Embarrassment of Riches


Those paying attention to disparate sources of information– The Washington Post to Playboy, The Atlantic to Fox News Sunday–may have noticed that notions of class and poverty are making a comeback. Well, not actual poverty, which is way down after welfare reform put people to work, but a glorious past of poverty to serve as a benchmark for present success. As the proto-buppie George Jefferson once declared after having moved on up to the East Side, "Growing up I was so poor we relied on mayonnaise sandwiches, without the bread."

"I started my life in a house without water or electricity so I don't cede to you the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in a ditch," Treasury secretary and multi-gazillionaire Paul O'Neill instructed Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) during a budget committee hearing last week. O'Neill had bitched about stifling government rules that keep people down, and Byrd was shuffling his hand to play the poverty card, stopping just short of claiming that he'd only been a member of the Ku Klux Klan so he could get some sheets for his bed.

"Well, Mr. Secretary," Sen. Byrd shot back, "I lived in a house without electricity too, no running water, no telephone, a little wooden outhouse."

Byrd and O'Neill have nothing on basketball star Allen Iverson, who recently turned up in many media, including the March Playboy. "Growing up was hard, man," he told Playboy. "We had busted plumbing so there was sewage shit floating around our floors. Sometimes we had no lights, because it was a question of food or the light bill, and my mom wasn't about to let us go hungry."

Take your hat off to Iverson, who not only kicks butt on the court (if not in last night's NBA All Star Game) but plays well on paper, too. He's stayed true to his roots, refusing to wear suits and even appearing on NBC's Meet the Press in tattoo-revealing sweats. "People used to always tell me to wear a suit, look this way, look that way, cut my hair and stuff like that," says Iverson, who declared "I did this my way" when accepting last year's NBA Most Valuable Player award.

But it's not always such a simple matter to stay true to those roots: If Byrd had remained as true to his humble beginnings as Iverson, he'd still be wearing a sheet.