The Sanitation Department forbids its workers from taking home the things they find along their trash routes, so when Molina began to salvage his stockpile of sidewalk artifacts, he kept them in the locker room on the second floor of MANEAST 11. Colleagues soon followed suit, adding trinkets and treasures they discovered, until the collection outgrew the locker room and was relocated to a larger, unassigned space in the garage. “It wasn’t a job for me, the collecting -- it was just a thing I did,” Molina says. “I guess I just couldn’t stop.” Even as the assemblage expanded, Molina had final say over what was displayed -- he was, and is, the presiding curator.
“I’ve got these sensors that go off,” Molina says. “I’ve developed an instinct, based on the weight and the shape of things.” Over these 30 years, he’s become attuned to the way picture frames protrude from white plastic Glad bags, or the distinct rattle of ceramics against old bottles. The man has a gift.
From the gallery’s early years through Molina’s retirement in 2015, his garbage route ranged from 96th to 106th Street, between First and Fifth Avenues. Nearly all of the items in the collection were salvaged from that particular patch of the city. “It’s a wealthy neighborhood, especially on the East Side,” Molina tells me. “So you know they got good stuff.” Stationed on 99th Street between First and Second Avenues, the decrepit garage is an outlier among the area’s stately homes -- a blue-collar neighbor in the realm of black cars and townhouses. Lucky for Molina, old New York money begets something marvelous: the trash of the elite.
Yet the objects in the gallery (of which Molina estimates there are nearly 10,000) hold little value for him financially. Nothing is sold or auctioned; his heart is in the arrangement. Since retiring, Molina spends at least three days a week in the garage, re-organizing, remodeling, and still adding new finds. “I don’t know much about any of these things,” Molina says when I ask about the order of things. “I just put them where I like them -- it’s more like decorating than anything else.”
The objects here are not classified by date or country of origin; broken projectors and framed finger paintings collide with bronze statues and antique china. The organizing principle is wonderfully fickle. Everything goes where Molina thinks it looks best.