Paper Bomb

Sprell knows they're on to him. He feels hot breath on his back--sees them watching him from windows and standing around outside his building. "They know this can destroy everything," Sprell says. "They're working nonstop to make it irrelevant before it exists."

Sprell has spent 40 years building his bomb, filling notebook pages with scrawls so dense the paper looks black from a foot away. All day long he's in the library. Every day I come, and there he is. Foreign students and homeless people crowd the long tables, all of us addicted to the spice smell of aging paper and binder's glue. I used to come to look for jobs, until that got too depressing. Now I come to people watch and browse books of photography, calling my sloth research for the art installation I've been sketching since college.

Modeled on the neutron bomb, Sprell's life work will destroy paper and leave everything else intact. All the paper, everywhere in the world. Every book and file and document. Which is why ever since he started, "the System" has been putting all its resources into moving away from paper. Hard drives and compact disks hold data now. Paper's prize position is slipping, and Sprell is the reason.

"Paper holds the world together," he says. "In ancient times it was stone, and then wood, and then metal, but now it's paper." His voice cracks from love, and hatred. "You could never have had the Holocaust without paper. Something like that is all about organization--being able to keep records on people, categorize them, process them."

Before the dot-com bubble burst, Sprell's tone of voice was common. All day long I spoke with cracked men whose crazy ideas were making someone billions. Now we see each other at unemployment offices and progressively poorer pubs, and at TekServe, where we go to sell components that are useless in our new world.

"But you use paper too," I say, pinching the thick stack of tattered sheets.

"You know the Soviet saying," he says. "You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Actually, I have nothing against paper. Paper isn't the problem--it's a cause of problems. Not even that--it's an enabler of problems. Eviction notices are paper. Mainstream media spreads its lies through newspaper. It goes on and on. This oppressive society is propped up with paper, and without paper anarchy will take over."

From far away he looks dried up and bleached out, but get close and you see the energy and rage in his eyes. "Why not start working on a new bomb?" I ask. "One that will destroy data stored in digital form? I'm sure some of the same principles will apply."

"I wish I could, but I'm too old now. I know so little about these things. It took me twenty years just to finish my initial research on the properties of paper."

Sprell keeps me coming back to the library. I find it funny, how blind people can be. He's like a naked mole rat, vainly trying to tunnel out from under his own obsolescence.

About the author:

Sam J. Miller is a community organizer. He lives in the Bronx with his partner of four years. When he's not writing or organizing poor people to fight for social justice, he's bingeing on old movies and punk rock. Drop him a line or visit him at