Up until last week, I had never heard of chi chi. I’d heard of ChiChi’s, the chain of Mexican Restaurants. But I’d never heard of just chi chi. Common noun. But that changed last Friday. That’s when the guys in the Men’s Creative Writing Class at ACJ taught me what chi chi really is. I don’t think I’m spelling that right, but it’s the best I can do.
Let me set the stage a bit. In our classroom, there is always this buzz no matter the topic of focus for the day. Electric enthusiasm barely contained. Crackling around our heads, ready to strike into full blown, uproarious conversation and chaotic sharing of ideas at any moment. I could say the words “unicorns and puppies” and almost instantly a voice from some deep corner on the other side of the circle would shout out, “You wanna know something about unicorns and puppies, man? Because I’ll tell you something about unicorns and puppies…”
As a teacher, conversation like this, when unfocused, can be an annoying problem to have. But in a class like ours where the guys really want to learn, are focused on the task at hand, and truly listen and respond to each other, I consider it one hell of a tool.
So we were talking about whatever it was we were talking about. A couple of poems. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley and “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelly. Heavy stuff. Dealing with themes of power and control. Who has it and who doesn’t. What it means to feel like you’re in control and what it means to feel like you have no control whatsoever.
Some things that made the guys feel like they had no control: Ebola (“if it gets in here, that’s it. It’s over”), being locked up, fire drills (“the plan during a fire drill in here is get everyone to the gym and lock the doors,”) being told what to wear every day, being told when to eat and what to eat and having to use a spork.
Some things that made the guys feel like they were in control: writing, holding down a job baking bagels in the morning, holding down a job delivering pizzas in the evening, being able to save up enough cash to take the kids on vacation, proving you could provide for somebody else and give them the life you never got, music, food.
And then someone said it. It started as a whisper in the back of the classroom, but it grew quickly. A force of nature. Unstoppable. The incantation that called the thunder down from the skies: Chi chi.
The lightning struck, the thunder cracked, and everyone, everyone in the room was talking about chi chi. Uproar. Chaos. The world was in chaos.
Except my partner and I. We had no idea what was going on. And when we told them that, they said, “Seriously, you’ve never heard of chi chi?” And we confirmed that our ignorance was very real.
So a spokesperson took the floor to enlighten us. “There are only two main ingredients you need to make chi chi,” he told us. “Ramen noodles and hot water. You can get a pack of them at the commissary for a buck fifty.” (This brought down a smaller shock of lightning and a grumble of thunder about commissary prices. A tube of jelly for five bucks. A small jar of peanut butter for four. “Hey, they gotta make their money somehow,” One of the guys said. “This whole thing’s a business.”) “After the ramen noodles,” the spokesman said, “you can really put in anything you want. Doritos, cheezy poofs, flaming hot Cheetos, cheez whiz, lunchmeat. But the key, the critical ingredient that makes the whole thing go from wet noodles to gourmet masterpiece. That is summer sausage.”
And the deluge began. An electrical storm the likes of which has not been seen since Noah floated his Ark made the room shudder under its force. Voices were raised. Hands were slapped. “That’s the shit”s were yelled across the room. And the world was in agreement.
So that’s how I learned what chi chi is.
Later in the class, I was having a conversation with the spokesman. It was his first day in class and we were trying to get to know each other better. We talked some more about chi chi. How he cooked every night in his cell using only hot water and a garbage bag. How it didn’t matter what crap they tried to feed him or that they made him wear red every day or that he could only leave his cell at certain times. He could make his chi chi taste exactly how he wanted them to taste. There were a lot of things he couldn’t control, but making chi chi was one of those things he could. Chi chi proved that he was a man in charge of his own life. “The captain of his soul” as Henley put it. So he would make chi chi. Every day. Until he got out of this place.
And that’s how I learned what chi chi really is.
-Johnny Caputo, Teacher