This Sanitation Worker Built a Collection of 40,000 Objects He Rescued from the Trash
When he was around nine or ten years old, Nelson Molina watched his mother fix the family’s toaster. She heated a butter knife on the stove until it was red hot and used it to rewire the broken appliance.
“We couldn’t buy another toaster,” Molina told me, matter of factly. So, his mother fixed it.
Now a retired New York City sanitation worker, Molina has always emulated his mother’s technical savvy, even at a young age. Before Christmas each year, he would repair toys that other kids had discarded so there would be gifts for his five siblings come the big day. “We didn’t get much for Christmas, so I was like Santa Claus,” he offered, smiling.
Blessed with the ability to repair what others see as broken, and guided by the principle that nothing of use should be thrown away, Molina began to collect and keep the things he discovered while on the job as a sanitation worker. He amassed a giant cache of objects and trinkets, sometimes of great sentimental or historical value, from the roughly 12,000 tons of trash that New Yorkers toss daily.
The fruits of that labor can be found (by appointment only) in a Manhattan sanitation department garage on East 99th Street, called Maneast 11. The sprawling second floor of the space—which sits within an active hub for 60 sanitation workers and numerous garbage trucks—is filled with an ineffable array of thousands of objects, collected by Molina over roughly three decades on the job, beginning in the 1990s.
The sheer quantity of objects is jaw-dropping. Molina says the collection, which he dubbed the “Treasures in the Trash Museum,” now comprises somewhere in the region of 40,000 things.
As I walk through the collection with Molina (it consumes multiple large rooms and decorates other spaces, like a locker room), every twist and turn reveals something unexpected. I see countless postcards, coins, books, statues, and posters (one honoring the famed “Dream Team”), along with one-of-a-kind objects like war medals, a church’s stained glass, and a photograph signed by Jackie O. Molina, gesturing to various objects recovered from Hurricane Sandy and train tracks from defunct subway lines. There are also myriad typewriters and DVDs, a nativity scene, a small greenhouse-like space with chirping bird sounds (seriously), and a silent film you can watch, courtesy of a working projector. I could go on.
“You’d be surprised what’s in the trash,” Molina said. That’s an understatement.
The only real commonality between all of these objects is that they were once trash, and that they caught Molina’s eye. After years of deeply personal labor, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of where he discovered specific pieces and when. But the “Treasures in the Trash Museum” is hardly chaotic. Even in retirement, Molina still cares for the collection—keeping it clean and adding new objects picked up by others. And he keeps it organized. Tables are ordered thematically (there are spaces for campaign memorabilia, old video games, books, etc.), and a general catolog of the collection is underway with the help of anthropologist Robin Nagle and her students.
Molina describes having “sensors” for detecting a good find in a bag of garbage. He often goes by sound—he can tell the difference between how a wine bottle and a vase sounds when tossed into a garbage truck, for example—and has a keen eye for spotting odd things jutting out of garbage bags.
Among the most curious objects are things that clearly had deep personal value to someone at some point, like an old photo album of a family trip to Atlantic City. “The parents pass away, the kids take everything they want, and the rest goes into the garbage,” Molina explained.
Molina grew up in New York City in the 1960s, in a housing project not far from Maneast 11. His father was a merchant marine and could be gone for months at a time. Left to his own devices, Molina would build scooters from a two-by-four, a Chicago skate, and a Pepsi cola box, or jump onto the back of the crosstown bus to go to Riverside Park to hang out with his friends. He can still recall perfectly the moment in the early ’80s when he was told he passed the Sanitation Department exam; he was playing stoop ball with his girlfriend (who is now his wife).
Trash was Molina’s business, but collecting became his passion. Even now, after having explained his work to various major publications around the world, Molina is enthused to discuss any object that strikes your fancy, or his. He hopes that one day the collection will go on view to the public at a sanitation department museum (like the institutions that have been created for other city workers, like the NYPD and the MTA) instead of a private space that can only be seen by appointment.
Of the tens of thousands of objects, I ask which has the most personal resonance for him. He shows me a Star of David, made out of metal from the Twin Towers. The piece had been discarded when the contents of a storage locker weren’t claimed by the owner, but it’s come to have meaning for Molina. He remembers going down to the World Trade Center on the Sunday after 9/11, armed only with a paper mask for protection.
He didn’t stay long, though. The day he arrived, Molina found out that his father had been rushed to the hospital and was in critical condition. He left Ground Zero to be with his dad, who passed away days later.
“It’s a sad story, but also a happy story,” Molina said. After leaving to be with his father, he wasn’t allowed to return to Ground Zero to help with the cleanup. For this reason, he was spared from the health issues that continue to afflict the individuals who worked on the site during the months after the attack, unaware that they were breathing in toxic debris and detritus.
“My father saved my life,” he said. “When I see the Star of David, I think about that.”
Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated a catalogue of the collection had been created. That effort is still in progress.