Several years ago, my uncle was taking out the garbage when he spied, in the trash room of his Washington, DC apartment building, a box of spiral notebooks. Each one was a journal recounting a young woman’s personal and professional life in post-war Washington, peppered with appearances by the era’s most famous politicians and journalists. Intrigued, he took the box to his apartment and began to read. The author had been one of the only female reporters covering Congress and the White House, and her stories testified to the challenge, intrigue and isolation of being a working woman in the capital of the 1950s and ’60s. My uncle read through the accounts with awe, and some horror that they might have ended up in the incinerator had he not found them first. But what ethical (or legal) standing did he have to intervene, against the wishes of the woman herself, or some family member? In the end, he felt he had no choice but to throw them out.
The finality of garbage feels like a right. But the minute you put your trash on the curb, it becomes the property of New York City. If you live in the square bounded by 1st Avenue, 5th Avenue, 96th Street, and 110th Street, some of the things you’ve thrown out may have wound up on the second floor of a Department of Sanitation garage on East 99th Street. That territory was for three decades the route of Nelson Molina, the sanitation worker who has curated the multitudinous Treasure in the Trash collection.
Here, in a room the size of a hockey rink, Molina mends what we break, cherishes what we discard, and displays what we think is gone forever. His collection includes African masks, a film projector, beaded Indian purses, crystal decanters, model trains, ivory cigarette cases, stainless steel ship cleats, government bonds, diplomas, musical instruments, typewriters, army helmets, lunchboxes, and a jungle of thriving houseplants. There are easily a thousand discrete objects here, representing only a small handful — geographically and temporally — of New York refuse.
Treasure in the Trash does not proffer judgment on its unwitting contributors. These are sooner tokens of culture and history than trappings of old lives. What did we frame? How did we play? These objects have been, as the anthropologist Robin Nagle put it, redeemed. “Nelson has untrashed them,” she said.
Nagle, the author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, has become an advocate for preserving Molina’s collection. The leaky-roofed garage in which it sits will be demolished in the next few years, at which point the future of Treasure in the Trash is undetermined. Unlike the NYPD or the FDNY, the DSNY does not yet have a museum. But when it does, Nagle hopes Molina’s collection will be an important feature.
On a recent Saturday, photographer Lana Barkin toured Treasure in the Trash with Molina. Through her photos, we can see that Molina has neatly — perhaps better than anyone else — fulfilled Claes Oldenburg’s maxim: “Look for beauty where it is not supposed to be found.” –H.G.