The Mayor of Woodland Hills Is Awakened

Photograph by Stephen Cooper

Early morning rays streaked through the blinds—translucent and warm—but that wasn’t what jolted “The Mayor of Woodland Hills” from slumber, serene, and slumped over in his mechanized wheel-chair. That wasn’t what startled him. Not today, not any day.

For the inexorable, almost unvarying routine of the Southern California sun—outsized in impact, and unrelenting—burned into the skin, even the subconsciousness of denizens of the Valley; long-time tenants of the tongue-in-cheek-named “Vistas on Ventura Boulevard”—like The Mayor—rarely needed consult timepieces.

And deep time, the kind you feel in your bones on birthdays, that shows up in wrinkles on your forehead and in spider-web crinkles around your eyes, deep time had long frozen at The Vistas: the squat, stubby building’s paint was peeling and patchy, and irregularly shaped missing swaths exposed pockmarked and chipped drywall.

A creamy off-white when built in the 60s, The Vistas were coated a jaundiced-yellow to doo-doo-brown from constant clouds of exhaust; a layer of ashen particulate, it deepened the building’s sickly pee-and-poop hue each year—as more and more cars rumbled by, spewing exhaust on its façade. This metamorphism had occurred long before The Mayor’s sister (and that insufferable social worker, the one assigned by the court) suckered the Mayor into moving into The Vistas.

Even day-to-day time, normally frenetic—pulsing like the second-hand of an analog watch—took on an exhausted, wearisome, analog feel for the down-and-out inhabitants of the “rent-controlled” units at The Vistas; unspooling in dust motes that hovered in the thick, hot air, time disappeared into seams of shoddy, second-hand furniture—reupholstered, but like its owners, not fully resurrected.

Instead of “California Dreaming” in a land of milk and honey, The Vistas house poor, isolated, most-often broken and badly neglected existences; these souls live in inadequately ventilated, government-subsidized rentals—austere spaces crammed with outdated appliances and rusty, TV-sized air-conditioning units that sit in each dwelling’s allotted one window. Dripping, these window-units emit a constant anti-freeze-charged hum like a bug trapped in a glass jar, or a nuclear warhead—primed and pointed toward the sky—hidden in a deserted desert silo.

Dropped off at the Vistas by fate, family, often faulty ideas about the promise of California and fortunes that never ever materialized, the 55-unit dwelling was also located right beside “Best Buddy Collision” (from which, 16-18 hours a day, a cornucopia of shrill shearing sounds, cigarette smoke, conversations in a number of different languages, and chemical smells—from spray painting, oil-changing and the like—wafted over).
There, for over three decades, amidst the omnipresent rumble of traffic in front of The Vistas, “The Mayor of Woodland Hills” made his home in his 325-square-foot apartment, Unit 105.

Two blocks down on Ventura there’s a gleaming, modern-construction Whole Foods with a Maserati dealership on one side and a Porsche dealership on the other—all somewhat incongruous for this middle-to-“working-class” part of the Boulevard, but also not nonsensical given the many nearby multimillion-dollar homes pretentiously peeking out from surrounding hilltops (or showing off from the Boulevard’s tonier stretches and the increasingly suburban, secluded, sometimes gated, much wealthier sections of the neighborhood’s streets, snaking deeper into the “Old Girard Tract”).

Also down 2 blocks from The Vistas is a trash-strewn, graffiti-covered bus-stop overhang—right in the hulking morning-shadow created by the gleaming, tinted glass of the modern-construction Whole Foods; underneath, no different than any other day for several months now, a man is lying—prone—on the bench like a statue adorning a mausoleum. But one that wiggles.

The sun’s full rays haven’t spread their tentacles to this part of the Boulevard (yet), and a nearby black crow taking advantage of the shadowy cool of the bus-stop is cawing—caustically complaining to a merciless world, but primarily to the man fake-sleeping at the bus stop trying to decide the next move of his survival; his life now is heavily dependent on a shopping cart piled with a mish-mash of worldly belongings stowed next to him and a grubby, cardboard sign—humbly it reads “Help”—on the ground nearby.

“Woodland Hills is on the rise and is projected to be a ‘hot’ neighborhood in L.A.’s shark-infested, cut-throat, take-no-prisoner’s housing and rental market!” That’s what the Woodland Hills Realtors Association blasted out in its recent newsletter—a newsletter it stuffs under windshield-wipers and in door-jams all over town—whether requested (a rare occurrence indeed), or not. Tatters of the newsletters, shredded and soiled, saturate this section of Ventura Boulevard—saddling up in bunches on the businesses’ stoops—adding to the overall sense of decay and blight.
None of this was unusual to behold and hear in Woodland Hills.

It was a deafening, clanging sound that penetrated The Mayor’s sleep that morning—a sleep untroubled by his struggles with stress, poverty, drug addiction, depression, disability, and deep loneliness. It was a clamorous crashing of metal that would have caused anyone who heard it to search for its epicenter.

Shifting his chair a few yards, the self-appointed “Mayor of Woodland Hills” looked through a crack in his window blinds.

Outside, across the street, a few hundred feet or so from The Vistas, an old woman with greyish-silver hair was bent over a police car in handcuffs. A white female policewoman held her left arm, and a Black policeman was taking notes on a pocket-sized pad; on the ground was an overturned Whole-Foods shopping-cart and a flotsam and jetsam of plastic recyclables—also a miscellany of personal items. Turning her head, the old woman seemed to be staring right at The Mayor. And she was crying.

Reflexively, without thinking, The Mayor wheeled himself out of his hovel’s front door and down a short hallway leading to the building’s back door.  In an explosion of flickering red, white, and blue lights, the Mayor rolled calmly and purposefully toward the police; he had never hesitated to lend a helping hand to one of his constituents, and he wasn’t about to stop now.

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.