Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Photo by Librado Romero, The New York Times

When I found the old Manhattan Trade School report cards that eventually formed the basis of the Permanent Record project, they were about to be thrown out. I've often wondered what would have happened if a New York City garbageman had encountered them while collecting the trash on his route. Would he have cared, or would he have just chucked them in his garbage truck and moved on?

If the garbageman in question had been Nelson Molina (pictured above), there's a decent chance he might have saved them. The New York Times recently ran an article about Molina, a Manhattan sanitation worker who for years has been culling interesting objects from his daily rounds and has assembled them into a "trash museum" in one of the Sanitation Department's garages. (The article is here, and there's also a slideshow of objects from the Molina's museum.)

According to the article, the collection features over 1000 objects, including "a portrait of a grumpy-looking Winston Churchill ... a very nice pastel copy of Henri Matisse’s ‘Woman With a Hat’ ... photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, landscapes done in watercolor, ancient tricycles and toy trucks ... four electric guitars ... [and] a Master of Business Administration diploma from Harvard." No mention of report cards, although the diploma is sort of close.

Molina's collection (which does not violate any departmental rules, because he's displaying the objects for other sanitation workers to see, not taking them for his own personal use) validates one of our culture's most enduring clich├ęs: One person's trash is another person's treasure. It's also a de facto commentary on our disposable society. That all seems obvious and straightforward, right?

What seems missing, at least for me, is the sense that each of these objects represents a story. Where's the speculation regarding each object's history? Who painted those paintings, played those guitars, rode on those tricycles? Why were these items -- including a diploma from Harvard! -- discarded? Like, I realize Molina isn't a researcher or journalist, but doesn't he at least ponder these questions, even he doesn’t have the time or resources to go about answering them? Maybe he just doesn't think in those terms, or maybe the person who wrote the Times article chose not to go in that direction. Either way, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in the trash/treasure duality, PermaRec fan Kirsten Hively recently told me about a blog called Trash Treasures of New York City, which is run by a guy who runs a rubbish removal company. Lots of fun stuff here (including this 1959 car registration record for a blue ’53 Plymouth) -- worth checking out.


  1. I loved the note at the end about the '53 Plymouth registration. Being a car guy, my curiosity on that one extends more to the car than the people who owned it. From what dealer was it sold? What changes, if any, were made to it as it passed from owner to owner. Has it met its end, and if so, how? Accident? Sent to the junkyard? Rusting in some farmer's back forty?

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