Treasure Island - Manhattan Style

Posted by Vivian McnIeil on

Can you tell by shaking a heavy-duty plastic garbage bags what is in it? Let us imagine that you are shaking the bag and hear a clunking sound. Would you be able to distinguish between a vase or a toy? Nelson Molina, a retired New York City sanitation worker can. Molina claims that by the way the item pokes from inside the bag and the sound the item makes when hitting the ground are hints to what the object hidden in the garbage bag is. For example, when Nelson hears the ping that is made when a trash bag is moved, Nelson can distinguish between not only a vase and a toy, but even between a wine bottle and a vase. He also is attuned to the weight and sound of the bags. 

I am not sure if Molina is a true conservationist or an avid collector of discarded paraphernalia. He has been collecting discarded trash since he was nine years old. Born into a family of five children (he now has six of his own), the holiday season was a trying time. His parents bought only one gift for all the children to share. Before the holidays he walked around the neighborhood looking for disposed toys of other families getting ready to welcome the new presents into their homes. Even if a doll had a broken leg or a toy truck was missing a wheel, he would still bring it home and fix it. Nelson had learned well from his Mom. If the toaster broke, he would watch his mother take it apart and put it back together again. In his childhood home, there was no money to waste and throwing away a toaster was not an option. 

How many people are there who love their job? Especially when you must move around quickly under pressure and deal with maggots and garbage all day. Well, Nelson Molina is an exception. For thirty- four years, he worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation and retired a few years ago. “This is the greatest job in the world.”, insists Molina. All his six children work in some type of position in the sanitation department. His departure from garbage duty did not stop him from taking care of his beloved, “Trash Museum” located in the sanitation building on east ninety-ninth street in East Harlem. Molina’s collection is located on the second floor of the building that was formerly a truck parking lot. “I was a picker since I was nine years old”, says Molina in one of his many interviews on YouTube. Heller Films collaborated on a short film in 2019 with Molina center stage. The film highlights Molina’s career and his famed collection. 

Molina started his trash museum about thirty years ago after accumulating many valuable and variable items from people’s garbage. No sanitation worker can take home something he finds in other people’s trash, so Molina began accumulating the stuff right in the sanitation building. When the objects became plentiful, the department found another place in the building which Molina fixed up with his own hands. There are tables and desks spread out with one bare aisle to walk through. On each of these fixtures, are the items that have a theme in common. For example, a baseball theme table has balls, bats, hats, photos, and other valuable memorabilia. The army table has a framed picture of a soldier’s unit with every photo hand signed. There is even a book autographed by Madonna in the book section. 

Molina’s garbage truck collected ten tons of trash each day. New York City collectors pick up twelve thousand tons per day, and for the year no less than fourteen million tons of garbage are picked up in the city of New York. Molina has many very heavy items in the collection like an old movie projector in which he projects old silent films that he found discarded. 

By far, Molina’s most prized possession is not famously autographed books or eighteen carat gold jewelry, which are included in the collection, but a four-inch Jewish Star that was given to a man named Joseph Askan. This invaluable was constructed from the steel remains of the destroyed World Trade Center. On the back, Askan’s name was inscribed. Molina was able to search and finally contact this man and Askan is planning on coming to claim the treasure. What happened was when Askan moved to smaller quarters he put his belongings in a storage facility. Failing to pay up his monthly rent, the facility took his belongings and disposed of them. That is how this star came to be in the vicinity of Molina’s route. Other items worth money are mementos from a Star Wars debut and baseballs signed by almost every Yankee celebrity. Electric guitars and seasonable items like skis line the walls. (I threw out my husband’s ancient skis a few years ago, too bad I did not call Molina.) 

Now Molina is retired, but he still comes to the museum three times a week, living not too far from the sanitation building. It will be decided soon if the museum will be able to relocate to larger quarters. So far, the museum is not open to the public but only for tours especially reserved through the Department of Sanitation of New York. 

There are many enthusiasts who check garbage bags for profit. We have one friend who collects large metal items and sells them as scrap metal. Another guy, who shares a podcast with a friend enjoys finding his own garbage bag treasures. In his video he found a copper looking planter which he checked with a special instrument that looks like a pen to find out if the object is copper. It was. He sells what he finds unlike Nelson Molina who admits the objects do not actually belong to him but to the sanitation department. 

Molina likes to call his profession, the waste and recycling industry. Unlike some conservationists who complain about too much waste, he acts on his passion. He has salvaged over fifty-thousand items from being sent to landfills. He does not preach about recycling, he does it. You must see how many old typewriters he has displayed in his museum. You can try to explain a typewriter to your child and get nowhere. “Imagine”, you will say. “If you had to be so careful not to make mistakes or would have to remove the sheet of paper and start again.” If you used whiteout, it would not look professional for a formal document. Programs such as Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and others, attempt at making sure a person gives in a perfect document. 

Each item that is in the Trash Museum tells a story and gives a lesson. Think of the amount of patience learned by teaching a child how to thread a tape into a tape recorder or a movie onto a movie projector. Molina has these right in the museum. There is a beautiful gold colored movie projector that shows silent films as old as one hundred years which he found in the garbage. A visit to such a place would take days of study and exploration of each item. 

Recycling has been mandatory for some years in New York City, so it is interesting that people are bringing trashed items to Molina until this day. With a garbage bag made in black, it is not hard to sneak in a household item or two. Not everyone is willing to stick their hands into someone else’s trash. Molina has a sixth sense of when it pays to dig. Anyone who watched him as a garbage collector would say it is almost prophetic how he finds stuff. With a jiggle or a wiggle, even in the fast-paced life of a garbage man, there is time to collect treasures. 

Collectors love tag and garage sales. Some people cannot pass up one of these sales. Just as charity begins at home, so should collecting. Why not checkout your own garage to see what gems can be uncovered? Many of us have old cartons in our garage from moving. Open them up and see if you still need the items. Give your grandchildren a trip to your attic. It is amazing what can be found and appreciated by a younger generation. It could almost be like a trip to the Trash Museum. Until this unique museum is open to the public, it might be a good idea during vacation to take your grandchild up to your attic or down to your garage. Maybe you will find items that you do not need but would be welcomed by a neighborhood thrift shop. Sometimes someone will have a set of dishes that are missing pieces, and your few leftover pieces can fill up their set. Record players are making a comeback and can be bought inexpensively. Many of us have stacks of records in our attics that we loved too much to throw out. Let us learn from Nelson Molina and cherish and appreciate the old; each old piece has a story, and each family has a potential collector. Let us enjoy recycling instead of just finding it a chore. What about a treasure hunt through the attic or garage as a family game during the holiday season? There are not too many safe places to go yet.

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