The Olive Tree Cafe was established in 1969 and still exists today. The decor brings together art deco and industrial elements like a series of small stained glass windows over the bar and factory-like ceiling fans and exposed pipes. Two rows of slate tables are crowded in between the booths with two aisles leading straight back to the bar. Over each table a small stained glass lamp is suspended, bathing the place in a warm orange glow. Oil paintings depicting moody individuals, drawings and black and white photos line the brick walls. A jukebox stands opposite the bar.
When my dad first brought me there on my sixteenth birthday he described it to me as the perfect place to discuss The Communist Manifesto over the din of people chatting at the other tables. He and my mom had moved to Boston in 1983, and I was raised in the suburbs, so coming to New York was a special trip for my birthday. Growing up, we often took weekend trips to visit my grandparents in Queens, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that my parents took my sister and me to Manhattan. Upon my request, we had brought my close friend Caitlin, and it turned out to be just the two of us and my dad at the restaurant because my sister got sick and had to stay in Queens with my mom and grandma.
As night fell and we walked down MacDougal Street, I was intrigued by the record stores, the Tibetan stores and all the little shops with hookahs in the windows. We passed Cafe Wha?. My dad pointed to it proudly and said, “That was Jimi Hendrix’s bar.” We used to play his music often on those long car trips from Boston to New York. The closer to The Olive Tree we got, the more enthusiastic he became. I remember how his eyes lit up as he opened the glass door with the image of an olive tree stamped on it. This was his favorite restaurant, and it was so much cooler than anywhere I had been in Boston.
I grew up in a socialist household in the suburbs. We were far from the radical communes like the kibbutzim in Israel that my dad had wanted to join, but everything my parents bought was for the four of us to share. It didn’t matter if I had put the chocolate chip cookies into the shopping cart, once they were in the house, they were communal property up for grabs. There was no “mine” and “yours,” only “ours.” If I got mad because my sister took my Barbies, I was told that they weren’t “my” Barbies. My dad tossed around the words “socialist” and “fascist” like “democrat” and “republican.” In fact, he usually used the term fascist to refer to republicans.
When the news of a certain right wing politician’s death came on the radio, I remember him exclaiming, “I hope they drive a stake through the heart of that fucking fascist scum so he can’t come back like the bloodsucking vampire that he is!” I was always amused by these outbursts and took them as a sign of my dad’s unwavering belief in his principles. I usually agreed with what he was saying. I loved that he believed in social progress in all its forms, from supporting universal health care to gay rights to the Feminist Movement to the Civil Rights Movement. I knew that he lived by his principles. The proof was in the work that he did as a personal injury lawyer, taking the so-called “unimportant” cases that other lawyers didn’t have time for, like the police officer who was discriminated against because he was Hispanic, or the woman who was fired from her job at a maternity store because she was pregnant. I always wondered where he got his strong sense of social justice. I could see traces of it in my grandpa, but it was ten times stronger in my dad. I always had the feeling that it was tied to New York, where he grew up, but I wasn’t sure just how until my dad took me to The Olive Tree in the West Village on my sixteenth birthday.
We sat down at a table with a view of the screen projecting Charlie Chaplin films. We ordered The Middle East Combo platter, a large plate with hummus, babaganoush, feta, olives, and falafels with pita, which we shared in true socialist fashion. My dad told us how in the late ‘70s, he used to come here with his friends to plot the revolution. They would sit on the leather booths and draw up plans on the slate tables with chalk, debating who would be the minister of what. From 1975 to 1979, my dad was studying political science at Columbia. He wanted to change the world at a time when most of the world-changers had been assassinated, arrested, were in hiding from the FBI or had simply given up. His heroes were Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, all of whom were tied to the cultural and political Movement of the ‘60s, names he used to toss around in our house on Saturdays and Sundays, when he didn’t have to go to the office and we would just hang out all day listening to The Beatles or Jefferson Airplane or Janis Joplin LPs. He used to pull books off the shelves to show us photos of the protests in the ‘60s. In one, Jerry Rubin stands in front of a crowd at the Chicago Democratic National Convention holding a live pig, with the people around him holding up signs that say, “Pigasus for president!” As my dad said, quoting Jerry Rubin, “The Republican Party has nominated a pig for president and a pig for vice president. The Democratic Party is going to nominate a pig for president and a pig for vice president. And our campaign slogan is, ‘Why take half a hog, when you can have the whole hog?’”
Living with my dad was like living with the most enthusiastic and opinionated political science professor imaginable. He could lecture us for hours about the Yippies and their protests, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, about all the things he really cared about. But it wasn’t just a class that we would walk out of after an hour. It was our life. Going to The Olive Tree was like taking all these history lessons and putting them into context. I always knew that side of my dad, but I didn’t understand that side of New York in any concrete way. The memory of that night at The Olive Tree represents my first glimpse of an alternative, bohemian New York, far from the authoritative Metropolitan Museum and the glitz of Rockefeller Center. Now, when I go back, I’ll always have stories of my crazy, eccentric dad to tell my friends.
The Olive Tree CafÃ©
117 MacDougal Street
New York, NY