How a retired New York City garbage man collected 45,000 ‘treasures in the trash’

Jon San
Supervising Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

From an early age, Nelson Molina seemed destined to become a garbage man. In fact, he was born at Metropolitan Hospital Center in New York City, just steps away from Garage 11 of the Department of Sanitation, the place where he would spend over three decades of his life.

“My mother always told me if I ever find something that someone could use, never throw it away, just put it away somewhere,” the now-retired Molina tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Nelson's appreciation and preservation of trash stemmed from his mother, who never threw anything away (Courtesy: Nelson Molina Jr.)

Molina and his five siblings grew up poor on the Upper East Side. Each Christmas, the three boys would each get one toy car and the three girls would each get one doll. Then, when he was nine, he discovered a way to supplement their holiday stash.

“I decided to go out and look in the garbage in the neighborhood a week before Christmas,” Molina says. “Because I knew everybody was throwing their old toys out.” 

Molina would bring home broken or discarded toys, repair them and play with them. “I just had the passion for it, from there on,” says Molina. “That’s where it all started.”

Years later, in 1981, Molina started as a sanitation worker for the city. Early on, he displayed a unique talent: a “sixth sense” for discovering valuable items hidden in the trash.

Nelson Molina and his son, Nelson Jr., who currently works at New York City's Department of Sanitation. (Courtesy: Nelson Molina Jr.)

“Sometimes I can tell just by looking at the bag, sometimes I pick up the bag and I hear something inside,” he says. “Or sometimes the weight of the bag [gives it away].” Given three months to look through trash, Molina confidently says he could “furnish a three-bedroom apartment.”

At first, he displayed his findings in his locker. Later on, the second floor of Garage 11 was deemed unsafe for vehicles, leaving a vast, empty space perfect for a rising curator’s growing collection. 

Now, hundreds of tables fill the room, each of them a vignette devoted to a certain collection: Vintage cameras, typewriters, stuffed animals, watches, baseballs, newspaper clippings. There’s even a whole section devoted to imitations of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting.

None of it is haphazard and most displays were built over years, as Molina painstakingly searched through incalculable amounts of trash to find the perfect pieces. In tribute to that oft-recited quote, he called the massive exhibit “Treasures in the Trash.”

He estimates he has over 45,000 pieces collectively worth around $170,000. But it’s not about the number of items or their monetary worth for Molina. Some pieces have sentimental value. He recalls once picking up a garbage bag and discovering a metal object had torn through the bottom.

It was a Star of David inscribed with a message: “Presented to Joseph Askin in memory of 9/11. Created from the steel of the World Trade Center.” After some detective work, Molina managed to track down the owner of the memento, although he never recovered the item. Now, the 9/11 Museum has expressed interest in displaying it.

Nelson has amassed around 45,000 items in his "Treasures in the Trash" collection from over three decades as a sanitation worker.

But his job at the Department of Sanitation has given him more than a roomful of treasures. “I raised six kids on this job, they all went to college, they all got good jobs,” he says. “That’s why I call it one of the greatest jobs in the world.”

The Treasures in the Trash collection at Garage 11 is closed to the public but Molina hopes to change that. “My goal for the collection is to find a home for it and turn it into a museum where people can come and see it,” he says.

And while Molina is has been retired for four years, he visits his collection two to three times a week. And his presence at the garage is still felt even in his absence: his son, Nelson Jr., has been working there since 2006.

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