Episodes in the life of chris gardner

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Only a superman could take care of his son, study for a difficult examination, win a job as a stock broker over dozens of other smart and motivated interns -- all the while homeless, taking care of his son as a single parent, looking every night for a place for him and his son to sleep, finding food for them to eat – and yet go into the office every morning, clean, shaved, neatly dressed, appearing fresh and well rested, and sell a few bone density scanners on the weekends.

But hold on, part of the story is true, and the real story of Chris Gardner contains a tale of moral heroism and survival that took more courage and resolve than the story of how he became a rich stockbroker.

As a young child Chris had to watch his drunken stepfather inflict severe beatings on his mother; Chris and his brothers and sisters were also beaten and Chris, in particular, as a small child had to endure emotional abuse from his stepfather. But Chris Gardner didn’t grow up an injured and angry man needing to repeat that abuse by victimizing others. Instead, like millions of other children who grow up in bad situations, Chris decided to GO THE OTHER WAY . . . and that,

I was never going to terrorize, threaten, harm, or abuse a woman or a child, and I was never going to drink so hard that I couldn’t account for my actions.
In part, this was due to his . . .


Anything positive I’ve done, I got from my mother. My mother taught me that I could have dreams and I could do things.

Chris Gardner’s mother, Bettye Jean Gardner, grew up in rural Louisiana during the Great Depression and the Second World War. She ranked third in her class, graduating from high school in 1946, a year after the victories over Germany and Japan. She dreamed of going to college and becoming a school teacher, but the college money went to her stepsister. Chris’ mother worked as a maid and in other menial jobs all her life.

Bettye Jean Gardner and her three brothers joined the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the rural South. (In the “Great Migration” millions of Southern black people moved to large cities in the North and West looking for better jobs and better schools. It had started back in 1916, before Bettye Jean was born. Industries in the North were gearing up for the First World War and jobs were opening up for blacks. The “Great Migration” continued through the 1960s. It was a massive movement of people. By 1960, 58% of African-Americans lived outside of the South.) The Gardners settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; at that time it was a major manufacturing center.

Bettye Jean had a knack for falling in love with the wrong man. She had children by three of them. Ophelia was her oldest child, fathered by a married school teacher named Samuel Salter. He was well dressed, well spoken, and always charming. Sam Salter kept promising to leave his wife and marry Bettye Jean, but when she got pregnant he disappointed her. Salter kept in touch and visited Ophelia as she grew up.

Chris Gardner was born in 1954 in Milwaukee. His father was another married man, Thomas Turner, who lived in Louisiana. Chris’ mother wouldn’t talk about his father. “The past is the past,” she would say. Thomas Turner never tried to see his son. They didn’t meet until Chris was 28 years old and tracked him down. To this day Chris Gardner doesn’t know what transpired between his mother and his father.

Bettye Jean was separated from her children for many years while she served two prison terms. When Chris was about two years old, his mother went to jail for welfare fraud. (She had been working while she was collecting welfare.) Beginning when Chris was eight, she was imprisoned again, this time for four years. (More about this later.) When their mother was in prison, the children lived with relatives or in foster homes.

When Bettye Jean was at home, she was the major influence in Chris’ life. Her love was a constant and she always encouraged him. She loved to read, and she never tired of listening as Chris read to her. She told him again and again that unless he could read and write, he’d be nothing more than a slave. She also told Chris that if a person could read, “the public library was the most dangerous place in the world because you could go in there and figure out how to do anything.” It was Chris’ mother who said, when he was sixteen, “Son, if you want to, one day you could make a million dollars.”

The other mainstay in Chris’ first eight years was his sister Ophelia. She was four years older than Chris, and he remembers, “[We survived] as a team, cheering each other up, complaining to each other, distracting ourselves from thinking about the . . . stuff . . . too painful to discuss.”


My stepfather showed me everything in the world not to be, which in his case was an alcoholic, wife-beating, child-abusing, illiterate loser.
Chris Gardner’s stepfather, Freddie Triplett, was an ironworker at a major Milwaukee manufacturing company. He was massive, weighing 280 pounds, and very strong. Chris was about four years old when he first met Triplett and the child harbored the hope that Triplett would be the father he had never known. That didn’t last long. Within a few days after Triplett had come into Chris’ life, this monstrously large man, for no reason that this four-year-old child could understand, turned to him and yelled, in a voice that must have seemed like thunder, “I ain’t your g--d--- daddy!”

Triplett couldn’t read or write. To him, people who could were “slick

motherf-----s” who were out to cheat him. This included Chris’ mother and Chris, as soon as he was in the first grade.

Bettye Jean bore Freddie Triplett two daughters, making it four children in the family. Triplett terrorized and beat his wife and all of the kids. When Chris Gardner was six years old, he was awakened by his three-year-old half-sister. She was crying hysterically and led him to the kitchen. There he found his mother unconscious, lying face down on the floor. A two-by-four was stuck to the back of her head from the force of a blow by Triplett. A pool of blood was spreading out on the floor from the wound. When Chris Gardner was in his 50s he still had vivid memories of this event: “I will never forget seeing the inside of my mom’s skull when I was six years old.” Miraculously Chris’ mother was able to return home from the hospital the next day, bandaged and black and blue.

From early childhood, Chris Gardner remembers Freddie Triplett coming after him or chasing his mother or one of the other kids – a huge, scary behemoth. For these events Triplett usually brought out his shotgun, yelling “Get the f--- out of my g--d--- house!” “Get the f--- out of my g--d--- house!”

One of the tactics that I developed as a young kid, I would read and I would read out loud. (sic) And I would be saying to this guy, you can beat me down. You can beat my mom. You can put us out of here with a gun, but I can read and I’m going places.
Triplett’s attacks on Bettye Jean followed the three-part cycle of most wife-beaters. There would be a period in which tension mounted, then the attack, and then remorse. He would promise it wouldn’t happen again and be on good behavior for a while. But during the time of good behavior the tension would mount again until the pattern reasserted itself with another violent explosion.

Triplett’s psychological attacks on young Chris Gardner, however, occurred almost daily. The basic weapon was the reminder: “I’m not your daddy. You ain’t got no daddy” accompanied by various curses.

A memorable incident involving Freddie Triplett occurred when Chris was seven years old and Ophelia was eleven. Sam Salter, Ophelia’s father, had come to visit. His custom was to give his daughter two dollars and Chris one dollar. Salter treated Chris as a pretend son. On this occasion Ophelia took her money and happily went off saying “Bye, Daddy.” Chris then came up for his dollar. Salter first praised Chris for his good work at school. Chris beamed with happiness and put out his hand. He asked Salter “Ain’t you my daddy, too?” Salter replied, “Yeah, I’m your daddy, too” and handed Chris the money. Freddie Triplett, who witnessed the encounter, bellowed a variation on his constant refrain, “Well, I ain’t your g--d---- daddy, and you ain’t getting s- - - from me.”

Triplett would insult young Chris to his face. One of Triplett’s favorite insults when Chris’ friends came to the house was to refer to Chris as “that big-eared m-----f-----”. The kids at school began to tease Chris, calling him “Dumbo” after the big-eared flying elephant in Disney cartoons. When Chris looked in the mirror, he saw to his horror that he did have big ears. It wasn’t until he was much older that Chris’ head grew in size to match his ears.

Chris’ early life was restricted to the area within the borders of the black ghetto on the North side of Milwaukee. He had very little contact with white people while he was growing up. For Chris, white people were storeowners, police officers, and the ambulance attendants who came to get his mother when Triplett hurt her badly.

At times, Triplett’s rampages were so frequent that Bettye Jean would sleep on the couch with her shoes on so that if her husband came home drunk and angry, she could get the kids out of the house before he shot someone or beat her up.

To this day everything I know about being a man I was taught by a guy who was the absolute opposite. I’m not saying I’m a saint, a virgin or a boy scout. [But] I don’t drink, I don’t own guns and I don’t beat women.
Bettye Jean couldn’t get away from Freddie Triplett. Chris Gardner believes to this day that it was Triplett who reported his mother to the police for welfare fraud as punishment when she tried to leave him. Later, she tried to leave Triplett again, but she couldn’t afford to support her children on a maid’s salary. When Chris was eight years old, the beatings became too much for his mother. She got the children out of the house and set it on fire while Triplett slept. This was a violation of her parole and Triplett saw to it that Bettye Jean went back to jail for another four years. Yet, she went back to Triplett when she was released.

Why would an intelligent woman stay with such a man? Most battered women stay in abusive relationships due to a mixture of fear, lack of self-esteem, lack of resources, and a feeling of complete helplessness. This has happened (and continues to happen) to millions of women. They don’t believe that anyone will help them nor do they think they have the power to change their circumstances. Even now you hear news reports of women who will not testify against husbands or boyfriends who have beaten them. Back in the 1950s and 1960s there was much more tolerance for wife beating than there is now and there were very few resources available for victims. Think about the history of Singer Tina Turner. She was one of the most popular recording stars in the world but she remained with her husband, Ike Turner, for more than a decade despite repeated beatings.

For years Chris dreamed of killing his stepfather. Once Chris “accidentally” dropped a full-sized refrigerator on the man as they tried to move it up a flight of stairs. (It didn’t work. Freddie Triplett was so strong that he was able to catch the falling appliance and push it up the stairs single-handedly.) When Chris had another chance, with an axe in his hand and a clear shot at Triplett, he couldn’t do it. Chris now says, “[I]t took me some years to realize how killing the old man would have ruined my life.”

When Chris was eight years old and his mother was imprisoned the second time, he and Ophelia were sent to live with Uncle Willie, their mother’s brother. Bettye Jean had disappeared so suddenly that there had been no goodbyes. The children were given no explanation of what had happened. They didn’t even know if she was alive. (Chris notes that one of the most dysfunctional features of his extended family was that they were a “family of secrets” that didn’t talk about problems.) Soon there was another tragedy for Chris. Ophelia, the second most important person in his life, was sent away to a school for disobedient girls.

Into the void stepped Chris’ uncles. Willie had served in the military during the Korean War (1950 - 1953). When he came home, he was mentally ill, telling outlandish stories of international intrigue. At times, Willie believed that he was an FBI agent battling spies. He would allow Chris to work with him on “assignments.” Uncle Willie claimed to keep an original painting by the famous artist Pablo Picasso hidden where no one could find it. One time, believing that a handful of worthless betting stubs from the track were winning tickets and that he had just become rich, Uncle Willie talked his way into the Presidential suite at one of Chicago’s most expensive hotels.

It didn’t take Chris long to realize that Uncle Willie didn’t have a good grip on reality. Once when they were on an errand, Uncle Willie pulled the car over and through clenched teeth, staring straight ahead, told Chris that they were being followed and to keep his eyes looking forward. But Chris, about nine years old at the time, had already looked back and he had seen that no one was there.

Then there was Uncle Henry, the first man that Chris ever loved. During Bettye Jean’s second term in prison, Henry Gardner retired from the Navy and came into Chris’ life. Henry would babysit for Chris and take him on excursions. He introduced Chris to the music of jazz trumpet player, Miles Davis, one of Chris’ favorite musicians to this day. They listened together for hours.

When he’d been in the Navy, Henry Gardner had seen many parts of the world. He told Chris stories about the people he’d met and the places he’d seen. He took Chris for outings on the Mississippi River and taught him to swim. Uncle Henry warned Chris about the treacherous undercurrents in the river that would hide just below the surface and drag him down if they caught him.

Chris had been close to Henry Gardner for only a few months when the man accidentally drowned in the Mississippi River. He was probably pulled under by the current, as he tried to swim to a boat that had slipped its moorings and was floating downstream. Uncle Henry’s funeral was held almost a year after Chris’ mother had disappeared, having been put in prison for the second time. She was permitted to attend the funeral, accompanied by a prison guard. This was the first evidence that Chris had that his mother was still alive. He was not permitted to approach her or to talk to her, but he could see her stealing glances at him. Bettye Jean was to stay in prison for another three years.

Chris Gardner lived in Freddie Triplett’s house until he was 18 years old. During his teenage years, except for Triplett’s outbursts, Chris led the normal life of a child in a large American city. He had good friends, played music with a band, and loved going to concerts performed by his favorite musicians. As a teen, Chris was totally entranced by girls, did reasonably well in school, worked in the Civil Rights Movement, and tried out for high school sports.

Sports didn’t work out so well. Chris had wanted to be quarterback, a position he had played in pick-up games with his friends. However, the coach wanted him to play offensive tackle. Ultimately, this led to conflict and Chris was dismissed from the team. The coach’s excuse was finding contraband books in Chris’ locker. These were books of the black power movement such as: Die, Nigger, Die, Soul on Ice, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

When he was a teenager, Chris Gardner tested the limits and sometimes overstepped the bounds into criminal activity. Fortunately, his early attempts at crime didn’t pay, and he realized that there were better ways to live his life. Here are two examples.

At age 13, Chris was caught trying to shoplift some pants. When he was taken to the police station, the desk officer called home for someone to come and pick him up. Freddie Triplett answered the phone: “Come get him? Naw, leave his ass in there. F--- him!” So, Chris sat in jail not knowing when he’d get out. Several hours later, his mother and Tripplet came to get him. Chris’ most painful memory from the experience was the look of disappointment on his mother’s face.

A few months later, when Chris was 14, he and some friends stole tape recorders, radios, and music equipment from an exhibit at a home and garden show. Chris was able to hide his share of the loot in his bedroom, but he had to find a way to sell it. The next day, his family was out of the house, and Chris noticed three young men visiting a neighbor. They looked pretty shady, and Chris asked if they’d like to buy the equipment. They said they were interested. When he brought them up to his room, they took all the equipment by force and paid him nothing.

About 20 minutes later, before Chris’ family returned, one of the young men came back. He brought back some of the equipment and gave Chris ten dollars. Then he demanded sex. When Chris declined, the man pulled a knife and put it up to Chris’ throat. The man then raped Chris twice, once on the living room floor and then again in the bathroom.

Chris had nowhere to turn. He couldn’t go to the police because he’d been trying to sell stolen goods. If he told his family, Triplett would laugh at him and spread the story all over town. His mother would want to know why Chris let the man into the house and where he got the equipment he was trying to sell. She’d be disappointed in him again, as well as horrified that he’d been raped. So, Chris just kept quiet.

I don’t know how any rape victim survives something like that. But I believe that . . . a lot of us block it off.

Three years later, when Chris was 17 and had grown considerably, he saw the man who had raped him go into a bar. Chris waited for the man to come out and hit him in the head with a cinder block. Fortunately, for both Chris and the rapist, the man wasn’t severely injured.

Chris Gardner has told the story of his rape in his autobiography and repeated it on national television. Why would a man tell the world that he’d been raped as a child? Chris explained it in an interview:

. . . [B]ecause I did that one ten-year-old boy, his life is no longer a nightmare. This ten-year-old boy was being raped by his stepfather anytime his mother left town. He saw me talk about [the time I was raped on national television] and finally opened up to his mother about it. Because of that, that little boy who for two years was being raped by his stepdad, now that little boy is in treatment and the stepfather is being prosecuted.
Chris’ unsuccessful attempts at crime made it clear to him that as talented and smart as he might be, he couldn’t navigate well in the world of crime. In this he was like many other honest and respected adults who tested limits as kids. One wonders what would have happened if they had been successful in their first attempts at crime. Their salvation was in their failure.1

Chris Gardner has developed a concept that he calls “spiritual genetics”. He explains it this way,

[Y]ou can choose to embrace the spirit of who you’re going to be as a person. And I chose to embrace the spirit of my mother. And though she had too many of her own dreams denied, deferred, and destroyed, she still instilled in me, her child, that I could have dreams, and that I did have the responsibility and the power.
When he started working after high school, Chris decided that whenever he had a job, he would do his best and ask question after question. He would find the most successful employee in the company and learn how that person mastered his or her job.

Chris’ first job after high school was working as an orderly in a nursing home. Chris really got into serving the patients: bringing them food, feeding them, dressing them, and making their beds. Whatever the residents needed in order to feel cared for and comfortable, Chris Gardner was willing to do. If they needed help getting out of a chair or into bed, Chris was there. He even excelled at changing diapers and cleaning out bedpans. Chris was so successful that the management gave him responsibility for an entire wing of the nursing home.

Chris Gardner joined the Navy after he had been working a few months. He thought he would see foreign places and meet exotic women, just like his uncles. Looking to build on his experience in the nursing home, Chris joined the well-respected U.S. Navy Hospital Corps. He was sent to Camp Lejuene, North Carolina, to treat Marines. (The Navy provides medical support for the Marine Corps.) In fact, Chris never left the U.S. while he served in the Navy. So much for seeing the world!

Chris excelled at Camp Lejuene. He always asked questions to learn more about his job, and he always did his best. He loved the appreciation he received from his patients. Near the end of Chris’ enlistment, one of the surgeons who Chris had worked for was leaving the Navy to do research on heart disease at a hospital in San Francisco. He asked Chris to go with him as a research assistant. Chris agreed, and in 1976, at the age of 22, Chris Gardner moved to San Francisco.

As a research assistant, Chris continued to ask questions, to read, and to educate himself. He learned the language used by doctors. Pretty soon he was being treated almost as an equal by physicians who didn’t know he hadn’t even attended college. Chris was assigned to train young heart surgeons in open-heart surgery on dogs and, with the supervising doctor, he co-authored several scientific papers. (It is very interesting to compare the career of Chris Gardner with that of Vivien Thomas, an African-American man who became an important part of the team that performed ground-breaking heart surgery on very young children in 1946. For decades Mr. Thomas, who had never been to college, trained heart surgeons in open-heart surgery at the Johns Hopkins medical school. Like Mr. Gardner, he used dogs to train the young surgeons. There are two excellent films about Mr. Thomas’ life: “Partners of the Heart” and “Something the Lord Made.”)


Needing more money, Chris eventually resigned from his position as a medical researcher and started selling medical supplies and equipment. His income almost doubled. In 1981, Chris started seeing a dental student name Jackie. She got pregnant soon after they met. Jackie and Chris started living together, and Jackie gave birth to their son, Christopher Jarrett Medina Gardner (“Little Chris”). Chris Gardner finally had a child, and he could fulfill his vow to act differently than his father and Freddie Triplett.

At the age of 29, while making a sales call at San Francisco General Hospital, Chris met a stockbroker who was driving a red Ferrari. Chris gave up his parking space in return for answers to those fateful questions described in the movie. “What do you do?” and “How do you do it?” Over several lunches, Chris learned about being a stockbroker. He liked what he heard. When Chris decided to make the jump to Wall Street, the man with the Ferrari got Chris interviews at several brokerage firms. But Chris was turned down each time.

At the time, brokerage firms were starting to require MBA degrees. I didn’t even go to college. It wasn’t racism. It was place-ism. I did not have a college degree. I did not come from a politically connected family. I had no money. So who was going to do business with me?

Chris thought he was accepted to one internship program but when he arrived to start, no one had heard of Chris Gardner. It turned out that the man who had hired him had been fired. Chris had already lost his job selling medical equipment, so he earned money doing odd jobs.

Chris was able to get an interview at Dean Witter, which at the time was one of the top brokerage firms in the country. He figured it was pretty much his last chance to work as a stockbroker. However, eleven days before the interview, Chris and Jackie got into an argument. She called the police and charged him with assault. The police ran the plates on his car and discovered that Chris had $1200 worth of unpaid parking tickets. He was arrested and, because he couldn’t pay the parking tickets, he was sentenced to a short term in jail. Later, Jackie withdrew the assault charge.

Chris Gardner credits his experience with regimentation in the military for his survival in jail. But he still had a big problem: he wouldn’t be released from jail until the day after he was scheduled to be interviewed at Dean Witter. A sympathetic jailer allowed Chris to call the interviewer at Dean Witter. The man agreed to postpone the interview until 6:30 the morning after Chris was to be released.

For a while, Chris thought things were looking up but when he got out of jail and went to the apartment he shared with Jackie and Little Chris, he found that she had cleaned out the apartment and left with their son. There was no forwarding address, and none of his clothing or possessions could be found. A friend allowed Chris to spend the night and wash his clothes, but Chris had to go to the interview in blue jeans, a maroon jacket, and paint specked tennis shoes.

The next morning the interviewer took one look at Chris and said “Delivery’s in the rear.” Chris couldn’t think of a lie that could explain the way he was dressed, so he told the truth, leaving out the part about being in jail. It turned out that the interviewer had been divorced three times. He spent the rest of the interview complaining about how his ex-wives had treated him. After his first explanation, Chris hardly said another word. At the end of the interview, knowing nothing about Chris Gardner, the interviewer said, “Be here on Monday morning, and I’ll walk you into the training session, personally.”

Dean Witter paid its interns $1000 a month. Unlike the story told it the movie, Dean Witter hired virtually every intern who passed the exam. With his salary Chris was able to afford a room in a boarding house and buy enough food to sustain himself. This gave him stability during the internship program and a place to study.

While he was ecstatic about his chance to work for Dean Witter, Chris was devastated by the disappearance of his son. Try as he might, he couldn’t find Jackie or Little Chris. Every once in a while Jackie would call Chris, but say nothing. The only sound Chris would hear was his son screaming in the background. After a while there’d be a click when Jackie hung up.

Chris passed the test to become a stockbroker with an excellent score of 88%, and Dean Witter offered him a job. Now there was a choice to be made. He could work for an established broker and help set up some of the larger transactions. Perhaps he’d be allowed to take over a few small deals that became available. Working for one of the established brokers would give him a reasonable salary right away. Or, Chris could work on his own, making cold calls out of the telephone book trying to build his own business. This would give him less money at the beginning, only about $1200 a month, but it would allow him to build his own business more quickly. Chris liked the idea of working on his own because success or failure would come completely from his own efforts.

Disciplining himself to make 200 cold calls each day, getting phone numbers from the white pages of the telephone book, Chris struck out on his own as a broker for Dean Witter. He never felt that people at Dean Witter discriminated against him because of his race. However, clients were another matter. Many customers didn’t feel comfortable with an African-American broker. Chris had always been good with languages and, over the telephone no one could tell that he was African-American. He discouraged new clients from coming into the office to complete their deals. (“It’s so hectic and crazy here. Let’s do it over the phone.”)

Using the Dean Witter name to give himself credibility, Chris averaged 10 first time clients on a typical day. About half of them would turn into repeat customers. Slowly, over time, he cultivated these clients into a “book” of business that he hoped would make him rich. But it was going to be very slow for the first year or two.


You can only depend on yourself. The cavalry ain’t coming.”

Chris Gardner’s mother
One Friday night, several weeks after Chris had started working as a broker, Jackie appeared at the boarding house. She’d had enough of being a single mother. She dropped off Little Chris with his stroller and a very large duffle bag filled with his possessions and his diapers. Little Chris was 19 months old at the time (much younger than the child shown in the movie). Jackie told Chris what Little Chris ate, that he was to have no sweets whatsoever, and that she was sure that Chris would take good care of him. Then she left. The boarding house didn’t allow children. Chris had no one he could call and ask for money. Nor did he feel that he could ask his friends for a place to stay with a 19-month-old child. Chris and his son were now homeless.

Over the weekend, Chris found daycare for his son for $400 a month, and they lived in a $25 a night motel. $400 a month for daycare and $750 a month for a motel would have eaten up almost all of his $1200 a month income from starting out as a stockbroker. There’d be no money for food, diapers, or anything else. The only way for Chris to afford a place to live was to give up the plan to develop his own group of clients and to start working for another broker. Over the next several days, Chris made a fateful decision: he and his son would be homeless until his own business at Dean Witter gave him enough money to rent an apartment. He would not postpone his chance to become rich in order to put a roof over his son’s head.

For about a year, Chris and his son slept in many places, often on the tough streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. In good weather, they slept in parks. When it was too cold to sleep outside, they’d ride the subway all night, going from train to train, catching a little sleep on each trip. Sometimes, they’d ride out to one of San Francisco’s two airports and spend the night in an airport lounge as if they were stranded travelers. Eventually, Chris found a program at Glide Memorial Church for homeless women. He was able to talk Reverend Williams, the pastor of the Church, into letting him stay in the shelter. But a room at Glide was not always available and then it would be back to the parks or sleeping on subway trains, at the airport, or wherever he could find a place for the two of them.

At one point, Chris found a motel frequented by truckers and prostitutes which was only $10 a night for a room with a bed, a bathroom, and a black and white television, that Chris immediately turned up to full volume to drown out the sounds of the tricks being turned all around them. But they could not always afford even the trucker motel. Sometimes they were back on the streets or slept under Chris’ desk at the office. And there was also the BART subway station bathroom; on several occasions, they sought shelter there for the night.

During this time, Chris had two suits. One he wore and the other was either at the cleaners or still in the plastic bag from the cleaners. When the second suit wasn’t at the cleaners, Chris carried it wherever he went. Other possessions consisted of Little Chris’ stroller, the big duffle bag with all their clothes and Little Chris’ toys, a briefcase, an umbrella, and the biggest bag of disposable diapers in the world. When it rained Chris would cover the stroller with bags from the dry cleaners.

Although he might have had very little sleep the night before and his only shower was a hurried sponge bath in a bathroom sink, every workday Chris Gardner appeared at the office, neat, clean, and ready to work as hard and effectively as anyone else. During the entire ordeal, Chris told his co-workers nothing about his personal life.

[My mother taught me that] no matter what I had in my pocket, no matter what my suit cost, nobody could prevent me from acting as if I was a winner. Nobody could prevent me from acting as if my problems were all in the process of being solved. Pretty soon, my acting as if was so convincing that I started to believe it myself.
One of the areas that Chris frequently passed through with his son was a gathering place for prostitutes waiting for customers. He called this the “Ho-stroll.” After a while the prostitutes began to recognize Chris, and it became obvious that he was a homeless father trying to care for his son. One night a prostitute came up to them and addressed Little Chris, “Hey, little player, little pimp. Here you go,” and she held out a candy bar. Chris was mindful of Jackie’s warning that Little Chris was to have no sweets. When he gave the candy bar back to the prostitute with a polite “No thanks,” Little Chris started to wail. The prostitute then reached into her cleavage, produced a $5 bill, and gave it to Little Chris. For some reason, the child was delighted to get the money. His father was, too. It bought dinner that night.

Chris and Little Chris didn’t take the “Ho-stroll” every night, but when they did, one or another of the ladies would often give Little Chris $5. Sometimes, when Chris was completely out of money, he would purposefully take the “Ho-stroll” hoping to get enough money for dinner. The pure and disinterested kindness shown by some of society’s least fortunate and most oppressed people helped sustain Chris Gardner, not only financially, but also spiritually.

As Chris’ income grew, he put money away for a down payment on an apartment. There was always a temptation to spend it on a motel for the night or on clothing for Little Chris. But Chris wouldn’t allow himself or his son those luxuries. In fact, he would do almost anything to avoid it. On several occasions Chris sold his own blood to buy food. For about two weeks he went from posh hotel to posh hotel, scamming $2.50 from each pretending to be a hotel customer, telling the people at the front desk that their cigarette machine had eaten his money, and demanding a “refund.”

Finally, in early spring of 1983, Chris had saved enough so that he could think about getting an apartment. Since all the apartments in San Francisco were too expensive, he started to look in Oakland, an adjacent city that was on the BART subway line. However, everything in Oakland was too expensive as well. Then, one day not long before Easter, Chris found a place near the “Ho-stroll” where he could clean and fix-up an apartment and afford the rent. When they left the apartment the first morning, Little Chris reminded his father to go back and get their belongings. Chris had to explain that having a home meant that you had a place to keep your possessions and that you didn’t have to carry them around with you wherever you went. The key to the apartment was one of Chris Gardner’s most prized possessions.

Their walk home from the BART station took them right past the corner where the prostitutes worked. The ladies would still call out to Little Chris, “Hey, little player . . . Hey, little pimp.” Sometimes they’d hand the child a $5 bill. For the first year or so in the apartment, Chris Gardner was on a very tight budget and this money came in handy.

Once, when the lights had been turned off for non-payment, and Chris was near the end of his rope, he gave Little Chris a bath by candlelight. Little Chris looked up at him and said, “Poppa, you know what: You’re a good poppa.” It was events like this that gave Chris the strength to go on.


Most of the stuff my dad went through breaks people. We have this thing about never settling. My dad says never play small; always play big.”

Christopher Gardner, Jr. (“Little Chris”)

One of Chris Gardner’s most remarkable traits is his ability to focus and commit himself to achieving a goal. At work, he would spend hour after hour with total concentration on his goal of signing up new clients and providing good service to the clients he already had. When he was on the streets with his son, he was focused on finding a place to sleep, getting food for the day, and getting ready for work tomorrow. He wouldn’t let his mind dwell on the larger picture which was filled with uncertainties and very bad possible outcomes. Instead, he focused on what he could control and what he could achieve.

Dean Witter provided its new brokers with several excellent teachers and role models. Chris took advantage of them all, continuing his practice of asking questions, thinking through problems, and looking for successful people to copy. As a result of what he learned and his focus and commitment, Chris became a great success at Dean Witter. Later he moved to another brokerage company, Bear Stearns, and made even more money. Eventually, he started his own brokerage company, Gardner, Rich & Co. Chris is now a millionaire many times over.

Except for some early incidents when customers asked for a different broker after they realized that he was black, Chris doesn’t believe that he was subjected to racial discrimination in the brokerage business. He attributes the challenges that he faced to the fact that he didn’t have any money, the he didn’t have a college degree, and that he had no political or social connections. But he believes that this would have been the same if he had been white. He says that on Wall Street, the key color is “green” – the color of money. When Chris went to work for Bear Stearns, they referred to the people they wanted to hire as PSDs, "Poor, Smart, with a deep Desire to become wealthy.” That fit Chris Gardner to a T.

Here’s an interesting story about how Chris dealt with a difficult business problem. Many of his best clients came from cold calls. One day Chris telephoned a man in Texas, a millionaire called J.R. The first thing J.R. wanted to do was to tell Chris racist jokes demeaning blacks, Jews, and Puerto Ricans. Chris resisted the temptation to hang up or scream at the man. Instead, he made himself laugh at the jokes. When the jokes had run their course, Chris returned to the sales pitch. J.R., never knowing that Chris was African-American, placed an order and eventually became Chris’ largest client. In every phone call J.R. spewed his racist humor with Chris swallowing his anger, laughing, and pocketing the substantial commissions.

One day J.R. called to say that he was coming to San Francisco and wanted to visit the man who was making him so much money. Chris was in a panic. There would be no way to hide his race from J.R. Chris figured that when J.R. left, Chris would either have all his brokerage business or none of it. With the help of the people in the office, Chris arranged a little charade for J.R.’s visit. When J.R. arrived, he was ushered into a luxurious office by “Mr. Gardner’s secretary.” (The office was borrowed from one of the supervisors who was out of town.) When J.R. entered the office, Chris sat in a large chair with his back to the door. He was looking at a great view of the city while having a pretend conversation on the phone using his best jive accent. When the conversation was over, Chris swiveled around in the chair and said, “Hey, J.R., how are you doing? Have a seat.”

As Chris watched, the blood drained from J.R.’s face. Chris never missed a beat and gave J.R. a full report on all the transactions he’d handled for J.R., pointing out how much money J.R. had made. When J.R. left the office, Chris Gardner had all his brokerage business. J.R. never made another joke demeaning African-Americans, at least when he was talking to Chris, although he would still talk trash about other minorities.



The most important thing I’ve ever done in my life is to break the cycle of men who are not there for their children. And because I’ve done that I’m going to have influence on generations of my offspring that I will never meet.
There are two basic ways that a person can react to a childhood like Chris Gardner’s. He can become another Freddie Tripletts, or he can go the other way. As a child, Chris made the vow that is quoted at the beginning of this article:

Not only was I going to make sure my children had a daddy, I was never going to be Freddie Triplett. I was never going to terrorize, threaten, harm, or abuse a woman or a child, and I was never going to drink so hard that I couldn’t account for my actions.
Chris writes about an incident that occurred when he gave a speech at a banquet at which he had received an award. The speaker before him cited statistic after statistic demonstrating that children who grew up being neglected and abused would most likely repeat the abuse or live out their lives as criminals. Chris then got up and told his story.

After the speeches were over people in the audience crowded around Chris saying, “Your story is my story. I grew up in terrible circumstances and I made a decision not to live that kind of life and to stop the cycle of abuse and violence.” Chris realized, "It's not just my story . . . It's the story of a lot of people who grew up and took a lot of crap — and decided, 'I'm going the other way. It was then that he decided to write his autobiography.


. . . [M]ine is a story of how to empower yourself and beat the odds stacked against you. My life could have easily been derailed by domestic violence and homelessness but I made a choice not to let those things sink me. You can break the destructive cycles that ensnare you. Be smart, have a plan, and hold on to the people you love.

One of the things young people always ask me is about the secret to success. The secret is there is no secret. It’s the basics

. . . . And more important than that, find something that you love. Something that gets you so excited you can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. Forget about money. Be happy. That takes a certain amount of boldness to say, ‘This is what I like.’ The money thing will come. I know so many people who have so much more money than I. They are miserable. It is so important to be happy.

This article was written by James Frieden, TeachWithMovies.com. It was published on August 27, 2007, revised on May 9, 2010, and revised again on October 18, 2015. It is based on a number of sources, including Mr. Gardner’s autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness written with Quincy Troup, and published in 2006 by HarperCollins Publishers. Other sources include the biography of Mr. Gardner on his website (http://www.chrisgardnermedia.com/main/biography.htm), as well as numerous articles in magazines, newspapers and the Internet, and several interviews of Mr. Gardner posted on YouTube. To get the full story of Mr. Gardner’s life, the best single source is his autobiography.

Note that all of the information in this handout comes directly or indirectly from Mr. Gardner. No effort has been made to corroborate what he has said about his life.

Updated October 18, 2015; © by TeachWithMovies.com, Inc. The public and teachers are licensed to use this article for personal and classroom use. See http://www.teachwithmovies.org/terms-of-use.html

1 1 Neuroscience and psychology tell us the following about teenagers: “Adolescents typically experience fluctuations in their personality and behavior as they develop and mature. . . In addition, many adolescents who engage in antisocial behaviors eventually [stop] in their early to mid-20s and lead law abiding lives as adults. . . . Because adolescents are in the process of developing their personal identities, their criminal behavior may be less indicative of a bad character than is the criminality of adults. . . . In terms of maturity and sophistication, adolescents’ judgment and decision-making abilities often lag behind those of adults. Adolescent offenders have more difficulty in weighing and comparing the consequences of decisions and contemplating the long–term effects of their decisions. . . . Perhaps the most intriguing explanation for impulsive adolescent behavior is the fact that the human brain . . . continue[s] to develop until well into the third decade of life [ages 20 - 30]. Neuroscience research has shown that the last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, regulating emotions, and evaluating risks and rewards.” Wrightsman’s Psychology and the Legal System, 6th Ed; E. Greene, et al, 2007, Thomson Wadsworth, p. 393.

Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner

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