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July 08. 2012 12:44AM

Meadowbrook's unlikely hostess


Duncan has elevated her cleaning job into a higher art form. About 90,000 patrons visited Meadowbrook for shows last year, and six out of 10 of them were women. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)

GILFORD -- With summer concert season here, New Hampshire fans will be talking about their favorite shows and venues.

And if they've been to Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion, they might also be talking about the restrooms.

That's because Phyllis Duncan has quietly turned the most menial of jobs into a mission to brighten the lives of others.

By day, Duncan works for the bridge maintenance division at the state Department of Transportation. On show nights, she's at Meadowbrook, preparing the dressing rooms, doing laundry and adding her own very special touches to the ladies' restrooms there.

Walk into the spotless facility and you'll find Duncan there. Each time a stall door opens, she slips quickly inside, wipes the seat, then holds the door open for the next woman, who often seems startled, then pleased at the personal service.

A shelf and vanity table hold a variety of personal products that are free of charge, including hair elastics, emery boards and hairspray. Duncan buys them for her customers with the tip money they put in decorated glass jars.

“They like it,” she said. “It just makes them feel special.”

She plays CDs of the artists who are performing on a given night. And she puts air fresheners in each stall, so the facility smells like a candle shop.

Duncan admits she can make more in tips on a really good night than she does in a week's salary here.

But the job is not just about the money; it's about making customers happy, she said. That's why she puts up sayings such as “In a world where you can be anything ... Be yourself” and “The best things in life aren't things.”

“It's just a little encouraging,” she said. “People come to have a good time, but underneath that good time, what's lurking?”

She knows something about that, too.

Life-altering loss

Duncan, 59, started working at Meadowbrook about six years ago. Her daughter, the youngest of her three children, had taken a cleaning job, and the owners offered Duncan part-time work as well. “I really didn't want a job, but I did it to keep my eyes on her,” she said.

Her daughter had been diagnosed at 18 with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She seemed to be doing all right for a time, Duncan said.

But after a crisis three years ago, her daughter, then 25, was admitted to the state hospital. After she was released, she apparently took all of her medication at once.

“Police knocked on my door and told me they found her,” Duncan said.

Asked if the fatal overdose was intentional or a mistake, she replied softly, “I think she was tired of being the way she was.”

The last time she saw her daughter alive was at Meadowbrook, cleaning the bathroom.

What keeps her going after such a tragedy?

“Hope that there's a better day,” she said. “If you lose hope, you lose everything.”

Time management

Duncan lives in New Hampton with her 130-pound American bulldog named Sherman — like the tank. She has four grandchildren.

She starts her state job at 6 a.m. and finishes about 2:30 p.m. On show days, she brings a change of clothes and heads straight to Meadowbrook, where she'll remain at her bathroom post until the concert ends.

She usually goes home for a few hours of sleep, then returns about 2 a.m. to ready the restrooms and dressing rooms for the next show. “I've got to have everything done by 4 o'clock because the next group's coming in,” she said.

She even saves up vacation time to use when she has to be at Meadowbrook all night.

Duncan started her career by earning a veterinary technician degree but never used it, she said, “because I got depressed when you had to put animals down.”

So she got into the construction field instead, working for Audley Construction for 20 years as a carpenter and welder before taking the state job six years ago.

Duncan loves Meadowbrook at night; she calls it “magical.”

“This is as fun as it gets for me, coming here,” she said. “Being around young people. Seeing them laugh and enjoy life.”

Bridget Harding and her husband, R.J. Harding, are managing partners at Meadowbrook. She said Duncan has become a “member of the family.”

“It's amazing. She'll take vacation time from her real job to come here and clean toilets,” Bridget said. “Not a lot of people are going to do that.”

Duncan took her cleaning job “to the next level,” Harding said, adding, “I think she needs something to take care of.”

Duncan said she likes how strangers will start up conversations while they're waiting in line for the restroom. Hearing women exclaim over the stickers and sayings on the walls makes her smile.

Staying in the bathroom also keeps down vandalism by rowdy concert-goers.

“If you don't, they destroy things,” Duncan confided. “You wouldn't think so, being women. But some of them are worse than the men.”

She strolled up to the lawn area she likes to call “hippie hill,” with its nice view of the stage and the surrounding countryside. “When I get cremated, this is where I'm going to be,” she said. “That way I can keep track of all the shows going on.”

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Shawne Wickham may be reached at swickham@unionleader.com.


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