Sanitation’s Reincarnations

Still from video by The New Yorker

Still from video by The New Yorker

Some trash can be found and then turned into art, like the pieces of plastic that were built into sculptures at the National Zoo. Other trash is not necessarily garbage, but merely objects that someone doesn’t have the space or energy to take care of, and that man’s trash can become another man’s treasure. A man who worked for the New York Department of Sanitation for about thirty years spent a good part of his career collecting and curating things people threw away, but which caught his eye as interesting treasures, as David Owen explains:

Saving Treasures from the Trash

A Sanitation worker shows off the notable items he has rescued from curbs and bins over the course of thirty years.

Nelson Molina grew up in a housing project in East Harlem, in an apartment where his mother still lives. “Starting when I was nine years old, in 1962, I had a passion for picking up,” he said recently. “I had, like, a three-block radius. I would look through the garbage and pick up toys that people threw out, and I would fix them. I had two brothers and three sisters, and I was like Santa Claus to them.”

As if drawn by an irresistible force, in 1981 Molina went to work for the Department of Sanitation. His route, which he covered for thirty years, included his childhood neighborhood, and when he found something that he felt shouldn’t have been thrown away he put it into a special bin on the side of his garbage truck and took it back to the garage, on East Ninety-ninth Street. Today, items he recovered fill most of the building’s second floor—maybe a quarter of an acre.

Molina retired last year, but he returns to the garage three days a week to tend the collection, which he calls Treasure in the Trash. The items are arranged by category, and the displays are crisscrossed by aisles. The whole thing looks a little like the housewares department at Sears and a little like the closing scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Only two of the items got to the garage without having been thrown away: a 1985 photograph of Molina holding a Sanitation Worker of the Year citation that he’d just received, and the framed citation. In the photograph, he’s wearing a suit and tie and has a mustache like Omar Sharif’s in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Today, the mustache is gone, and he has less hair, but he’s still trim and youthful—too youthful, seemingly, to have six adult children, one of whom works for Sanitation…

Read the rest at The New Yorker.

2 thoughts on “Sanitation’s Reincarnations

  1. I definitely agree! Most of my things are used, I shop at thrift stores all the time, I consider myself a thrift queen. It’s an adventure each time and there are no two thrift stores alike. You can really find some good stuff, especially if you like to dig. I also donate my unwanted items often to two animal shelter thrift stores about an hour from my home. I drop off donations about every two months.

  2. Also wanted to note that I like to take items that I find and fix them to bring out their beauty — if they are dirty or broken, I will put love into it to make them shine again. 🙂

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