Follow the Cheese
Herald columnist Jim DeFede's odyssey across the United States as he delivers the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich to Las Vegas.
Friday, December 03, 2004
Bright Lights, Big City
At 8:12 p.m. on Friday, the VMGCS and I rolled into Las Vegas.
Total Mileage: 3,356 miles.
Plenty of surprises in store for the next 24 hours.
posted by Jim DeFede at 9:43 PM
Fluff, Fold and Pray
A week on the road and I'm out of clean underwear. And so, Friday morning the VMGCS and I find ourselves at a laundromat in Tucson, Arizona.
The clothes in my suitcase fill up two washing machines and as I add my detergent, I ask one of the women standing a few feet away if she had heard about the grilled cheese sandwich sold on eBay for $28,000.
"Of course," answers Veronica Fuentes.
I open my briefcase. "Here it is," I say.
"We saw it on the TV, but it is so weird actually seeing it here, in person," she gushes. "You know, there is a lady down here and she would pour water on her floor and the vision of the Guadalupe would appear. I never saw it, but my friend did."
Veronica looks again at the face in the grilled cheese sandwich and says she is sure it is the Virgin Mary.
"That's her face," she says.
Teresa Romero walks over to take a look for herself.
"Oh, wow, she's beautiful," Romero says. She gently touches the plastic case holding the VMGCS and then makes the sign of the cross on her forehead and lips. She begins to touch the plastic case again, only this time her lips move in silent prayer.
"Maybe she'll grant my wish," she says.
What was she praying for?
"For my son to straighten up," she says solemnly. "Since his wife left him all he does is drink and get into trouble. Last night he came home and he said the police were following him. But why would the police be following him if he wasn't doing something wrong?"
When she turns to walk away, she pats me on the shoulder and whispers in my ear, "God bless you for bringing this here."
"Look mommy, the vision of the Guadalupe," Fuentes calls out when her mother walks into the laundromat." It's the Guadalupe on a quesadilla."
Quesadilla! Of course, that's how you say grilled cheese in Spanish. As Fuentes' mother rushes over, all I can think about is that I'm an idiot. Ssssssss Queso? What was I thinking?
"Oh , my goodness," Linda Fuentes says, "look at how pretty she is."
She runs her finger along the outline of the face on the sandwich.
"I had a vision one time of the Guadalupe on a plate," she confides. "One day I traced the cracks on my plate with a pencil and her whole body appeared.
"It broke the next day," she continues."It shattered all by itself. My mom said she was trying to tell me something but then she must have changed her mind."
An old woman with long beautiful silver hair, passes by, looks at the VMGCS and smiles at me. I can feel the warmth of her gaze. Without saying a word she walks back to the chairs by the television set and sits down.
While I wait for my clothes to dry, I join her by the TV. As we sit there, watching a rerun of "Spin City," a young woman with an incredibly tight and sexy pair of jeans, leans over by the change machine. I can't help but and my glance must have lasted longer than I thought because when I turn back, the old woman with the silver hair is bearing down on me with a disapproving stare.
The keeper of the VMGCS, she is letting me know, should not be leering at women.
I shrug sheepishly and keep my eyes fixed to the TV for the rest of my stay in the laundromat.
Before I leave, however, Teresa Romero returns to the laundromat, this time with her daughter.
"Can she see it?" Romero asks me.
"Sure," I said, once again opening the briefcase.
"Oh, it is the Lady, isn't it," the daughter says. "Mommy, did you ask her to help me?"
Teresa looks at me shyly. She knows that I know she concentrated her prayers on her son, not her daughter. Teresa touches the plastic case and once again makes the sign of the cross on her body.
"Yes, I asked her to help you," she tells her daughter. "Of course."
posted by Jim DeFede at 5:32 PM
Attention Homeland Security
Approaching the border, I get in a long line of cars waiting to enter the United States. I watch as the owner of each car is made to get out of his vehicle, open their trunk and stand aside as U.S. border agents go through their cars.
I'm expecting the same treatment, maybe worse. I haven't shaved in a week, I look even more disheveled than usual, and I am driving a rented Cadillac with a large metal briefcase resting on the passenger seat. If anyone is going to get tossed, it's me.
This trip to Mexico wasn't what I expected. After getting lost in Juarez, I eventually did find the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission. But now it was time to get back on the road.
When it was my turn to be questioned, the young border agent asked if I was bringing anything back from Mexico. I told him, no. I can see his eyes starting to search my vehicle. He seems to lock onto the metal briefcase.
"What was the purpose of your visit, sir?"
"I'm driving the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Miami to Las Vegas and I thought it would be nice to take a detour into Mexico."
He stared at me blankly.
"Have you heard of the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich?"
Another blank look. Images of a strip search and a plastic glove begin to race through my mind.
"This woman in Florida, she made a grilled cheese sandwich ten years ago and she claims the face of the Virgin Mary is on it," I babble. "She sold it on eBay last month for $28,000."
"And let me guess, the sandwich is in the briefcase."
"Yes. Wanna see it?"
"Okay," he says, moving around to the passenger side of my car. He opens the door and I unlock the case.
"You can really see a face," he says. "And she sold it for $28,000?"
"And you are driving it to Las Vegas?"
"Okay, sir, have a nice day."
And with that he let me pass. I never got out of my car. He never looked in the trunk. As I drive into the United States, I suddenly realize we can't allow the VMGCS fall into the hands of terrorists. They could use it to smuggle almost anything into the country and once they did, they could drive as fast as they want.
posted by Jim DeFede at 3:35 AM
Thursday, December 02, 2004
Once Upon A Time In Mexico
We're lost somewhere in Juarez.
That's right, the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich entered Mexico Thursday afternoon.
We're not supposed to be here. The fine people who rented me this new Cadillac certainly wouldn't approve of this jaunt across the Rio Grande. My editors don't know I'm here. And as for the folks at GoldenPalace.com who actually own the VMGCS, well, they haven't a clue either. I haven't heard from them in days. Not since I left one of their executives in the parking lot of the Yellow Rose in Austin.
Mexico just seemed like a good idea. I crossed the border in El Paso without so much as a care in the world. My plan was a quick side trip into Juarez so that I could take the VMGCS to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission.
In 1531, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared on a hilltop in what is now known as Guadalupe, Mexico just outside of Mexico City. She spoke to man named Juan Diego. And she arranged a bundle of roses in his cape to carry to the local bishop. When Diego presented the cape to the bishop and opened it, the roses fell to the ground and in their place was a vivid portrait of the Virgin Mary.
This apparition is one of the best known and most closely examined in the history of the Catholic Church and is one of the few that has been accepted as valid by the Vatican.
The mission in Juarez is an extension of the church built on that hilltop.
Now if only I could find it.
I'm in trouble almost from the outset. No sooner had I crossed the bridge into Mexico than I was nearly sideswiped by a bus, which forced off one of the main avenues and onto a side street. No problem, I think to myself, I'll just loop back around. But my sense of direction has never been very good and before long I am completely lost. For reasons which are still unclear to me, I end up in the hills above Juarez, miles from where the mission is located.
In fact, the road that I am on, is no longer a road but a dirt path with a series of crater size pot holes that threaten to swallow the Caddy whole. On the street, people are looking at me like I'm insane. It is right about now, that I start regretting missing so many of my Spanish classes this year at the Herald.
As I drive, the only Spanish I can recall, involves beer (cerveza), the bathroom (el bano) and how to note that a magazine (la revista) is on the table (insema del mesa). Oh, yeah, and cheese (queso). However, as you will soon see, I don't know how to say grilled cheese.
Now before I take this story further, let me just say that dogs in Juarez have no fear of cars. I'm not sure if it is because they are suicidal or whether they just don't care, but an inordinate number of them kept walking in front of my car. Let's be clear, though, I did not hit any of the dogs. I merely nudged one slightly and he seemed fine.
After about 30 minutes, I found a very nice woman who spoke more English than I do Spanish, and she patched together some basic directions to get back into Juarez and find the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission.
Before leaving, I attempt to explain what I am doing and I show her the VMGCS.
Pointing to the VMGCS, I try to think of a way to say grilled cheese, but all I have is the word "queso." So I start to make the sound of something being grilled -- "Sssssssssss" -- and then adding "queso."
So here was my conversation with this woman:
Me, pointing to the VMGCS: "La Madonna, Ssssssssssss Queso."
Me: "La Madonna, Sssssssss Queso."
I try saying it more slowly, as if that will help.
Me, again: "La Madonna, Sssssssssssssssssssss Queso."
The look on her face makes it clear she has no idea what i am talking about.
Frustrated, I add a bit of charades. When I say, "La Madonna" I motion to the face in the sandwich. When I make the "Ssssssss" sound, I touch my finger to the VMGCS as if it were very, very hot. And for "queso" I throw my hands into the air, as if to say, "viola!"
"La Madonna, Ssssssssssss Queso."
The woman shook her head. "Okay," she said, and walked away.
Perhaps Mexico wasn't such a good idea after all.
posted by Jim DeFede at 4:02 PM
Finally, An Elvis Posting
"Hey Cheryl, come here and take a look at this," David Garcia calls out.
They are working the late shift at a truck stop in the West Texas town of Plateau
Cheryl Monk walks over and examines the VMGCS.
"It sold on eBay for $28,000," Garcia explains.
Cheryl seemed incredulous. "Did it belong to Elvis or something?" she asks.
"No, no," Garcia says. "A woman made it ten years ago. She thinks it looks like the Virgin Mary."
Without the Elvis connection, Cheryl quickly loses interest and goes back to work.
Garcia takes another look and says it kind of looks a little like an old girlfriend of his.
"I heard that someone once spilled bleach on their coat and the stain looked just like the face of Jesus with the crown of thorns," he says.
"Was that around here?"
"Somewhere in New Mexico," he says "There are a lot of serious things out there."
posted by Jim DeFede at 1:34 AM
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Smokey and the Virgin, Part Two
For the second time in less than 24 hours, the VMGCS has gotten me out of a speeding ticket.
Wednesday night I was on the phone with my editor, sailing along I-20 heading west toward El Paso when Officer Devon Wiles, with the Texas Department of Public Safety, pulled me over.
"The reason you are being stopped is your speed," he tells me. "I clocked you doing 83 when the speed limit is 70. I'll need your license and proof of insurance."
As I hand him my paperwork, he asks: "Where are you headed?"
"Las Vegas," I say. "I'm … I'm … I'm delivering…"
I can't help but trip over the words. Am I really going to use the VMGCS to get out of another ticket? Do I have no shame?
Wiles looks at me suspiciously. "You're delivering what?"
Now I'm stuck. He is about 30 seconds away from calling out the drug sniffing dogs to rip apart my Caddy. I tell myself I have no choice.
"Did you hear about that woman who made a grilled cheese sandwich and sold it for $28,000 on eBay? I've got it. I'm delivering it. I'm driving it from Miami to Las Vegas."
"You've got the sandwich and you are driving it from Miami to Las Vegas," he says.
"Wanna see it?"
"I think you are pulling my leg," he says.
"I promise I'm not pulling your leg. I'll show it to you if you want? It's right there in the briefcase."
I can see his eyes light up and I know I'm home free.
I again ask: "Can I show it to you?"
"Go ahead," he says.
I open the case and turn it toward him. He takes a long look.
"There actually is a face in there," he says.
"I promise to slow down," I say.
"Huh," he says, his mind focused only on the VMGCS.
"I'll slow it down," I repeat.
He begins to laugh. "Nobody would believe me anyway if I told them I stopped you and you were ticketed," he says.
He becomes quiet and looks around. He's trying to think of some way he can prove he stopped the guy with the VMGCS. "I'll tell you what," he says, "can I get this on video?"
"Okay," he says, "step out of the car."
He directs me to stand at the back of my car, facing his cruiser and holding the VMGCS against my chest, as if it were a set of jailhouse numbers and this was my booking photo.
Just as the highway patrolman did a day earlier, Wiles is going to use the video camera mounted on the windshield of his police car to capture his encounter with the VMGCS.
"I'm just going to get in my car and zoom in on it," he says.
Trucks and cars are whooshing by as I stand by the side of the busy interstate.
"Okay," he shouts from inside his car, "you can get back in your car now."
I do so and after a few minutes he returns with my license. "Okay, this is a written warning," he says. "No fines or fees will be assessed. Have a nice day."
Amazing. No, miraculous.
posted by Jim DeFede at 10:19 PM
Coming Soon: The George Washington GCS
The diner in Crawford, Texas stays open each night until 7:30.
Even when the town's most famous resident is away -- as he is most of the time -- his presence is never far away. There are life size cardboard pictures of George W. Bush and Laura Bush that folks can stand alongside and have their pictures taken.
The diner also sells T-shirts, key chains and all sorts of souvenirs. As you would imagine, the president is big business in this town, population 713.
On the menu, a grilled cheese sandwich sells here for $2.75.
But seeing the VMGCS caused the cook, JJ Alaniz, to think he might be able to get a little more for them. While I polished off a chicken fried steak Tuesday night, he was in the kitchen seeing if he could make a grilled cheese sandwich with the president's face on it. Any president's face.
"He's back there now trying to draw George Washington on one of the sandwiches," said Mallory McIver, a waitress who lives down the road seven miles in McGregor.
When I finished my dinner, the VMGCS and I walk back into the kitchen and catch JJ still trying to scratch an outline of a face in the toasted bread with a knife.
"It's George Washington," he says, optimistically. "See, there's his head right there. And his hair."
"I don't see anything," I tell him.
"Damn," he cries. "But do you think I could still get $50 for it?"
More on my trip to Crawford will be published in The Miami Herald on Thursday.
posted by Jim DeFede at 2:13 PM
Smokey and the Virgin
Cutting through the cold, Texas night air, the VMGCS and I are doing about 80 mph along Highway 6. It is almost midnight and there is not another soul on the road. Dean Martin is blaring from my CD player.
And then that's when I see them. A pair of headlights coming at me from the opposite direction. As they pass me, I can see it is a Texas Highway Patrol cruiser. Before I can slow down, he's turned on his flashing red lights and is making a U-turn to circle back around behind me.
As I pull over to the side of the highway, I wonder how this could be possible? Am I or am I not riding with God's grace?
Patrolman Clint Cole is all business. He wants my license. He wants my proof of insurance. He wants the rental papers on the Cadillac. It's clear he is going to write me a ticket.
As I'm fumbling to find the car rental agreement, he asks me if there is a reason I was going so fast? Was there some sort of emergency? He was scolding me with his questions. Finally, he asked, where I was going in such a hurry.
"Las Vegas," I said. "Did you hear about the woman who sold a grilled cheese sandwich on eBay for $28,000?"
"Yeah," he said.
"Well, I'm taking it to Las Vegas," I said. "I've got the sandwich here in the car."
"You have it in the car?"
"Yes," I said. "Would you like to see it?"
"You're kidding me," he said. "You don't really have it."
I get out of the car and place the VMGCS briefcase on the trunk.
When I snap open the latches, Patrolman Cole shined his flashlight on what was inside.
"Oh my goodness," he blurted out excitedly. "That is it."
"Yep, that's it," I confirmed.
He told me he wanted to show it to his sergeant. I didn't see anyone else in his police cruiser, but I took the VMGCS out of the briefcase and handed it to him anyway.
As he walked to the front of his patrol car, I realize there is a video camera mounted on the dashboard recording everything that is happening. Holding it carefully to his side, Cole stood directly in front of his cruiser and began to talk to the camera.
"All right Sarge," he said, "here is the grilled cheese sandwich with the Virgin Mary on it. The one you saw on the news. It looks like Poppa Smurf to me though."
When he wrapped up his report, he handed it back to me.
"Well sir, tonight you are going to receive a verbal warning on your speed," he said, an appreciative grin on his face. As cars and trucks whiz by, he looked around in amazement that he would encounter the VMGCS on the side of the road.
"This is really odd," he confessed.
I tell him I'm a reporter with the Miami Herald and am writing about people's reaction to seeing the VMGCS.
"Well, it looks like Poppa Smurf to me," he said. "See there is his hat and his nose and his ear."
I ask him what he thinks about people who believe the Virgin Mary appears to them in objects like a grilled cheese sandwich or on screen doors or on the side of a tree.
"I believe in God and all, but stuff like that, no I don't think so," he said. "On every tree out here in these woods I could find you shapes and faces of the Virgin Mary or anyone else. It's like looking at the clouds, it's whatever you want to make out of it. But it does cause some faith in people.
"Well sir," he continued, "you have a safe trip. And take good care of that thing. Take good care of that grilled cheese sandwich."
posted by Jim DeFede at 3:57 AM
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
No One Home at the Ranch
From Austin I drove to Waco and then out to Crawford. I will have more on the Crawford segment of my trip tomorrow, but I did drive out to President Bush's ranch at about 10 p.m.
The VMGCS and I were greeted by blinding light when we drove up to the gate. I knew the president wasn't here, but I hoped I could show her to some of the Secret Service guys on duty. I waited by the front gate with the motor running for several minutes, figuring someone would come out and want to question me. But no onedid.
I thought about getting out of the Caddy, but I started to imagine what the Secret Service snipers would think if I suddenly got out of this car carrying a steel briefcase and babbling something about grilled cheese and the Virgin Mary. They would put a bullet between my eyes before I could close my car door.
So I backed up and drove away.
posted by Jim DeFede at 11:46 PM
A Key Court Ruling
While in Austin, the VMGCS made a surprise appearance before the Texas Supreme Court.
An old friend works for the court and asked me to bring by the VMGCS so his coworkers could see it. When I arrived, they gathered around and debated its meaning. Many were skeptical.
I asked how many people believed it was the Virgin Mary? No one raised their hand.
I then asked how many people could be certain it is not the Virgin Mary? Only one person said they were certain, the rest said nothing. "You can't really know for sure," one woman said.
Some of them then gathered around to have their pictures taken with it. One woman noted that a recent visit by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia didn't create nearly as much buzz in the building as the VMGCS.
Indeed, the way the folks at the Texas Supreme Court reacted to the VMGCS was no different than how the gang at the Yellow Rose strip club had reacted 12 hours earlier. Except at the Supreme Court, everyone kept their tops on.
Just before I packed up to leave, Chief Justice Wallace B. Jeffferson strolled by.
"Hi Chief," several of the court workers said nervously, not knowing how he might react to having the VMGCS ten steps from his office.
The Chief Justice leaned in, took a look and said: "Wow."
As far as I'm concerned that is an official legal opinion from the highest court in the state.
posted by Jim DeFede at 5:39 PM
Yellow Rose of Texas
I could try to rationalize what happened Monday night in Austin by quoting scripture relating to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. You know, the whole "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" thing.
But I have too much respect for you to do that.
So here it is: Monday night the VMGCS visited the Yellow Rose nudie bar.
Hey, all I can say is it gets lonely on the road.
"I'm surprised to see it here," one dancer said quite earnestly. "But thank you for bringing the message to a strip club."
Most of the dancers, however, just wanted to hold it and have their picture taken with it. Some with their tops on, most with them off.
"It's like the Stanley Cup," Jeff Spangenberg said. "People just want to hold it."
Spangenberg is the CEO of Top Heavy Studios, which manufactures video games, including one called The Guy Game which he described as "Girls Gone Wild meets video games." I have no idea what that means, but he seemed quite proud of it.
A pretty young woman named Maya strolls over and sits on my lap. She is from Brownsville, Texas, near the border with Mexico. She tells me that in Brownsville there is a tree trunk with the visage of the Virgin Mary.
"I didn't believe it till I went to see it myself," she said. "But it really there. It really looks like her."
And therein lies the one thing that has surprised me the most during this trip -- the number of people who want to tell me about their own sighting of the Virgin Mary. This is phenomenon far larger than I ever imagined.
Twenty-four hours earlier, for instance, I was playing poker at a casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana. After winning a few hands, I told the other players that I had an unfair advantage. I then opened the briefcase that had been at my feet and showed them the VMGCS. Several of them know exactly what it was and before long the game was momentarily suspended as the players, along with several dealers and cocktail waitresses gathered around to see it.
When the game resumed, one of the women Prudence Burns of Sulphur, Louisiana, told me about reports 15 years ago of Jesus' face appearing in the foliage of a tree out in the swamps. The leaves were turning color and when the light hit the tree just right, the face could be seen as clear as day.
Across the poker table, Kathleen Dupin said she saw it too. "It was there for days," she said.
"Did you see the Virgin Mary in the screen door?" Dupin asked Burns.
"I sure did," Burns said.
A few years after Jesus' face appeared in the tree, Mary appeared on a woman's screen door. Dupin, who owns a beauty parlor in New Orleans, said she went to both apparitions with a group of her friends.
"We were so moved, we all just stood there and cried," she recalled.
You cried in front of a screen door?
"Well there were so many people there already, praying and crying," she said. "It was so emotional and I guess we all wanted it to be true."
"I once saw Moses on a French fry," a college kid interrupted, trying to be funny. Everyone ignored him.
Dupin continued. "Even now, today, years later, I still believe those were the faces of Jesus and Mary," she said.
And what about the grilled cheese sandwich?
"I don't think so," she said. "This one didn't make me emotional."
Maybe, I said, you think you would be more likely to believe it was really the Virgin Mary? You saw it in a room filled with people crying and praying, instead of seeing it here, like this, sprung on you in the middle of a casino? Isn't it a matter of the setting and the perception of others, that ultimately influence your perception?
"I suppose so," she said.
She takes a second look at the VMGCS. "Okay," she says, "I saw Jesus in a tree, I saw the screen door with the Virgin Mary and now I've seen the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. I fee; truly blessed."
posted by Jim DeFede at 5:27 AM
Monday, November 29, 2004
Perceptions from other parts of the country:
My friend Anne lives in Spokane, Washington. When she told her mom about the VMGCS, her mom's first question was: "Is it bleeding?"
This of course got us thinking about the VMGCS crying tears of blood, but since it is a grilled cheese sandwich after all, wouldn't it cry tomato soup?
Such are the unanswerable questions of God and faith.
posted by Jim DeFede at 6:17 PM
"...A Very Good Sex Drive."
Notes from my time in New Orleans:
I arrived in New Orleans on Sunday, and my initial plan is to show the VMGCS to one of the Neville Brothers or one of the Neville sisters or Neville children. I always imagined you couldn't swing a dead cat in this town without hitting a Neville.
Turns out they are harder to find than I thought.
So I drive instead to the French Quarter and Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo. Laveau was born in 1783 and was a renowned practitioner of Voodoo in New Orleans for decades, until her passing in 1881 at the age of 98.
I take the VMGCS to the very room in her house where she died. A young woman with a nose ring and purple and pink hair, takes $35 from me for the deluxe package -- psychic impressions, palm reading and Tarot cards.
After a few minutes I am greeted by Reese who leads me to a private back room. I tell Reese only my name. I do not tell him I am a reporter or what I have in the briefcase.
"I'd like you to tell me about the journey I'm on," I say before we begin.
"Let me have your right hand," he says.
He cups my hand in his. Then he turns on his tape recorder so that I will have a permanent record of our session. It is included in the deluxe package price.
"Good afternoon Jim and welcome to Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo, way down yonder in old New Orleans. My name is Reese and I am going to read for you today. I'm picking up that you are a very analytical person. You are a people watching person. You get a big kick out of it. They never cease to amaze you, what they are going to do next. You have a lot of fun with that. The crazier they are, the more bizarre they are, the more you get out of it."
I try to remain impassive as he continues.
"You like to gather news, facts and information. It is very important for you to gather news facts and information. If the television is on you will look at the news, you will read the newspaper, you will pick up a book. Your mind is like a steel trap. It is forever trying to pick up facts.
"Also you are very intuitive and you are a very old soul," he continues. "This is not the first time you have been on the planet. This is another one of your lifetime journeys. But you know all that already don't you?"
I nod yes.
"I'm picking up that you don't take too many people too close to you very often. You test them out very well. They don't even know they are going through it half the time. When you decide they are okay you take them into your life."
"Also, you are a bit of a crusader," he says. "You will help anybody for a good cause, especially the underdog. The person who people think are not worthwhile, you will jump in and help them. If people don't like what you are doing, you don't care about that either. You are going to do what you want to do. God has blessed you with the ability to always see the big picture in life where other people can't."
"Okay, now let's see what we got," he says, turning my hand over to examine my palm. "Have you ever had your palm read before?"
He starts pointing out lines in my hand. "This right there," he says, "that's called the Girdle of Venus. That means you should always be lucky in love. When one person leaves another person enters. Has that been so already?"
"Well, I do see that you will be lucky in love. You have a very good sex drive."
Now, he's onto something.
"You are very powerful. You are very powerful in your own way, but you're subtle."
Wow, this is spooky.
"You go around the back way to get things done, but you know how to work it. You know how to get things done."
At this point I'm not sure if he is still talking about my sex drive or my nature at work, but either way I'm okay with it.
"You like the theater, you like the arts and you like good music," he says. "You feel like you need to be in service to the world. You are also very intuitive. You have some psychic ability about you your own self."
"You get feelings about things and if you don't second guess yourself, nine out of ten times you will be right on the money," he said. "You know that, don't you."
"Oh, yeah. Absolutely."
"Also you are very romantic. You love romance. You do a lot of thinking with your head, you do a lot of thinking with your heart. But ultimately your heart does get in the way. Also you do have a good head on your shoulders. You are very smart."
This guy is amazing. He predicts that when I am 45 I will reinvent myself ("You will come out stronger and better than you ever have been.") and travel ("I see you going to Europe.")
"Your life line is long and good. You should live to be pretty old if you take care of yourself."
The Tarot cards were more of the same.. ("In the past you've felt sorry for yourself, now get off the pity pot because it is just going to leave a ring around your backside.")
He asks me if I have any questions. I tell him I am on a journey, that I am driving cross country, and is there anything I should look out for or anything in particular I might encounter along the way.
"Is this your car or a rental car?"
"Okay, you have to watch out for tires. I see some tire trouble around you."
"But it's a Cadillac." I ask about people I might encounter.
"I don't see somebody bad around you, but don't be too trusting."
I then open the briefcase and show him what's inside. I ask what he feels or sees or can divine from it.
"Oh, there's a face in it. Right there."
I tell him about how Diana Duyser made the sandwich ten years ago and now sold it to an online casino, GoldenPalace.com.
"This is very interesting," Reese says. "I don’t know how that person got in there. But that truly is a face, that truly is a person. I don't understand it."
I've stumped the psychic.
"Do apparitions sometime appear in food?"
"I don't know about that, but it is something. Let me think about it." He closes his eyes and tilts his head back for at least 30 seconds.
"Did the woman who did this ever lose a child? The woman who made this -- what is it, it looks like a piece of toast."
"It's a grilled cheese sandwich."
"Did she ever lose a child?"
"No, not that I am aware of."
"This looks like a child who may have tried to come to her. The child doesn't look that happy, either." Pause. "It definitely is a child. It is trying to come through and tell her something. She might be worried about this. But that's what I am picking up that she may have lost a child at one time and that she has always been sad about that child. But that child is okay, that's what I am getting. It is definitely a child's face."
"She thought it was the Virgin Mary."
"No, I don’t think it is the Virgin Mary," Reese says. "You sure she never lost a child?"
I said I would have to double check.
"I just think it is someone from the other side letting her know she's okay," he says. "It is somebody who just wanted to get her attention."
"But you said the child has a sad face," I remind him.
"But it's okay now," he says.
I ask about the phenomenon of apparitions.
"Spirits will get your attention anyway they can," he says. "They want to get your attention. They want to be around you. They don't want to be forgotten."
He once again carefully studies the grilled cheese, moving his hand slowly over it.
"I think it is a child she always felt sad about it," he said. "It could also be somebody in her life who passed away around her and is trying to get her attention."
"So it may have been a child around her," I ask. "A sibling or someone?"
"She sold it for how much?"
"I love it."
My session ends. I call Diana to tell her about the psychic's impressions.
"He thinks it's a child," she says skeptically. "I don't think it looks like a child."
A silence ensues. After a few minutes, however, she confides something she hadn't told me before. Although she has always described herself as an only child, she did, in fact have a sister. Her name was Joyce, and she died when she was just nine days old.
Could this be Joyce trying to contact her from other side?
Diana said she doubted it. I told her I would give her more time to think about it.
Is this the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich or the Joyce Grilled Cheese Sandwich?
Clearly, I need a drink.
I head into the Krazy Korner Bar on Bourbon Street.
More on that later.
posted by Jim DeFede at 2:47 PM
Lost in the Bayou
Having only crossed into Texas an hour ago, I'm not sure I escaped Louisiana intact.
Psychic readings in New Orleans.
Rum punch and rowdy women on Bourbon Street.
An all-night stud poker game in Lake Charles.
And more ghost stories than I have ever heard before.
The VMGCS and I may never be the same again.
I need time to process all of it.
And according to my new psychic guide, Reese, I need to sleep.
"You are very tired," he told me. "Rest. Rest. Rest."
In the meantime, ponder today's lyric from Lucinda Williams:
"If we lived in a world without tears,
How would bruises find the face to lie upon?
How would scars find the skin to etch themselves into?
How would broken find the bones?"
posted by Jim DeFede at 5:56 AM
Sunday, November 28, 2004
Within 30 minutes of hittingthe casino at the Beau Rivage, I found myself down $300.
Dropped a fast $100 at the craps table, then another $200 at blackjack.
I begin to wonder about the magic of the VMGCS. I decide to take another $100 and head back to the craps table, where in another 30 minutes I turn that $100 into $600.
$600 minus initial $400 leaves me up $200 at the casino.
$200 minus the $133 for the speeding ticket.
Up $67 for the trip.
On to New Orleans.
posted by Jim DeFede at 10:17 PM
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Bye, Bye Bama
Crossed into Mississippi right around 1,000 mile mark of the trip.
Spending the night in Biloxi.
Didn't arrive in time, however, to take the VMGCS to the Jerry Jeff Walker concert. Guess we will have to gamble instead.
posted by Jim DeFede at 10:33 PM
Testing the Virgin
The Catholic Church is historically reluctant to accept sightings of the Virgin Mary as real without some proof that extraordinary or even miraculous events result from its appearance.
I figured I should be no less demanding.
Driving into Georgia Saturday, I decided to put the VMGCS through a little test. I have never driven through Valdosta, Georgia -- along Interstate 75 -- without receiving a speeding ticket. It is one of the most notorious speed traps on the East Coast.
As I approach Valdosta, I open the briefcase carrying the VMGCS, gently touch it for luck, and gun the engine to 90 mph. I fly through town without even a hint of a police officer in the area. Not satisfied, I turn around, so I can double back through town a second time.
This time I push it to 95. Still nothing.
I jump on a US 84 and head west for Alabama. I begin to think maybe there is something truly special about the VMGCS.
On the drive through Georgia, I catch a little hell fire and brimstone on the radio.
"We are involved in a culture war," the man on the radio is saying. "A lot of Christians don't realize it."
I soon discover the man speaking is the author of the book, "America at War."
"What has caused Americans to leave the Christian values that made this country great," the host of the program asks. "Is it the media? Is it the government? Is it the educational system? What has been the primary mover to move America from a Christian nation to a pagan nation?"
"Well, they have all played a part."
They then begin to discuss "the homosexual agenda."
Somehow on the radio, the word homosexual seems to have about 14 syllables.
When I stop for gas, I make a point of closing the VMGCS briefcase. Having gotten me through Valdosta, I wanted to keep her safe and secure.
Not more than ten minutes later, I cross into Alabama. And what do you suppose happens?
I see the flashing lights of a police car pulling me over.
"What year Cadillac is this," the officer says when he approaches my car.
On his baseball cap is the word "CHIEF," spelled all in caps. His gun belt is tucked under his big belly. He appears to be about 60 years old. He looks like a less-sexy version of Carroll O'Connor when he was doing the TV series, "In The Heat of the Night."
"It's a new," I say, handing him my license. "It's a rental."
"Oh, a rental," the chief says.
"What town is this?"
"Gordon, Alabama. Population 500," the chief says, with a heavy southern mumble. "Do you know how fast you were going?"
Before I can answer, he tells me.
"Well, you see chief. I'm on a mission," I explain. "A pilgrimage really."
"Did you hear about that woman who saw the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich and sold it for $28,000?"
"I got it right here," I said pointing to the closed briefcase.
"You got what?"
"You want to see it."
"You've got the sandwich?"
"I've got it and I am on my way to Las Vegas."
I open the briefcase and show it to him.
"Well I'll be," the chief says, breaking into a big smile. "How about that? You can really see her face."
Suddenly the smile disappears from his face and his eyes, narrow suspiciously. "Where'd you get it," he asks, clearly concerned that perhaps I have stolen this relic and am now trying to flee the country.
"I'm a reporter with the Miami Herald. I'm delivering the sandwich to the folks who bought it."
"In Las Vegas?"
"Exactly. So there is no need to give me a ticket then, is there?"
"No, you were still doing 85. But thanks for showing it to me."
"Okay, how about some T-shirts."
(Before leaving a friend told me about a job she had after college driving the Swiffer Mobile across the country. She said whenever they got stopped by the cops, they just loaded them up with free stuff and the cops let them go.)
"T-shirts?" the chief says. "What's on the T-shirt."
I take him around to the trunk. The new owners of the VMGCS, GoldenPalace.com, gave me two box loads of T-shirts they printed with an image of the VMGCS on it along with the phrase, "The Passion of the Toast."
The chief takes two. Plus, I load him up with some VMGCS key chains.
I still got the ticket. Fine: $133.
posted by Jim DeFede at 9:21 PM
Music for the Soul
Gillian Welch song lyric of the day:
"Oh I dream a highway back to you, Lord.
A winding ribbon with a band of gold.
A silver vision to come and rest my soul.
I dream a highway back to you."
-- from the CD "Renovator"
posted by Jim DeFede at 2:17 PM
No Curve by the Side of the Road
Before I head out, a few more thoughts about Day One.
You can find out what happened to me in Clearwater in tomorrow's Miami Herald or by logging onto www.herald.com and looking for my Sunday column.
Leaving Clearwater, I traveled up US 19 through Inglis, the town that made being the Devil a crime.
The proclamation that outlaws Satan reads in part:
"Be it known from this day forward, that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis ... In the past, Satan has caused division, animosity, hate, confusion, ungodly acts on our youth, and discord among our friends and loved ones. NO LONGER!"
"We exercise our authority over the devil in Jesus' name. By that authority, and through His Blessed Name, we command all satanic and demonic forces to cease their activities and depart the town of Inglis."
Clearly this was my kind of town.
But by the time I arrived Friday night, nearly everything in town was shut down. I stopped off at a convenience store. A few kids were loitering. I now realize I am going to get strange looks wherever I go with this metal briefcase.
I ask one of the kids if he had heard about the VMGCS.
"Huh," he replied.
"The Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich," I repeated.
"Oh, the Virgin Mary, she's down in Clearwater. That's back the other way."
"No, the grilled cheese sandwich."
"I don't think they sell grilled cheese sandwiches here. They have other food though."
I decide it is late and this kid is too stupid to see what I have. I get back in the Caddy and leave. I take a county road out of Inglis toward Ocala. On the way I find a Baptist Church. The sign in front: "Jesus Grades on a Cross, Not on a Curve."
posted by Jim DeFede at 10:30 AM
And so it begins
Snapshots from my first day on the road with the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich:
We leave Miami later than I had hoped.
Initially we head north on Interstate 95, before jumping over to the Florida Turnpike. Inside the Cadillac's CD player, Gillian Welch's haunting "Revival" album sets the tone for the trip.
"I am an orphan," she sings, "on God's highway."
My plan is to take the turnpike -- The Ronald Reagan Turnpike as it was renamed not long ago -- to I-75 and cut across the Everglades through what is commonly referred to as Alligator Alley. I then want to shoot north as quickly as possible and make Georgia by nightfall. Florida holds little mystery to me. I want out of this state. But halfway across the Everglades, I see the sign for Everglades City and I know where the VMGCS's first stop must be.
Off the main blacktop through town, there's a dirt road that leads to the Chickee Bar -- an open air dive on the water with cold beer, a pool table and decent juke box. In the distance, the sound of airboats -- loud and obnoxious and filled with tourists -- is unmistakable.
"I'll be right back, I just have to get some change," the bartender yells as she rushes by me in the parking lot.
As she passes me, she stops, turns and looks at the large, metal briefcase I'm carrying.
"Just make yourself at home," she adds before sprinting off.
Inside, the regulars sip their beers. "The bartender will be back in a minute," one of them, shirtless, says, without even looking at me.
When the bartender returns I order a coke and grouper sandwich. Before it arrives, I plop the VMGCS briefcase on the bar and ask: "Anyone here heard of the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich?"
Several of them nod.
"I've got it right here," I said. "Want to see it?"
Before I could finish snapping open the latches, a crowd started to form.
"Look at that, there really is a face in it," the bartender said.
"I never thought I'd come to a bar in the Everglades and see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich," added Ann Rodenbeck, who along with her husband Pat, and their three kids were camping on nearby Chokoluskee Island.
"Yeah, but I don't know if it looks like the Virgin Mary," offered Vic Colemire. "I've never seen the Virgin Mary before. I mean who knows what she really looks like? Let's face it, people will believe just about anything."
I explain that I am driving the VMGCS to Las Vegas. Vic tell me that is where he is from. He drove to Florida. I ask him if he has any suggestion on where I should stop with the VMGCS.
He suggests Beaumont, Texas.
"Heart of the bible belt," he said.
"Strong moral values," I said. "That's what the Red States are all about I guess."
"God bless the Red States," declared Pat, who voted for Bush.
"I don't understand what that whole morality thing and the election was all about," said Vic, who voted for Kerry.
"Who used to have the conservative values in the South 50 years ago? The Democrats," Pat said. "Who has them now? The Republicans. The Democrats lost their base and they will never get them back. Look at the rest of the country. Who controlled the Northeast 50 years ago? The rich elites. And that used to be the Republican base. Now that's who makes up the Democratic party."
By the time my grouper arrived, Pat and Vic were arguing about Iraq and the Middle East. Meanwhile, a steady line of people came by to see the VMGCS.
"You know when you first came in here with that briefcase," Vic tells me. "I thought you might be a terrorist and that there was a bomb in that thing."
From Everglades City I drove to the west coast of Florida and up to Clearwater where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared on the windows of a bank. In the eight years since the image first appeared, thousands of people have come to see it and pray. So many people, in fact, that the bank finally closed its doors.
The land is now occupied by a group called Shepherds of Christ Ministries, an Ohio-based religious order. And while you might think that the women who tend to this land would be inclined to accept the VMGCS, they actually had a fairly negative response when I showed up and announced that I was indeed carrying the VMGCS.
"You can't bring that in here," Shepherd Rosie Reed told me. "This is holy ground."
More about my visit to Clearwater later. It's almost 3 a.m. and I'm beat.
posted by Jim DeFede at 3:10 AM
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