Back in his teaching days at Baltimore City College, when Charlie Cherubin spoke in his raspy smoker’s voice, the classroom blackboards seemed to tremble.
Partly, it was because of the thunder in his vocal cords, and partly it was the message. Every sentence felt like a challenge, a wry insight or a wisecrack that you hoped wouldn’t be aimed your way.
For example, his line about the gang over at arch-rival Polytechnic. “The Poly boys call themselves ‘the Engineers,'” Charlie would say. “Actually, they’re future meter readers for the gas and electric company.”
When he wasn’t teaching his English classes, Charlie was advisor to The Collegian, the school’s weekly newspaper into whose office he would sneak in between classes to grab a quick cigarette and hope nobody from the principal’s office came snooping around.
Back in the ‘60s, Columbia University called The Collegian the nation’s top high school newspaper. This was nice to hear, but not so much that Charlie would ever indicate he was pleased.
“The paper’s not good enough,” he’d say, gathering the newspaper staff around him. “You’re not working hard enough.”
Then he’d go for the jugular, pulling from his top desk drawer a stack of typed papers.
“You all want to get into a good college,” he’d say. “Well, I have letters of recommendation here that could get Hitler into Hadassah.”
Or sometimes, he’d tell the all-boys staff, “I have letters here that could get you into a convent.”
He was a stickler for grammar, too. His daughter, Jan, once told me that when Charlie was in his final moments of life, nurses were wheeling him down a hallway at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Charlie tried to get up from the gurney that carried him.
“Lay down,” a nurse said.
“Lie,” Charlie thundered to the confused woman in his final utterance. “It’s lie down.”
All of this is a preface to say that Jan Cherubin has now written a terrific novel that bears striking similarities to the actual life of her father, who died in February of 1987 at the age of 69.
It’s called “The Orphan’s Daughter,” published by The Sager Group. Jan lives in Los Angeles, where she’s a writer, editor and standup comedian. The book’s on Amazon, and it’ll be in bookstores in a couple of weeks.
It’s a great read, whether you knew Charlie or not.
Jan’s got her father down to his very essence, which means it’s a daughter who adores her dad when she’s not ready to strangle him. He’s a womanizer. He’s also tough, demanding, insulting.
And yet, she writes, “He’s God,” and she hungers for his affection. She wistfully recalls, as a young girl, riding on the back of her dad’s bicycle, pressing her cheek against his back.
But what forces created this man?
The book’s title comes from Charlie’s life. His father ran off during the Depression, leaving behind a bunch of children. Charlie’s mother sent him and a younger brother to a Jewish orphanage in Yonkers, N.Y. They were just little boys, and they stayed at the orphanage for the next decade.
In “The Orphan’s Daughter,” Charlie — in the book he’s Clyde Aronson — has written a manuscript about his life. His daughter goes looking for the pages after he dies.
But there’s a complication: her father’s second wife, who’s living in the house where Jan and her sister grew up, is holding the papers as a kind of ransom over final settlements.
And so, as Jan opens the book, “I broke into the house I grew up in to steal back my childhood.”
The father’s reminiscences power much of the book. They reveal the brutal years at the orphanage and the hungers and hard edges created in those who lived there.
In some remarkable reporting and imaginative writing, Jan created the “memoir” out of old family photos and captions, wartime letters between her parents, conversations with her father, interviews with other veterans of the orphanage and a history of the place.
In “The Orphan’s Daughter,” she writes that she and her sister “were supposed to feel lucky for having a father at all. It was already better than he got. We were supposed to be grateful. … He was there, bigger than life, meeting the day camp bus in gardening clothes — cut-offs, no shirt, a gondolier’s hat — waving a cigarette in his hand. Singing to embarrass us. I saw him every day. I was grateful. He didn’t see me, though.”
Charlie Cherubin would have loved this book. It throws some punches his way, and a lot of love. Mostly, he’d have appreciated his daughter’s unflinching honesty. Readers will appreciate a terrific story, and a pro’s telling of it.
“The Orphan’s Daughter” has lots of Baltimore in it. It’s funny and sad and fast-paced. It’ll leave a lot of parents wondering what their children will think of them when they’re gone, and it’ll make a lot of children wonder what secrets are buried when they’ve waited too long to ask their parents any questions.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press). He is a Baltimore City College graduate, class of June 1963.