Chris Gardner- a picture of perfectness filled with fatherhood and a multimillionaire business. But life wasn’t always this way. Growing up with an abusive stepfather that regularly beat his mother and being raped by a man as a boy certainly affected him greatly. Gardner’s ex-partner, Jackie, gave birth to their son, Christopher Jarrett Media Gardner Jr., in 1981, the same year that he was working as a research lab assistant at UCSF, which only paid $8,000 annually- an amount that was not enough to support a family, and eventually quit after four years, becoming a medical equipment salesman.
Gardner recalls a pivotal moment in his life, when he came across an immaculately-dressed man named Bob Bridges driving a red Ferrari whilst offering him his spot in a parking lot. “You can have my spot”, he said, “but I gotta ask you a couple questions… What do you do? How do you do it?”. The man answered back with, “I’m a stockbroker”.
More determined than ever to follow this man’s path, he began directly visiting investment firms to try and find work, but found himself taken into custody instead due to $1,200 of fines in unpaid parking tickets. After being released, Gardner went directly to Dean Witter Reynolds’ stock brokerage, and was accepted into the training program. Despite this being an unpaid internship, his determination to become the best shone through, and he would always be the first and last one in the office, always trying to reach his goal of 200 calls a day. However, this unpaid role meant that it began a struggle to support living expenses whilst also solely supporting a two-year-old son.
Gardner and his son secretly struggled with homelessness with none of his co-workers knowing about it for over a year. He would often make every effort to put his son in daycare, stand in soup kitchens, and slept anywhere where he and his son would be safe, such as at the office after hours, motels, public transport. In one case, they slept at MacArthur station in Oakland, CA, locking the door and sleeping the whole night on the bathroom floor, with people constantly banging loudly on the door wondering what was going on inside.
In another case, the father and son duo often had to wait in line for rooms provided by the local church. The lines for the rooms started at 6pm, and you had to be out by 8am the next morning. On numerous nights, they missed the cut, meaning that they had to sleep in subway stations or waiting areas.
Eventually, his willpower and refusal to give up lead to him being employed by Bear Stearns & Company, where he became a top earner through his ever-lasting determination. In 1987, he founded his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich, in Chicago, and the rest is history.
“I couldn’t tell you that we were homeless, I just knew that we were always having to go. So, if anything, I remember us just moving, always moving”, says Gardner, looking back.
The first day that him and his son had their own roof over their heads will forever be etched clearly into Gardner’s mind. “On the first night we slept on the floor because we didn’t have any furniture yet. The next day we were walking out the door and my little boy got very upset. He said ‘papa, you forgot to bring our things’. He was upset because he was used to having to take our stuff with us every day, wherever we were. I don’t know how to explain the beauty of it, to be able to say to my little boy ‘we are home now, we don’t have to bring our stuff anymore.'”
He believes that homelessness that can affect anyone in the city, no matter the race or no matter how lazy or not lazy you are, and success is in the reach of anyone, if you try hard enough.
We hope that this inspirational story of Chris Gardner shows that there are more complex stories behind the homeless- hard work is not a word that is non existent in their vocabulary. I myself definitely do not have the ability to become a stockbroker!
Below is Gardner’s story made accessible through Will Smith’s adaption of it in ‘Pursuit of Happiness’.
Written by JC