Do not let Kathleen Gallet’s silver hair and easygoing demeanor fool you. When the sun goes down and fans start filtering into the University of New Orleans Human Performances Center on the Lakefront, she becomes hell on wheels, and she has a well-deserved reputation for throwing the meanest elbows in her business.
On first meeting her, your best bet is just to smile and step back a few paces, drop the “Miss Gallet” nonsense and just call her “Cooney Coo Coo!”
When Gallet’s not keeping the air conditioning on high and running at top output in the Superdome and New Orleans Arena, the 48-year-old stationary engineer from Bridge City makes her presence – and her elbows – known as a utility skater with the New Orleans Wenches of the Big Easy Rollergirls.
“Sure, I’m a little older than the other Rollergirls,” Gallet says. “But what difference does that make? I grew up tough and I want to stay in shape. That’s why I skate.”
The women who comprise the three teams of the New Orleans entry into the flat track roller derby league don’t get paid. In fact, each member has to cough up $35 a month in membership dues for the privilege of competing in bouts in the league. They have to shell out for insurance and skates, uniforms, mouthguards, helmets and other equipment. And there aren’t any mega-buck, Peyton Manning-like endorsement deals floating around out there either.
“Everybody on the teams works,” Gallet says. “People come and people go. We’ve had lawyers try out for the team, secretaries, salespeople. We’ve had a bartender, a waitress and a schoolteacher. You name it. I happen to work at keeping the chillers and boilers at the Superdome and Arena running smoothly. It’s not easy work,” she continues, “some of these valves are hard as hell to open and close! Sometimes I have to jump up and down on them. It’s really unusual for women to be in this line of work. In fact, you have to have a New Orleans license to operate inside the Superdome and Arena and I was the first woman to have a license.”
The Rollergirls practice in a warehouse-like building in the Lower 9th Ward. Depending on which shift she’s working, Gallet rushes there from work; or she crosses the Huey P. Long Bridge to make it home, catch a quick meal and then hurry back out in rush-hour traffic. But it’s worth it: “I love it so much!” she says.
Hustling to stay ahead of the clock and stay in shape is nothing new for the compact bundle of energy. After a childhood of growing up in a house of 10 children on the West Bank, she was transplanted to Amite early on, where her dad took to planting potatoes – which all of the kids were expected to help pick.
“I swear, we had what looked like mile-long rows of those potatoes,” Gallet says. “My dad would wake us up early in the morning to start digging. It got so we could look at the sun and tell what time it was. At around 11 (a.m.) we’d take off to run home and watch ‘The Young and the Restless’ (soap opera). My dad would come in and run us out. We’d eat and take a short break then go back out to dig potatoes. When it was dark, we’d pick up the potatoes by the light of the tractor.”
One gets the impression that this is a woman bred more for the combat of life than for hearts and flowers.
“When I was a kid, the neighbors said I looked like a raccoon,” she says. “So they started calling me ‘Cooney’ instead of my real name. It stuck. And when I got to the roller derby they started saying I was raised in the attic and nobody could come around me. They said I was kinda crazy and that I’d just be left out in the field and my parents kept trying to hide me. And they kept me in a cage and began feeding me live chickens. And I always scared people, and everybody on the West Bank was afraid of me. It was all made up, of course,” she says, “but it fit into the legend of my being ‘cuckoo’ and that’s what went into my bio in the league. That is the story of how ‘Cooney Coo Coo’ was born.”
Gallet went to Delgado – then known as a ‘trade school’ – to learn about air conditioning and heating. “If you were from Amite and you didn’t go off to college, you got married, worked a dairy farm and had kids,” she says.
But this wasn’t for her. Gallet bounced around several locales on the West Bank, from Gretna to Westwego, before buying her family’s original home in Bridge City, where she lives today with a roommate and two dogs: Dakota and Goose.
It was while attending a fundraiser at a bar in the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina that Cooney got chummy with a few of the Roller Derby girls who encouraged her to “join us on the team.”
At the time she was 43 and not exactly prime meat for the brutal pounding and extra curriculums that it took to make it big in the non-paying world of what has been described as “legal mayhem on roller skates.”
“The more I thought about (joining the Rollergirls) the more it made sense. I love the intense two-hour exercise, and I realized that I’m doing it for health reasons. I had high blood pressure and diabetes. And my cholesterol is aaahhh … Roller Derby was perfect for me. I’m not on the travel squad. I’m at a recreation level. And although it’s a goal to move up and make the travel team, I think at that level it becomes more cutthroat and less fun. Right now, I’m having a great time with it. But don’t get me wrong I put everything into it. I just can’t do it any other way.”
Gallet’s way is “all out.” “I like to knock an opponent into the crowd. You’re flyin’ around the track and all of a sudden somebody throws an elbow and that’s a big mistake because nobody is better at throwing elbows than I am.
Somebody hits me, and I get really pissed. At that point I’m going to knock somebody on their ass! I’m an elbow person, and I get penalized a lot. I’m not exactly the ‘queen of the penalty box’, but I do spend a lot of time there.
And it’s all because of the elbows. That’s my trademark.” She continues, “Man, there’s nothing like flying around that flat track, smacking somebody with an elbow and seeing them fly into the crowd … and hear that crowd yelling, ‘Coo Coo! Coo Coo! Coo Coo!’ It’s a high that’s hard to explain.”
That high makes all the practice hours, crazy schedules, money she shells out, volunteer hours she puts in and the pain of torn ligaments, bruised tailbones, fingers in the eye, busted shins and pulled muscles in places where she didn’t know she had muscles, worthwhile.
There is a comment disguised as a question that comes from a fan. It is about Gallet’s short-cropped hair and whether it’s gray, silver or bleached blonde. “I used to have salt and pepper hair,” Gallet says. “That’s when I started dyeing it. But I stopped doing that. Hey, I’m 48 years old, and I’m proud of it.”
As for her future? “I’m going to become a belly dancer,” Gallet quips. “Belly dancing is something I’ve always wanted to do. That would be great, don’t you think?”