When people make shortlists for the Democratic Party’s likely nominees to run against Donald Trump in the 2020 election, Beto O’Rourke’s name is often near the top of those lists. The 48 year old former three-term Congressman from El Paso, Texas gained national prominence last year when he narrowly lost an election to Ted Cruz for United States Senator in Texas. A charismatic figure who reminds some of Barack Obama, O’Rourke has been described as hip, smart and empathetic. A great speaker and an impressive funds raiser, Beto seems totally in his element in front of people.
Although Beto was born and raised in Texas, he spent many of his formative years here in New York City, first at Columbia University where he majored in English, and later living in a Spartan, run down loft in Williamsburg while he was the bassist for a punk rock band. A recent New York Times article examined O’Rourke’s time in New York City and described his days in North Brooklyn.
Beto O’ Rourke was in some ways typical of many of the people I knew who gravitated towards the area’s punk rock music scene in the 90s. A social person who loved music, Beto in the 90s was a man trying to find himself. While some of his other Columbia classmates went straight into graduate school or started careers, O’Rourke drifted aimlessly and fell into deep depression. Eventually, by total chance, he wound up meeting an old friend in a Williamsburg bar who told him about the possibility of sharing a loft located near Wallabout Street, near the Orthodox Jewish section of South Williamsburg. O’Rourke moved into the loft and his Williamsburg tenure began.
His rent was ridiculously cheap, but for a good reason. The Times article states that Beto’s share of the rent for the 2,000 square-foot loft was only a $130 per month, but he and his loft mates had to construct their own bedrooms and at times the space was so cold that sometimes they could see their own breath.
Williamsburg was much edgier in the early nineties and crime was a fact of life. O’Rourke also recalled watching a thief who had just stolen a bike and fax machine and suddenly realizing in horror that he was the owner of the stolen goods. There were, however, happier memories of sunsets on the roof watching the sun set behind the twin towers and of springing off a rooftop trampoline that was salvaged from a Busta Rhymes video.
The future politician was not immediately apparent in the bass playing Texan. He was not especially political according to one of his Williamsburg friends, but another one of Beto’s Williamsburg flatmates recalled that Beto had an ability to talk to anyone, so he was already showed the unique people skills that would make him a successful politician. The article mentions that pot smoking was one of the activities that bound the loft mates and, unlike Bill Clinton, O’Rourke did in fact inhale, but he was never a heavy pot smoker.
O’Rourke had a Bohemian uncle who came to New York years earlier and this uncle served as a role model and influenced Beto to choose Columbia University. While he lived in the city, however, O’ Rourke called himself Robert and not Beto, which was a Texas childhood name. O’Rourke played in a band called the Swipe, but he objected onstage when a band member described the group as angry. To help pay the bills O’Rourke got a job that was common enough amongst Williamsburg punk rockers. He moved canvasses for a Brooklyn art installation and moving company and even transported a Picasso.
Eventually, the future Congressman got a job in the Bronx at a publishing house, which entailed commuting by subway on crowded trains. Once pushed up against the glass of a Bronx bound train, O’ Rourke envisioned himself back in El Paso driving in his truck down a stretch of road and he suddenly reached the decision to return to Texas. He bought a truck for a $1,000 on Long Island, packed his Williamsburg gear in it and headed off home to Texas. Maybe sometime soon the ex-Williamsburg bassist will be headed to the White House.