Joe Parham Stands Up

Tony Freman needed his mother.
He had been selling drugs on Minneapolis street corners, which got some people irritated with him. So he jumped on a Greyhound a few months ago, hoping to meet up with his mother in Phoenix. He hadn't forgotten that when he was small, he and his mother were a team, a couple of survivors. Once in Phoenix, though, Freman found his mother in a shelter for the homeless with his baby half-sister. It didn't take long for him to learn that mom cared more about crack than her kids.

Being the man of the family, Freman moved his mother and little sister into a cheap motel and took care of them until his money ran out. Then his family disappeared with his mother's boyfriend.

The teenager figured he'd stay with one of his mother's female friends until he got on his feet. But the woman's husband kicked him out of the house, saying Freman was "trouble."

So Freman found himself wandering down East Main Street in Mesa, past gated RV parks and RV sales lots and RV repair shops and the Starlight Motel, which advertises weekly and monthly rates beneath a neon sign of a girl diving over and over into a swimming pool. Next to the Starlight, a taller sign caught Freman's eye.

Liberty Communications Pagers for Peace of Mind, the sign said.
Check it out, Freman told himself.
And that's how he met Joseph Parham, Ph.D.

A few years ago, the state of Arizona might have referred Freman to Parham and paid the psychologist to counsel the boy. But when Freman walked into Parham's office looking for support, Parham gave it to him--for free.

Parham is forbidden to take money for providing psychological services.
In 1995, the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners indefinitely suspended Parham's license to practice psychology, contending that Parham is too mentally "impaired" to practice. Until the suspension, Parham, 53, had specialized for 20 years in counseling the gang members, street kids and prisoners referred to him by various state agencies.

As he contests that suspension, Parham sells pagers from the same office building he owns and had used as a psychologist. He also has plans to open a traffic survival school in the empty rooms where troubled clients were once counseled.

The only pleasant room in Parham's sad building is his private office. There, he spends a lot of time just sitting behind his rosewood desk, trying to figure out what to do next. On the desk, he still keeps the obligatory box of tissues, and an empty rose-colored chair awaits absent clients. On one shelf, near his football and political memorabilia, is a brass plaque from a segregated rest room that says Negro Males.

Parham has time on his hands these days, so when Freman asked for work, Parham allowed him to paint a giant pager and letter Liberty Communications on the windows of the establishment. He used a pigeon feather as a paintbrush for the finer details. Freman also answers the phone from time to time. His hours are irregular--he shows up when he's hungry and lonely.

Parham won't pay Freman--the man's financial future is almost as uncertain as the boy's. Besides, Parham has never paid the other lonely kids who hang around his office and say they "work" there. They just seem to warm to Parham, and he just wants to help them as best he can.

As a psychologist, Joe Parham was known for his offbeat, workaholic methods of practice: He insisted on being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week; he gave out his home number to clients and often allowed sessions to continue for hours at a time--late into the night, if necessary; he even met clients at restaurants and on street corners.

He grew up on the streets of a Michigan factory town, and despite his advanced degree, he's never abandoned a certain streetwise world view. But he does not look like the sort who would be safe on the mean streets. He suffers from arthritis, his neck is stiff. He moves his entire body to turn his head and walks with a slight limp. He wears a big wristwatch trimmed in gold and turquoise along with several gold neck chains, all payments made by a jeweler in exchange for psychological services.

He's not a particularly large man, but Parham once played football for Arizona State University. Later, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on racism in the athletic department. From that moment on, controversy always seemed to follow him, in one way or another.

An African American, Parham has long been an active east Mesa Republican, and he once served on the staff of impeached former governor Evan Mecham, defending the man known across the nation for rescinding a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and advocating a book for an official celebration that used the word "pickaninny."