a man who’s seen mutilated bodies, whose own body’s been mutilated because of the hatred of other men, men trying to kill him?

What can “Get a job!,” “Can’t help you,” “No, not today,” or, “Get out of my way, you bum!,” do to a man already so beaten down—by his country, by his family, by his life-story?

The Mayor of Woodland Hills is untouchable. Society won’t touch him, but by the same token they couldn’t touch him even if they tried; The Mayor reigns supreme on this boulevard—from his mobile throne.

And sometimes, some man or woman will relent; sheepishly they’ll extend a crisp bill. Take just last Friday for example, a somber man in a black Brooks Brothers suit contributed a whopping $10 to the Mayor’s re-election campaign!

And did the Mayor pocket all that dough away for some “rainy day,” unlikely to arrive soon in the Valley? Heck no! He went over to the man now spending his days and nights sleeping, and not sleeping, in the shadow of the gleaming Maseratis. Wheeling up to him, The Mayor casually put his arm around the man’s shoulder as he sat on the bench, and whispered something indiscernible in his ear.

Then under the sun’s fierce, unrelenting glare—and that of a security guard—the two men, The Mayor and man who sleeps with the Maseratis, entered Whole Foods (the man walking, and the mayor wheeling his way).

Glancing backward over his shoulder, the Mayor said—maybe to the security guard, but maybe to no one in particular—deploying his favorite lines from [Ralph Waldo] Emerson: “To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint[, and yes, to the Mayor of Woodland Hills too,] all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.