There but for the Grace of God ... the Real Chris Gardner Holds a Packed House
Cocheo, Steve, ABA Banking Journal
Along trailer for Hollywood's The Pursuit of Happyness opened Christopher Gardner's conference-closing speech. Gardner watched with the audience as actor Will Smith portrayed scenes from Gardner's own rise from homelessness to a lucrative stock brokerage career.
Gardner, who hardly ever dropped the smile from his face through his speech of ordeal and triumph, laughed with his audience when he reflected on the movie. The film is based on his book of the same title.
"Those people spent $70 million to recreate what I did with nothing," Gardner said.
But Gardner drew an equally big laugh when he spoke of his initial concerns about the studio's choice of leading man. Gardner recalled telling his family that he wondered whether Will Smith, best known at the time of filming for his sci-fi roles in Independence Day and the Men In Black UFO films, could portray his story. Gardner said his story dealt with "inner space," rather than "outer space."
Gardner's daughter deflated Dad's ego as only a daughter can.
"Papa," she told him, "don't worry about it. If Will Smith can play Muhammad All, he can play you."
This wasn't the first time he'd had doubts about proposals involving his book. Earlier, Gardner received a call from a TV dealmaker who wanted to build a reality show around Gardner and his experiences on the street. The idea was that homeless people would compete at various games designed to prove their abilities. Gardner would be the judge.
"Homelessness is not a game," Gardner told the promoter. "And, if it is a game, I've already won, so send me the money." The huckster never called again.
Gardner admitted that he doesn't really "get" Los Angeles or Hollywood.
"What is this 'Let's take a meeting' stuff?" he asked. "I'm from Chicago. I take a train. I take a nap. But I don't 'take a meeting'."
Onto the streets with a youngster Gardner's story, told through anecdotes, touched many in the banker crowd, and he held them. Unlike most closing sessions of conferences, there were few early walkouts. And there were some moist eyes.
Gardner was a former Navy medic who worked for one of the doctors he had served under while enlisted. Much as he found his research work interesting, it wasn't supporting his small family, and he looked for better-paying jobs. Initially, he found some success in medical supplies. But an influential encounter with a star stock broker attracted Gardner to stock sales.
Gardner worked at finding a way into the business, but nearly every time he did, something went wrong. On one fateful occasion, he had quit his medical supplies sales job rather dramatically, only to discover that the man who'd hired him for a starter position at a brokerage had been fired just before Gardner showed up for the promised work. The job was no longer there.
In the course of seeking job interviews, Gardner piled up numerous parking tickets that he had little left to pay for while supporting his son and girlfriend.
"I could have paid the bills, or I could have paid the rent," but not both, said Gardner.
Money worries took a toll on the home front.
"Unemployment will not help your relationship," said Gardner. "Trust me on that."
When Gardner and the woman he only referred to in his speech as his "ex" had a long and heated fight, the neighbors called the police. The police arrived, and in a routine check, found out about Gardner's $1,200-plus in outstanding tickets. He was arrested and, because of the timing of the arrest, kept in a state prison for more than a week awaiting a court date.
Gardner told listeners that he found himself in a cell with a rapist, a murderer, and other rough customers. He wasn't about to admit--from sheer need to survive--that he was being held for parking tickets. So when he was asked why he was in the "pen," he answered, "Attempted murder! And I want to get out, so I can try again!"
His "ex" left him, taking their baby son, Chris Jr., and putting most of h(s clothing in storage. (The key she took with her, by the way.) Gardner took a room in a boarding house, working at what he could find. Then, one night, the "ex" showed up, dropped off the baby, and walked out of their lives.
This put Gardner and his son on the street, as the rooming house permitted no children. What followed was a struggle, with much of Gardner's meager earnings going to pay for child care while he worked. Housing was transit bathrooms in bad weather, parks when weather permitted. Later they had the opportunity to spend nights in a charitable "homeless hotel," which permitted people seeking jobs or working to stay there.
Something that sustained Gardner through his period was a childhood vow to always be there for his own children. His stepfather had repeatedly told him, as a five-year-old, that he wasn't Gardner's father. And to underscore things, he'd periodically remind Gardner that, "You ain't got no daddy."
Up out of the gutter
Before and during his homelessness, breaking into brokerage wasn't easy. Gardner, who never showed any bitterness in his speech, declined to blame his difficulty on racism. "It was not racism," he insisted. "It was 'placism'." He hadn't been to college. He had no political connections. And he had no money of his own to invest. From a potential employer's viewpoint, he said, it was natural to ask, "Who'd invest with me?"
But in time, Gardner got his shot, in a front-end job in a firm where his role was working the phone, making 200 calls a day. Anyone who "bit" was passed on to a broker, who made the commissions. Gardner made $1,000 a month, the stipend granted to the firm's interns.
Gardner knew his way up was a broker's license, and he studied for the exams every spare minute. A fellow black man whom he called "Bob," who never advanced, eventually turned to accusing his firm of racism, but Gardner didn't see things that way. Whenever his energy flagged, "I'd think about Bob and I'd wake right up." He passed his licensing exam in 1981.
Things were so tight that Gardner had two suits to wear to work, "one blue, one gray." He told bankers that fellow employees joked that he was reenacting the Civil War.
A frequent visitor to one of Gardner's coworkers turned out to be a brokerage executive from another firm visiting his girlfriend, and he noticed how hard Gardner worked. It impressed him enough to give Gardner a shot at a real brokerage job.
This was with Bear Stearns & Co., in 1983. In time he developed accounts that included some oil men. One frequent customer used to call regularly, and, not realizing that Gardner was black, would regale him with "every nigger joke, every spic joke, every Jew joke" in his repertoire.
In time, the customer came to San Francisco, where Gardner was based, and wanted to visit his broker. Gardner had put off past visits with one excuse or another, and had run out of alibis. So that day the oil man learned with a shock who he'd been talking to. He switched to "knock, knock" jokes after that.
Eyes on personal goals
Gardner acknowledged that some people ask him why he didn't object to the jokes. He reflected that, after all the time he and his son had been homeless, "It was not time to sing, 'We Shall Overcome.' It was time to get paid."
Before long, Gardner became a top earner at Bear Stearns, and, in 1987, he founded the brokerage firm of Gardner Rich & Co., based in Chicago. Today he not only heads the firm, but is a motivational speaker and noted philanthropist--including supporting the church whose "homeless hotel" helped him.
But perhaps more rewarding was something his son told an interviewer after the book came out, when asked what he remembered of their time on the streets: "The only thing I remember is that every time I looked up, my father was there."
--Steve Cocheo, executive editor…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: There but for the Grace of God ... the Real Chris Gardner Holds a Packed House. Contributors: Cocheo, Steve - Author. Journal title: ABA Banking Journal. Volume: 99. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2007. Page number: 8+. © 2009 Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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