The Death Bear is getting a bit nervous. It's Thursday, and so far he has only had two prospective customers contact him for the coming weekend. What's worse, one of them, who in her text messages has identified herself only as Jordana, is sounding like a bit of a flake. But then who is he to judge who is sane and who isn't?
What interests the Death Bear – real name Nate Hill – is New Yorkers whose attempts to get over broken romantic relationships are being thwarted by material reminders of their ex-lovers. And so it is that almost every Sunday he can be found appearing by invitation at doors in Brooklyn collecting said objects – clothes, keys, CDs and what have you – so that the bereft parties can get on with their lives. And he does it wearing a large shiny bear's head.
This might seem like an odd way to pass your Sundays – but for two things. As word of the Death Bear has spread in the city, he has been in ever-growing demand. (People often wait until the last minute to ask him over, he explains.) Also, Mr Hill is a performance artist and the Death Bear is just the latest of many offbeat projects he has launched in New York, including dressing up as a dolphin and offering to bounce people on his knees on subway platforms.
As we meet at Mr Hill's day job – he looks after fruit flies at a Manhattan medical research laboratory – Jordana is still harassing him with texts. Like almost everyone who asks for the Death Bear, by the way, she is a white woman in her 20s or 30s. She knows the drill: he will show up, not say very much, put everything she wants out of her home into his trusty black duffel bag and leave.
But where does he take all these items and what happens to them, she wants to know? Hill directs her to his website where he explains that the Bear later puts everything he collects in a cave, from where it always mysteriously vanishes. (Hill actually just throws everything away.) What do you mean, vanishes, she keeps asking?
"I want to know where, if you can tell me, these things go," the next text begins. "Are you scared to go in the cave, do you think there may be rats in there? I have good stuff I want it to be spiritually in peace. Is it in Central Park? I won't try to find it." Hill sighs. (He has come to work today in a milkman's uniform, crisp white hat included.) "I can't tell if she is fooling with me or if she really wants this. I meet a lot of very weird people doing this."
No doubt. One of the strangest encounters came when one of his own ex-girlfriends announced she wanted the Death Bear to come by. He arrived only to find her mid-ritual with a group of her girlfriends. His ex- took a knife and stabbed a small box several times before handing it over. "There was stuff inside that was really gross, I don't think I should tell you," Hill says. (He does reveal the contents included pubic hair.)
So what made Hill give up the dolphin gig – he would jiggle perfect strangers up and down on his knees, at a rate of about seven "customers" an hour – in favour of the Bear? "That was more whimsical, but I wanted to find something else with a more serious tone that really connected with people," he answers, noting that he first started when he and another girlfriend broke up (though they are back together now).
"I wanted to make performance art that people could use," he went on. "I wanted to do something that would actually be of service to people. In other words, the purpose is not so much for me anymore, but for them."
Word of Death Bear has been spread in part by Nonsense NYC, a website that directs New Yorkers to arty happenings, and his website, natehillisnuts.com. "We all have someone or something we would rather just forget," the site says. "Death Bear will take things from you that trigger painful memories and stow them away in his cave where they will remain forever, allowing you to move on with your life. Give him an ex's clothes, old photos, mementos, letters, etc."
Why Death Bear? Hill isn't exactly sure, except that he likes the way the name rolls off the tongue. And the head he wears – hard fibreglass painted a shiny dark brown – gives a dark edge to his encounters with the lovelorn Brooklynites. (Brooklyn is the only borough he will go to, even if he himself lives in Manhattan.) "I like things to be scary. For me it's like being in a diving bell. Because of the head, they don't see any sympathy or empathy."
Whether it's art, or therapy or some kind of twisted social service, what Hill and his bear head are doing seems somehow to be working. Since starting with this last November, he has been to about 60 homes and carted off a lot of stuff. If things pick up he plans to be available for house calls this weekend on both Saturday and Sunday. There is always someone breaking up somewhere. And the Bear has to feed his cave.
Animal magic: Nate Hill's alter egos
* Free bouncy rides The artist goes around New York on the subway, dressed as a giant dolphin, and bearing a sign offering a seat on his knee to anyone who asks. He gives around seven rides an hour.
* Candy crack delivery service "No one wants to get old, but no one wants to be just a kid," Hill proclaims. "With Candy Crack you can have it both ways." Callers will receive a delivery of "100 per cent sugar crack rock" – in other words, sweets – delivered to their door, by the same giant dolphin who gives out bouncy rides.
* Human petting zoo A group consisting of "a bear, chicken, dolphin, dog, and a lot of hay" occupy a bar and ask that visitors feed them. Those who give a "nice pat on the head" will be rewarded by a friendly nuzzle.
* Fish 'n' chicks "Just like make-believe animals in formaldehyde," Hill breezily explains, "I will create a make-believe animal by mixing meats together into one new meat." The public's reaction to his mix of fish sticks and chicken nuggets he offered is not recorded.