Bending the Rules

One of my favorite fall traditions is an excursion to Pilsen to see the Day of the Dead exhibit (Dia de los Muertos) at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Lives are grieved for and remembered in special ways through the loving assembly of objects. I am always moved.

This year’s excursion was even more special because a friend was visiting from St. Paul and she was going to experience this unusual collection for the first time.

I wanted our day in Pilsen to be special. Named after the area in Czechoslovakia famous for Pilsner style beer, it’s been the first neighborhood of many immigrant groups as they settled in Chicago. Decades ago, it was home to Eastern Europeans. For quite a few years, Mexicans have been the dominant ethnic group.

Colorful murals adorn the sides of brick houses and corner stores. En route to gentrification, you can spot Starbucks stores next to taquerias. Parking pay boxes have to be fed along 18th Street and other major boulevards.

I did a little research before my friend’s visit. After wandering through the museum, I wanted to take her, and two other friends, to an authentic Mexican bakery for a slice of tres leches cake.

I went online and identified what seemed to be an awesome family run bakery. It was my intention to enjoy tea and split a couple pastries there.

The wonderful aromas of fresh bread, cinnamon, and anise curled up our nostrils as soon as we walked into Panaderia El Acambara. Sweet breads and coffee cakes occupied displays in the center of the store. Racks upon racks upon racks of buttery cookies and flaky empanadas filled the side walls.

I thought they also had tables for patrons to enjoy tea or coffee, but it was only a store.

I studied the selection on the wall. I decided to get a couple dulce de leche empanadas, crescent shaped mini pies filled with a sort of caramel crumble. To bring home, I told myself.

I also asked if there was a place nearby for coffee and tea.

Si. Si… I was directed to a hipster coffee shop that was just down the street, which was good because I had already popped for an hour of parking.

We walked in to find a couple of twenty somethings who had probably been there most of the day.   A thin, pale, aproned barista, waited for our order from behind the counter. He looked at us impatiently as serving us was delaying his scheduled trip to the doorstep for a smoke.

I had every intention of bringing my small white paper bag containing the two dulce de leche empanadas from Panaderia el Alcambaro home with me for a late night snack, but, I looked at the selection of bakeries in the case and had second thoughts.

There were a couple over-sized cookies and four croissants that seemed to predate the last appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. Not before my lifetime, but definitely too old to be healthy or enjoyable.

As I ordered herbal tea, I asked the barista if we could eat the pastries I just bought.

We don’t allow food from outside, he said matter-of-factly. I nodded and we sat down for tea and banter.

Pretty soon, knowing that dinner was several hours away and something scrumptious inside my little paper bag was begging to be shared, the four of us started to break off pieces of the sweet little pies and slipped them into our mouths. As chunks of the treat melted, we tried to keep silent, but our eyes shouted with delight.

Our indulgence was not lost on the barista. We couldn’t help ourselves… He saw — but he said nothing.

At first, we broke off pieces of the pastries while they were still in the white paper bag. Then we got bolder, laying the crescents on napkins in the middle of the table and continuing to break off bits leaving a puddle of crumbs.

Ah, each bite was the perfect blend of sweetness and butter.

The thought came up that it made no sense for him to enforce house rules more strictly as the four of us outnumbered the other customers and we all spent money on tea, but someone in his position might choose to be more hard-nosed about it.

My foursome enjoyed our visit to the café, even though we were uneasy, at first, about being called out. People’s actions often defy good sense.

Being under the authority of someone who is willing to bend the rules is no small thing.

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