Chicken Babies, Bondage Nights and Severed Monkey Heads

True-life adventures with Richard Johnson, art provocateur

From behind the wheel of a parked Ford Crown Victoria yellow cab with 485,000 miles on the odometer, Richard Johnson accidentally stumbles for a second time into a topic he usually tries to avoid: his dead girlfriend.

Dressed in a black, short-brimmed felt fedora, dark sunglasses, and a black suit jacket over a shirt and tie, the 40-year-old Johnson looks more like a lost Blues Brother than a typical cabbie. His low, gravelly smoker's voice hesitates: "After Adrienne died . . ."

Johnson blames publications like the Weekly and others for "splashing blood on the page" by focusing on this tragedy, the murder more than a decade ago of his then-girlfriend, 26-year-old Sunny Adrienne Sudweeks, in their Costa Mesa apartment.

The last time the Weekly mentioned it, nearly a decade ago, gallery members wrote an angry diatribe in response, included the reporter's personal cell phone number, wallpapered the Weekly office windows with it and handed out hundreds of copies to the public. This time, Johnson, older and distanced from the tragedy, vows to just crumple up the article and throw it.

One person's conversation piece is another's lifelong heartache. A lot of people don't get that.

"People like to talk about it casually. They hear about it, and they like to pretend they're close to it. Like their life is more interesting than it is," he says.

He'd rather talk about his gritty art gallery and punk rock venue, AAA Electra 99, located in a nondescript office and storage complex across the street from the Anaheim disposal and recycling yard. He wants to give attention to the artists who rent wall space for $40 per month in the garage-like gallery. He wants to promote the bands, mostly teenagers, who play shows there. The shows sometimes allow him to make the gallery's rent using his cab-driving money.

But Johnson reluctantly agrees Sudweeks needs to be discussed. The art gallery he now runs was their dream.

"We had talked about [starting our own gallery]," he says. "We were just going to call it AAA--Any Art Accepted. We were going to rent spaces to artists and have rock & roll shows or whatever, and that was going to be cool.

"Then, after Adrienne died, everyone was like, 'You shouldn't do that right now,'" he says. "I was like, 'Whatever, what's it matter? I could die tomorrow.' I was real nihilistic at that time. I said, 'I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want.'"

He founded the gallery the same year Sudweeks died, 1997, and named it after her Internet handle and artist pseudonym, Electra 99.

* * *

With a slight jolt, Johnson pulls the yellow cab around the back of an alternative school in Irvine; the cab is on its fifth transmission. It's after 2 p.m., and the school--for students struggling because of behavioral problems or learning disabilities--is just letting out. "I went to a school like this," Johnson says.

He's waiting for one of his regular fares, two students on a voucher program who live in Laguna Hills, about a $60 ride. Johnson says the students and "little old ladies going to the doctor" are his bread and butter since he stopped working nights. He was working the night Sudweeks died.

Johnson thrived as a night cabbie and tells long tales about heroic fares, like the time he picked up a woman in Westminster and drove her home to Beverly Hills, after her husband was jailed in Westminster for drunk driving. Then he picked the husband up from Westminster jail the next morning and took him back to Beverly Hills. Then he took the husband back to Westminster to get his car out of impound, all on one shift (about $140 each trip).

But Johnson says the constant conflicts with drunks--usually ending with him spraying rowdies with pepper foam and purple face dye--got tiresome. He also saw himself change.

"There was this young girl walking down Newport Boulevard, and she's crying. Her boyfriend left without her," he says. "She walks up to the cab, [sobbing voice]'I don't have any money.' I'm like, 'Fuck it. Get in. Let's go,' and I took her home.

"I thought, 'Dude, losing my edge here,' you know," he says. "After Adrienne was killed, I knew I shouldn't work nights anymore."

The two students emerge from the school building. They spot the yellow cab. The first out is a chubby-cheeked girl with an abundance of tight spiral curls; she's a recent addition. Next out is Johnson's regular fare, a boy of about 14 with longish hair and a black T-shirt. He keeps his gaze at the ground.

"I like him," Johnson says. "He reminds me of me. I was the kid that got beat up for being punk rock."

* * *

Outside AAA Electra 99's Anaheim gallery space, three sun-melted vinyl records sit on the air-conditioner unit. Next door is the main office of a company that owns several "produce" vans peddling unhealthy snacks in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods. Next to that is a Mexican restaurant. From the city disposal and recycling center across the street comes the constant clatter of revving garbage trucks, reverse gear bleep-bleep-bleeps, and the crashing and smashing of debris.

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