I am on a mission, a holy quest. A week ago, a woman from Hollywood, Florida sold a grilled cheese sandwich on the auction website eBay for $28,000 (£14,500). The woman claims not only that the sandwich is 10 years old, but that it also bears the likeness of the Virgin Mary.
"I made the sandwich the way I normally do," Diana Duyser tells me when we meet. "Two slices of Publix white bread, two slices of Land O'Lakes American cheese. No butter, no margarine, no oil in the pan. And when I took a bite out of it, I saw her. It was the Virgin Mary. So I spit out the part I had eaten, and I put the rest of the sandwich in this plastic case my father gave me."
She kept it on the table by her bed for a decade, believing that its presence has contributed to her winnings of $70,000 at a nearby casino. But times have changed: her husband no longer works, the couple have no health insurance, and no one knows how much she has also lost at the same casino. After her father died, she decided to see how much she could get for it on eBay. "I was shocked," she said of the $28,000 bid.
The buyers are an Antigua-based online casino, GoldenPalace.com, whose owners live in London. They have bought the sandwich for the publicity. They have bought it as a stunt.
My task is humbler. I have offered to drive the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Miami to Las Vegas, where the new owners have sent emissaries to pick it up. They are thrilled with the publicity. Diana is pleased, because she wants her sandwich to do good work across America. As well as trying to gauge the public's reaction to the sandwich, I want an answer to the most important questions of all. Is this really the Virgin Mary? And if it is, why would she show up on a grilled cheese sandwich?
On Friday 26 November, I set out in a new white Cadillac Deville, rented especially for this trip. If this is the image of the mother of our Lord, she deserves nothing but the best. For security reasons, I have put her in a metal briefcase which, for the next eight days, will never be out of my sight.
My first task is to take it into a bar in the middle of the Everglades. "Look at that, there really is a face in it," the bartender says, as I down a beer and some fish and chips. A crowd gathers. "Yeah, but I don't know if it looks like the Virgin Mary," offers Vic Colemire, a Vietnam veteran. "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."
A fair point. What does the Virgin Mary look like? The folks in Clearwater, Florida think they know. Eight years ago, they believed that the image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the windows of a bank building. Tens of thousands of people came to pray. So many came that the bank had to close.
Now the building is empty, but people still surround it to pray. If anyone can tell me if the Holy Grill I'm carrying is truly an Immaculate Confection, these can.
"You can't bring that in here," Rosie Reed scolds me. "This is holy ground."
Reed is a Handmaiden of the Shepherd, a member of the religious sect that now oversees the Virgin on the Bank. It's clear that she doesn't want a competing Virgin Mary to draw attention, and possibly donations, away from her Virgin Mary.
I assure her I'm not interested in asking anyone for money. "Don't you at least want to look at it?" I ask. "Maybe it will move you."
I hold the briefcase open so she can see the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich (VMGCS). Reed makes a disapproving face: "I don't see anything." Then she says that if I don't stop showing it to people, she will call the police and have me arrested.
On day three, I hit New Orleans. I drive to the French Quarter and Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo, where a psychic named Reese has agreed (for $35) to study the VMGCS and divine its origins. I tell him nothing about the sandwich in advance.
"Oh, there's a face in it," he exclaims. "Right there. This is very interesting. 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.
I ask: "Do apparitions sometime appear in food?" He says: "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 made this sandwich 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. "I just think it is someone from the other side letting her know she's okay." I ask about apparitions again. "Spirits will get your attention any way they can," he says. "They want to be around you. They don't want to be forgotten."
I call Duyser. "He thinks it's a child," she says sceptically. "I don't think it looks like a child." However, she says she had a sister, Joyce, who died at just nine days old. Could this be the face of Joyce? Duyser says no: "I still think it is the Virgin Mary."
On the fourth night, I take the VMGCS to a strip club in Austin, Texas. Some might think this sacrilegious, but even Jesus used to hang out with Mary Magdalene. Besides, after four days on the road, I am feeling kind of lonely. "I'm surprised to see it here," one lithe young dancer says. "But thank you for bringing the message to a strip club." "My pleasure."
A pretty young woman named Maya sits on my lap. She says that in her hometown near the border with Mexico, there is a tree trunk with the visage of the Virgin Mary. "I didn't believe it till I went to see it," she says, her left breast snug against my chest. "But it really is there. It really looks like her."
The next day, I take the VMGCS to see a friend who works for the Texas Supreme Court. No sooner do I open the case than a crowd of lawyers and secretaries and judges appear. Even the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court stops by, looks at the VMGCS, and says: "Wow." The way people reacted at the strip club is identical to the way folks respond at the Supreme Court. The only difference is that no one at the Supreme Court takes their clothes off in front of the VMGCS.
If this is the Virgin Mary, I think it's important that President George Bush should have a chance to see her. As we are in Texas, I take a short detour to the President's ranch in Crawford. Unfortunately, Bush is in Canada chastising the Canadians for not supporting the war in Iraq.
Driving through Texas, I am stopped twice by police for speeding. Each time, the VMGCS gets me out of the ticket. The officers are so amazed by it that they let me go. One, Patrolman Clint Cole, asks if he can hold the sandwich. He holds it carefully in his hands, and then shows it to the video camera on the dashboard of his police cruiser, so he'll have a record of him holding it.
I ask him if he believes this is the Virgin Mary. "I believe in God and all, but stuff like that, no, I don't think so," he says. "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."
Day seven. I stop at a laundromat in Tucson, Arizona. As always, the VMGCS is with me. "Oh, wow, she's beautiful," says Teresa Romero. She touches the plastic case and makes the sign of the cross on her forehead and lips. She touches the case again, only this time her lips move in silent prayer. "Maybe she'll grant my wish," she says.
What's she praying for? "For my son to straighten up. 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?" Before leaving, she pats me on the shoulder and whispers in my ear: "God bless you for bringing this here."
Another woman tells me she once saw the image of the Virgin Mary on a plate in her house. "It broke the next day," she said. "It shattered all by itself. My mom said [the Virgin Mary] was trying to tell me something, but then she must have changed her mind." What is faith if not believing in things that others may regard as foolish?
As I wait for my clothes in the dryer, Teresa Romero returns with her daughter. "Can she see it?" Romero asks. "Sure," I say, again opening the briefcase. "Oh, it is the Lady, isn't it," the daughter says. "Mommy, did you ask her to help me?"
Teresa's prayers were for her son. She looks at me and seems embarrassed, touches the case and again makes the sign of the cross. "Yes, I asked her to look after you," she tells her daughter. "Of course."
Then it hits me. What difference does it make if I believe this is the Virgin Mary? If Teresa Romero and others find comfort in it, if it gives them hope, if it causes them to think or act in a more spiritual way, then why isn't that enough? Doesn't that suggest that it does, indeed, have a certain power?
As I am about to end my eight-day, 3,300-mile journey, I receive a call from my cousin Alex, who lives in Los Angeles. He and his wife Karen have been married for 29 years and they want to renew their wedding vows. They tell me they want to do it with the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich present in Las Vegas.
Karen tells me the Virgin Mary has always been dear to her, because the Virgin Mary meant so much to her mother, who died 22 years ago. Even today, Karen wears the Virgin Mary medallion that her mother gave her. "She always prayed to the Virgin Mary," Karen says, touching the chain around her neck. "Doing this, renewing our vows with the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich, just makes me think about my mother. I think she would like this."
We meet in Las Vegas on the last day of my trip and go to a wedding chapel in a strip mall. The VMGCS is placed on a pedestal near the altar. "Wow, this is something else," says the Rev Juan Gutierrez, taking a close look. "Being a Christian, it looks like a figure of a person, and it does have the hair and everything. Except I've never seen the Virgin Mary without her halo."
So, is it the Virgin Mary?
"I wouldn't say different," he says. "Who am I to question God's thoughts? He works in mysterious ways."
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