Reporting from New York — A biting wind whipped down a dark street, where a man crouched in the shadow of a building. He pulled on black gloves and glanced up and down the avenue. Satisfied that no one was watching, he pulled a mask the size of a beach ball out of a bag, pulled it onto his head and wriggled it into place: snout in front, eye holes over his own, rounded ears pointed skyward.
Death Bear was ready for his mission.
A man in the second-floor unit of a nearby apartment building in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn was desperate to get rid of something that was too torturous to keep but impossible to discard.
The anguished individual had turned to Death Bear, a macabre performance artist who silently walks the city streets in a one-man quest to relieve people of painful remnants of the past: love letters, photos, gifts, dog tags, underwear -- a lot of underwear, it seems -- anything that might reduce an otherwise well-functioning person to a sniffling wreck.
His service has spread through word of mouth and the Internet.
"Help me, Death Bear!" read a typical plea that flickered via text message onto his cellphone.
"Dear Death Bear, can you come . . . tonight?" asked another, pleading with Death Bear to relieve her of "pain and a lonely Valentine's Day" by carting away memories.
And then there was the simple text from the Williamsburg man: "I'd like to make an appointment with Death Bear. Is he available today?"
It's a service
In real life, Death Bear is soft-spoken Nate Hill, whose previous art demonstrations have been geared toward shocking people or making them laugh. He used to dress up in a dolphin costume, sit on a subway station bench and give bouncy-rides on his knees to interested passersby.
Death Bear, who made his debut in November, is different.
"I was trying to make something that deals with more serious subjects, like grief, pain and tragedy," said Hill, 32. "I'm interested in making art that can help in some clear-cut way, that's not just abstract."
Hill decided that the identity of a bear would provide the right mix of comfort and mystery. It would conjure up images of a cuddly teddy bear but look fearsome enough to ensure that retrievals were solemn events. He bought the Fiberglas bear head online and painted it dark brown.
Some clients laugh at his get-up, and Hill admonishes them that he is there to help, not entertain.
And while most of his calls are from the lovelorn, others hint at tragedies greater than being dateless on Valentine's Day.
One man gave Hill a photo of himself and his ex-girlfriend on a beach and said they had served in the Army together. Then he gave Hill his military dog tags. Finally, he handed Hill a bullet.
"He almost started to cry," said Hill, whose clients know him only as Death Bear and never see his face. "I started walking away and started to break down. I thought maybe something happened to her. Maybe she got shot, maybe she killed herself."
But Hill never presses clients for details. As a bear, his job is not to make conversation.
Once, a formerly overweight woman gave Death Bear a huge pair of underwear, a reminder of a life she wanted to forget.
Hill does not charge for Death Bear's visits. That would destroy the mystique. "I'm a bear that lives in Central Park in a cave," said Hill, who sometimes refers to Death Bear in the first person and sometimes as a separate being. "He's not really interested in money."
Death Bear performs generally on nights and some weekends, when Hill is not working one of the odd jobs that sustain him.
Valentine's Day weekend was jammed for Hill, who can visit about seven clients a day. Most of them are young women. But his visit to the Williamsburg apartment would prove different.
'She haunts me'
Hill arrived about 7:30 p.m. With his scholarly round spectacles and quiet stride, he bore no resemblance to a lumbering beast. Even after pulling on the huge mask, which limits his vision and keeps him from turning his head, the tall, lean Hill had an air of dignity.
Seconds after he rang the bell, a man named Casey De Santis came to the door and led Death Bear up a flight of stairs, through his living room and into a large kitchen.
They sat down at a yellow Formica table. "Why did you call me here tonight?" Death Bear gently asked De Santis, 30.
"I feel I've moved on, but she haunts me," De Santis said, explaining that he still struggled to erase memories of a six-year relationship that had ended two years earlier.
With that, he began pushing items across the table toward Death Bear. A stuffed rabbit, a teddy bear, a poem the ex-girlfriend had written for him.
"And I don't know if this is gross, but I have a pair of her old underwear," he said, tossing Death Bear a pair of dark blue underpants.
De Santis' friend, Mateus D'Almeida, also 30, gave Death Bear a pencil holder from his own ex-girlfriend.
Death Bear assured them that their belongings were safe in his cave, somewhere in the northeastern section of Central Park. "It absorbs things like a black hole. Maybe one day I'll figure out how the cave works," he said as he placed the items into a black canvas backpack.
After he left, the two said they weren't embarrassed about using the service. Both said it was cathartic to unload items that they had kept too long.
"We all cling to things," said D'Almeida. "What better way to get rid of them than by putting them into a magic cave?"
As they spoke, Death Bear waited beneath a street lamp on the corner, a ghoulish silhouette on a cold night. This being New York, the few passersby either didn't notice, or pretended not to notice, his head.
So far, no clients have asked for their items back, perhaps the ultimate sign of the project's success.
"I take it back to my cave and it is absorbed," Death Bear said.