Fort Bend Firebrand

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INSPIRATION, IT SEEMS, CAN STRIKE FIRE FROM THE DULLEST OF CLAY—even clay as dull as Tom DeLay. “He was my muse,” confided Susan DuQuesnay Bankston during a recent telephone conversation. For those of you who don’t know, Bankston is the proprietor of “Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon,” a “non-blog” to be found at www.juanitajean.com. It’s a surreal blend of storytelling and left-wing political commentary from Fort Bend, one of the reddest counties in Texas. In the wild, wonderful world of Juanita Jean’s, a bevy of flamboyantly named fictional characters—like Thelma Lucille Frontage or Boomer Janochek or Bubba X—relay their observations on state and local politics through their creator and amanuensis, Madame Bankston. The end result is sort of like what King of the Hill would have been, if it had been written by Molly Ivins—smart, hilarious and very unusual. But consider the material that Bankston’s had to work with.

“When my family first moved to [the Fort Bend town of] Richmond from Houston in 1983, it was like paradise,” Bankston recalls. “The schools were racially diverse. There were no fast-food restaurants. You could see the stars at night. But then,” she continues wryly, “you did have to put up with Tom DeLay.” In the early ’80s, the future “Hammer” was still a crude, good-timing state representative known as “Hot Tub Tom,” a soubriquet first bestowed upon him by none other than Bankston. “He had no table manners,” she says. “He picked his nose in public. He stayed drunk all the time. Of course, there are those who would argue he was a much more likable person then.” But like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, DeLay was on the verge of being remade by the Republican establishment into a figure fit for the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress—an unlikely transformation that it was Bankston’s fate to chronicle in the pages of The Fort Bend Star. “Honey,” she summarizes, “they had to clean him up with a Brillo pad.”

It had never been Bankston’s ambition to become a writer or journalist, but once introduced to Fort Bend politics, her creative capacities seemed quickly to rise to her circumstances. In the early ’90s, she was hired to write a political column for the Star, and there the assorted cast of Juanita Jean’s began to emerge. In the mid-’90s, Bankston began to post her columns on what proved to be Fort Bend’s first Web site. “It was sort of an early blog. But not really. I prefer to call it a non-blog.”

Despite serving as a veritable Giving Tree of great lines, DeLay certainly hasn’t been Bankston’s only subject. How, for instance, could the girls over at Jean’s Beauty Parlor resist commenting when the Fort Bend Spirit of Freedom Republican Women campaigned to close down Nooky’s Erotic Bakery? Or when Don McLeroy, one of the creationists on the Texas State Board of Education, confessed that he was no history scholar, but did have general impressions on the subject? (A statement Juanita Jean likened to: “I am not a hairdresser; I just have my general impressions of what to cut next.”) Or, my personal favorite, when Fort Bend’s state Rep. Charlie Howard was quoted back in 1999 at a local Republican Men’s Club saying, “We men are supposed to take the leadership position in our country. We men are supposed to take the leadership role in our families.” And then, when queried as to how a single woman might function in the absence of a husband’s leadership, he advised that she should “get a neighbor man to help her.” In response, Bankston published Howard’s phone number, and through the inimitable voice of Boomer Janochek, wrote, “If you are a single mother with no husband but need a man to help you, call Charlie Howard. … He is available for … using your best towels for auto repair, leaving the toilet seat up, and sitting in front of the TV in his underwear eating Doritos.”

Does Bankston ever fear reprisals for what she writes? “Oh, honey, when you do what I do, you have to consider tar and feathers fashion accessories. When I was a little girl, my grandpa caught me doing that ‘girlie thing’ where you giggle, but you cover your mouth with your hand, and my grandpa said, ‘Girl, get your hand away from your mouth. Men have died for the right for you to laugh in public.’ That’s a lesson I keep in mind while writing my blog.”

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.