Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) talks with K.T. Houston during the Kitchen… (Jason Redmond/Associated…)
I took a seat in the Compton kitchen at Saturday's Kitchen Table Summit in the gym at Inglewood High.
At my table were four men, with not one job among them, and two women whose business cards — "coffee specialist" and "life, love and wellness" counselor" — testified to their hustle.
They were among more than 1,000 people who had been ferried in, fed and readied for protest by a union-backed advocacy group called Good Jobs LA.
It was Bennell Bryant's first time at a political summit. He came because someone from Good Jobs LA knocked on his door in Compton. The group held a meeting on his block and "hipped us to what the corporations are doing."
Bryant's been out of work for so long that every benefit he might tap has run out. He'd like to enroll in truck driving school, "but they keep turning me down for grants," he said.
Across the table was Willie Evans, a single father of two young sons. He's been out of work for 15 months; his janitorial job disappeared when the company went under.
His monthly income dropped from $2,100 to $730. He relies on food stamps, help from his church and a compassionate landlord to survive. Next month, he'll have to choose between paying rent and buying school clothes for his boys.
Both men were ready for the rally's rhetoric: Tax the rich! Make the corporations pay!
The Good Jobs LA organizer at our table explained the problem this way:
"Rich people are buying their yachts and mansions and all this other stuff. If they would pay fair taxes, we could have jobs and training.
"But how are we gonna get this money from the rich folks to get all these strategies going?" he asked.
A good question … left unanswered.
The politicians will get back to us on that.
Seated at tables with their neighbors, the locals developed their own wish lists: My table wanted job training, grants for education and help expunging criminal records. The group next to us wanted child care, better public schools and help legalizing immigration status.
On stage, the politicians — Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters, Laura Richardson and Karen Bass — listened as a microphone passed through the crowd and individuals shared their struggles.
But the legislators' paltry offerings didn't mesh with residents' harsh realities.
Richardson offered to visit a father who was worried about his children and to help find housing for a jobless man who lost his home.
"Does she think there's only one homeless person in this room?" one of her constituents at the next table quietly countered.
Waters praised the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus: There are 40 job development bills in the pipeline, she said. "We're making corporations do job fairs all across the country. How many people have been watching the news on TV?"
"I don't have a TV," a man at the table behind me yelled back. "They took it!"
And when Waters announced that the job fair will be coming to Los Angeles next weekend, it seemed like a cruel joke to job hunters seated around me. "Bring your resume and connect with an employer," Waters said. "We're creating these opportunities."
These folks know too well that an opportunity is not a job. Ask Evans, 42, who spends every day answering employment ads. "Craigslist, jobs.com, door to door. I've worked since I was 17, and I can't get a call back," he said.
At the Black Caucus job fair in Atlanta last week, more than 4,000 people showed up, camping overnight in high heels and business suits, hoping for a job from one of 90 employers.
That makes a good scene for the evening news, but it's little more than smoke and mirrors in a flattening economy like this.
It doesn't sock it to corporations, just lets them look like they're doing something.
Waters has long been considered a hero in beleaguered South Los Angeles. On Saturday, her trademark rhetoric went like this: The 'tea party' "can go straight to hell," she said. President Obama needs to toughen up. "If you're unemployed and mad at the corporations, you'd better step up here with me!"
But the diatribe didn't play well, at my table, at least.
"Maxine needs to sit her old ass down," muttered Alyce Andrews, the coffee specialist. "What has she done lately, but talk?"
Evans left the rally encouraged.
"I heard stories that made me feel better. I thought it was just me. But a lot of people are going through the same thing. I believe there's power in numbers," he said.
He posted about it on Facebook and hopes to sign up followers for the campaign.
But enthusiasm goes only so far. What I heard suggests there's a disconnect not only between rich and poor, between Republican and Democrat, but between the politicians on the stage and the people at the tables.
People like Keith Sam Jr. of Long Beach. His wife, a grocery store checker, has been out of work for three years. He just got laid off from his job in advertising. He watches political shows on TV, "but all it does is frustrate me."
At Saturday's session, "the theatrics were great," he said. "But is anything going to happen when we leave here?"
As the morning wound down, Bryant was busy trying to hitch a ride back to Compton with a neighbor. He didn't feel much like joining the protest march, carrying a sign for the TV cameras.
Neither did Sherice Thompson, the "life, love and wellness" counselor. "We didn't come here to hear what's wrong. We need to know what they're going to do about it," she said.
There are 40 houses on her block in Compton. Nine have been lost to foreclosure. "These are people who were in the community for 20, 30 years; gone just like that," she said.
"They said they were coming out here to listen.... I want Maxine Waters to know, if it doesn't change on my street, in my community, you just took a business trip. That's all."