Text by Words⁄Mandi Keighran Photography⁄Axel Dupeux
It’s always Christmas at Manhattan 11, the NYC Department of Sanitation garage in East Harlem. Even in July there are Christmas carols playing, dozens of trees, wreaths, stars, candles, nativity scenes, and a life-size illuminated Santa. A mite confusingly, however, it might also be spring, and the start
of the baseball season, if one is to judge from “baseball wall”, an enormous display of autographed balls, framed mitts, and rows of figurines, right next to “Christmas corner”.
These carefully curated objects are just a fraction of the tens of thousands that are jammed into this enormous garage. There’s a gallery-worth of artwork, an orchestra of guitars, corners overflowing with greenery and sparkling fountains. A whole wall of Mona Lisa reproductions, a forest of chairs and lamps, carefully ordered towers of video games, libraries of books, and tables of every kind of tchotchke, curio, trinket, toy and bauble imaginable.
This is the mind-boggling Trash to Treasure collection of 63-year-old Nelson Molina, all rescued from the garbage over his 32 years as a worker with New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). In sanitation-speak, the objects are “mongo”, slang for treasure salvaged from the garbage. While it’s against department regulations, most of the 59 garages across the city have some kind of small mongo collection on display. Molina, however, is the undisputed king.
“It’s just something I have a passion for,” he says. “I have two brothers and three sisters, and we didn’t get much for Christmas. So, as a kid, I used to go out two weeks before Christmas and look in the garbage. I might find a toy car missing a wheel, so I’d go into my mother’s sewing kit and find a button the same size and glue it on. She never threw anything out. If she had a toaster that didn’t work, she would repair it. If she couldn’t fix it, no one could, not even the manufacturer. That’s how I learned.”
Molina’s passion didn’t lead him directly to the DSNY, however. He began his working life as an oxygen technician with a private ambulance company. In 1981, at the age of 29, applied for various city jobs – everything from the post office to the railway. By chance, the first he was called in for was as a sanitation worker, and he stayed with the department until his retirement in September last year.
He doesn’t remember the first piece of mongo he picked up – probably a small figurine or a perfume bottle, he says – but, whatever it was, it’s still in the men’s locker room. It’s here » Molina’s collection began, in a small room he built with two colleagues as a shared locker. As the collection grew, it overtook the tiny room – crowding it with everything from Star Wars figurines to corkscrews – and flowed into the locker room itself, turning it into a cabinet of curiosities set to a soundtrack of birds singing (a found CD, playing on a found portable sound system) in which the sanitation workers go about their daily routine. From there, it spilled into the garage, completely taking over the second floor, which is no longer used for the storing of garbage trucks.
As Molina wanders through the collection, he picks up pieces, detailing exactly where he found them and how he knew to look for them – an unusually heavy bag, a telltale sound, an odd shape. It seems impossible that he would have a favourite piece among so many, but he does – a Star of David, which he found eight years ago, made of steel from the World Trade Center to commemorate 9/11.
“There’s a sad and happy story to this piece – that’s why it’s so precious to me,” he says. “9/11 happened on a Tuesday, and on Sunday, the DSNY were sending guys over there to help clean up. I was one of the guys who volunteered to go. While I was there, my wife called and told me my father had been rushed to hospital in critical condition. I went to the hospital, and he passed away two days later. I couldn’t go back to the World Trade Center. That’s the sad story. The happy story is that if I had been there eight or nine months, I probably wouldn’t be here today because of the diseases people got. Every time I pick it up, it reminds me of my father.”
However precious it is to him, the star looks set to leave the collection soon. Following a CBS interview in which Molina made sure the cameras captured the name on the plaque, its owner – who works for the sprinkler system company at the Freedom Tower – got in touch. Reportedly, the star was accidentally disposed of with the contents of a storage locker, and there are now plans to move it to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in Lower Manhattan.
CBS isn’t the only one interested in Molina’s collection. Dr Robin Nagle is an anthropologist who has been working with the DSNY since 2002. She began researching waste for her 2013 book Picking Up – part of which involved time as a sanitation worker – but has since narrowed her focus to the collection. She even ran an NYU course last year on how it could be catalogued. “I’m primarily interested in Nelson’s curatorial and artistic sensibility,” says Nagle. “The beauty of it is the unexpected way in which he has shaped it.”
As much as the garage is a reflection of the collector’s curatorial eye, it is also a snapshot of the ephemera of American life on Molina’s route, bordered by 96th St to 110th St and 1st Ave to 5th Ave. These objects stand testament to what people value and what they choose to throw out, the lost and forgotten, and the comings and goings of trends – from Tamagotchis, the plastic digital pets that gripped a generation in the ’90s, to Furbys, the bug-eyed robotic toys that followed. There’s a poetry in the objects that Molina chooses to pull out of the trash. Wandering the labyrinthine aisles between his carefully curated tables, it can be difficult to imagine just why something has been thrown out – here a collection of Native American beaded necklaces, there a book signed by former First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
As tentative plans are being made to relocate the collection to a permanent, publicly accessible space in coming years (something Nagle acknowledges would be hugely expensive), the NYC Department of Sanitation is hoping to capitalise on that sentiment to help realise its goal of zero waste to landfills by 2030. “This is not trash – it can all be reused,” says Nagle. “Nelson’s collection makes you think about what you throw out.”
None of this, however, is what inspired Molina. He simply collects, and doesn’t need to understand why. “I just couldn’t see this stuff going back into the garbage and being broken up. So, I just put it all together and it became this,” he says. “Robin told me I was an artist, but I didn’t see it like that. I’d been doing this for 30 years before it hit me: I’m an artist. I sit down and I don’t know how I put it together. It turned out really good.”
Tours of the Trash to Treasure collection are available by appointment only by emailing email@example.com
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