The New Normal: From $34.00 an hour to $2.65 plus tips.


Cognitive Dissonance


As is our custom, about once a month Mrs. Cog and I venture out from our homestead up here on the mountain and seek out civilization. While the Beverly Hillbillies considered this to be movie stars and swimming pools ('ceement' ponds actually) in our case, civilization is defined as more than two retail stores per square mile.

Normally we head south towards that North Carolina city with the Phallus Palace (aka The Wells Fargo Center) where they have 11,592 retail stores per square mile, more than enough to quell the withdrawal symptoms from our shopping addiction.

But Saturday morning was different. Normally at the end of our mile long dirt road, where tires first hit pavement, we turn left and head down the mountain towards thicker air and warmer climate. This time we turned right towards a new destination, a place we had repeatedly heard mentioned by the locals, but had not yet visited.

Because we had not made the alternative destination decision until that very moment, I briefly pulled over so Mrs. Cog could plug our objective into the Satellite Navigation system (the nanny state [Ford] won’t let us do so while traveling to protect us from our idiot selves) then promptly reversed my direction when we discovered the shortest route was the other way…though not down the mountain. Northwest is where we will find adventure and Hobby Lobby. After all, Mrs. Cog does have crafts to create and sell.

From our high perch in Southwestern Virginia, heading northwest sends us into coal mining country, West Virginia to be exact. While not exactly a shopping Mecca, our destination on the VA/WVA border contained enough big box stores to satisfy our need to re-supply as inexpensively as possible while also offering a few interesting diversions.

Knowing only a fool ventures into any store that sells food while famished, since it was noon when we arrived we located a casual dining restaurant and settled into our seats ready to be pleasantly poisoned. We were not disappointed. Thank God they do not publish an ingredients list next to the flowery descriptions or we would have fled the establishment post haste. Ignorance truly is bliss when feasting on semi fast food.

Our waiter was a tall drink of water with a pleasant demeanor and attentive manner; clearly tip worthy from our point of view. Mrs. Cog and I both worked in food service when we were (much) younger and understand the value of good service and generous tips. So we do not spare the fiat when rewarding the server for a job well done.

I will leave the discussion of how restaurant prices are kept artificially suppressed because wait staff compensation has been effectively shifted from the employer to the customer for another time. Instead I wish to relate the gist of the conversation we had with our waiter as I paid the bill with plastic and handed him his tip in paper.

Henry (not his real name) is 27 years old, clearly a Millennial per Howe and Strauss defined as those born between 1982 and 2004. While one may certainly quibble about the start and end dates of this range, there was no doubt in my mind Henry was eminently qualified.

While happily handing over his compensation I praised him on his waiting prowess. He blushed slightly and then rather proudly declared himself an ex coal miner who had been waiting tables for about four months now. Something in his word choice and tonal quality informed me he was committed to his new profession, a quality I found quite interesting. I rapidly followed up with several more questions.

It turns out Henry was laid off from the coal mine two years ago. When he mentioned additional layoffs and mine closings since then, I got the impression Henry had decided his chance of returning to the mines was slim to none and had decided to change ‘careers’. During most of his layoff he’d worked as a roofer, informing us he had re-roofed many houses in a specific area of town. Anyone who has worked re-roofing knows it isn’t a pleasant profession.

When I asked if that area had many old houses, he nodded in the affirmative. Earlier, as we drove through town, I had pointed out to Mrs. Cog many of the old homes and buildings. Old housing stock in poor repair indicates tough economic times. Henry said things have become progressively worse over the last five years. Our walk thru the mall after lunch seemed to confirm this. Lots of people milling about, but very few with loaded shopping bags in hand….not to mention many dark and empty store fronts, clearly closed and abandoned.

Of particular interest to me was his response to my question whether working as a waiter had hurt him financially. Quickly signally agreement, he said he dropped from $34.00 an hour toiling in the coal mine to $2.65 plus tips serving up perfectly prepared poison. While his actual language wasn’t nearly as expressive as mine, his disappointment was stark and evident.

I was a bit shocked by both ends of that pay scale. Essentially his income plummeted from $70,720 per year (plus overtime and benefits), exceptionally good pay for a then 25 year old man, to $5,512 (assuming 40 hours a week) plus tips based solely upon his excellent service and the local economy, which was not good based upon Henry’s own assessment as a local of 17 years.

Both of us were surprised he was only ‘paid’ $2.65 per hour by the restaurant. While my memory is increasingly faulty, I am certain I was paid as much or more per hour as my ‘base’ while working in food service 40 years ago. And Mrs. Cog agreed when reflecting upon her stint waiting tables nearly 30 years back.

I’m not sure if this means tips are better than back then (they most likely are since they are usually a percentage of the price of the meal) or if the restaurant has almost completely removed the waiter/waitress from the cost structure of the restaurant (yes). Either way, this is not compensation one can live on other than when combined with other income in the same household.

Mrs. Cog rightfully pointed out that working in a coal mine most likely would shave many years off your expected lifetime, so the $34 an hour received wasn’t nearly as good as it sounded. I just as correctly mentioned that to a twenty five year old, a higher wage in exchange for the possibility of an earlier death is a no brainer since the shortened lifespan is still decades away and the rent and car payments are due today.

Our seat next to a window just inside the entrance to the mall appeared to confirm the degrading economic conditions of the community, revealing many obviously low income, overweight (obese actually), heavily tattooed, poorly dressed individuals and families. This isn’t a judgment, but rather an observation of a particular social ‘class’. Walk into a mall in and around Washington, DC and you will observe another social class. The point is, those very same ‘less affluent’ people were seated next to us and were the source of Henry’s tip income, therefore the majority of his income.

Most surprising to me, within sight of our seats was the ultimate in mall store cognitive dissonance. Two doors down from American Eagle, solidly middle to upper middle class income focused, was a Dollar General, just as solidly focused much lower down the income scale. Considering all the empty stores, obviously mall management was more concerned with rental income than retail store dichotomy. Just another sign of the growing desperation in Middle America.


To Henry’s credit, he wasn’t just punching a time clock while he waited for the mines to re-open or Greyhound to whisk him away to nirvana. In response to my praise for a job well done, he said he took pride in doing a job well and giving it all he had. This is not the first time I’ve talked with a Millennial and walked away thoroughly impressed. He was upbeat, pleasant, professional and obviously committed, all while living in a decaying West Virginia coal mining town facing a bleak future long before the rest of America has truly felt the escalating birth pains of a cascading depression.

As Mrs. Cog likes to say  (in response to my 'crumble' theory) while to some it may be a crumble, to others it’s a collapse when it hits you squarely in the face. Henry was battered and bruised, but still possessed the intestinal fortitude to bounce back up off the canvass and play the cards dealt him to the best of his ability. Quite frankly I have not seen that degree of spirit and drive since the late 70’s and early 80’s when I lived in New England and the ravages of inflation and unemployment were tearing through our lives.

To be perfectly frank I have no idea what the new normal is since I do not trust the mainstream media to accurately report what’s actually going on in Middle America. All I know is what I see and hear first hand with no buffer in-between. Living in Southwestern Virginia, the poorest and least upwardly mobile area of Virginia, brings its own flavor of poor and downtrodden into view on a daily basis. Venturing into Southeastern West Virginia has revealed another slice of the same pie. I suspect I would find similar portions wherever I went in this vastly diverse country.

For the first time in a long time I have walked away from an encounter feeling heightened hope for America. In fact, the last time I felt this way was back in the summer of ‘78 when I embarked on a three month long bicycle ride through New England. While I had my outsized share of misadventures and disasters, ultimately I came away from that trip with a deep seated understanding of the strength and compassion of the average American.

Does this mean I feel things will turn around soon? Not in the least. In fact I fully expect conditions to get much worse before they get appreciably better. Much rancid and corrupting excess must be wrung from the system first, not just in the universe of bloated government and corporations, but in the minds and around the belly of Middle America. We have miles to go before we reform.

There is no doubt America, along with all First World (and many Second World) Nations, is infested with greed, corruption and avarice beginning at the top with the sociopathic leadership and filtering on down through the food chain. What is rarely spoken about, other than to point fingers outward in order to absolve ourselves from blame, is glaringly obvious. Just as we willingly and consciously consume prepared food of questionable source and quality (just as Mrs. Cog and I did Saturday) so to do we ‘consume’ our poisonous political and business leadership.

As far as I can tell, aliens don’t beam them down from orbiting spaceships to subvert and corrupt us into self immolation. ‘They’ are ours and spring from our loins. Since ‘they’ will not restrain themselves, either we do so or (at the very least) we restrain ourselves.

While there is no doubt the vast majority of us wish things were not the way they are, neither do the vast majority of us do much of anything to fundamentally change the way we live in order to make our lives, and by extension the lives of others……better. I know I cannot fundamentally change America. I also know I can fundamentally change myself. To bitch about the state of America without lifting a finger to change myself is, in my opinion, the ultimate in hubris and hypocrisy.

{This, by the way, was (and remains) the principal reason behind our relocation to the mountains of Southwestern Virginia.}

This social apathy and paralysis will change…eventually. But it appears the metamorphosis will only begin when we are forced to do so. While we correctly declare those who most directly benefit from the growing global chaos to be infected with the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed) rare is the individual who will admit a similar affliction unless compelled by outside forces to face facts squarely in the face.

I experienced a similar social dichotomy during my trip through NE in 1978. I saw the best and worst of society and rode away feeling we had further to fall, but the strength and capacity to reform and recover. I feel much the same way today, only this time the fall will be much further, more violent and much more devastating. But the re-birth, whether years or decades away, will be just as vigorous in its rebound.

Thank you, Henry, for your contribution to our eventual re-birth.



Cognitive Dissonance

Waiters in ice skates learning how to se

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2 thoughts on “The New Normal: From $34.00 an hour to $2.65 plus tips.”

  1. Interesting post, Cog. I’ve followed your posts on ZH since 2010, but this one spurred me to check out your site and sign up.

    I’m 5th generation born & raised in the northeast TN / SW VA area, and the slightly-more insulated nature of the region with respect to broader economic & cultural trends makes it all the more insightful, after traveling around the country and seeing both pros & cons of the more ‘modern’ paces of life.

    Also, I’m 2nd gen in a family manufacturing business which has been around for 37 years, with friends and customers involved in the mining industry. After the commodities bust in ’08, I took an interest in what causes price volatility (esp base metals & energy), and have gone very far into it all both from the systematic trader objective, and also from researching economic history/geography.

    In a broader context of life and perspectives for this area, since you’re now ‘around’ and assessing it, perhaps we could talk sometime about topics such as those you hit on in this article.

    1. CopperMS,

      Thank you for joining and welcome to TwoIceFloes. Sounds like you have much to contribute and share.

      My direct email is zhcognitivedissonance at gmail dot com.

      Cognitive Dissonance

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