By Jocelyn Selim
Public radio host and folklorist Nick Spitzer finds the Creole in cancer treatment
By Jocelyn Selim
Photographs by David Grunfeld
Nick Spitzer knows more about the blues than you do. That’s the Delta kind, not the clinical depressive kind, although he’s had some experience with the latter too.
Raised in Connecticut, Spitzer isn’t the sort of guy you’d imagine as the voice of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou. For starters, he doesn’t drawl his vowels. But Spitzer’s two-hour radio show, American Routes, is as eclectic as New Orleans, the city from which it’s broadcast every week, and where Spitzer now lives with his wife and two young sons, Perry, 7, and Gardner, 5. A typical show might include the Grateful Dead, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard mixed with a liberal helping of blues and Zydeco.
Not surprisingly, Spitzer, 59, isn’t your typical DJ—he’s a professor of anthropology and American studies at Tulane University, a former Louisiana state folklorist and a passionate street culture scholar who freely dispenses cultural insights between tracks. Spitzer’s musings are meant to both enlighten and entertain. And by all accounts, they do so remarkably well: After 12 years on the air, his show has nearly 1 million listeners on more than 225 radio stations, making it one of the most popular public radio shows ever.
Still, for a year back in 1980, such a future seemed unimaginable. At 29, he and his life had been looking pretty good. He had found work as the government-appointed state folklorist, a job that allowed him to champion and protect the cultural heritage of Louisiana. “I’d wear my little seersucker suit and show up at the arts council meeting, sit with mostly blue-haired old ladies, defend the Vietnamese photo project against reactionaries … that sort of thing,” says Spitzer.
Then one day, during a pickup soccer game, Spitzer noticed that he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. A few days later, he realized that he had dropped about 15 pounds. Only slightly concerned, he went to the doctor for a routine visit. Everything seemed to check out OK. “Then, almost as an afterthought, he ordered me to go in for a chest X-ray,” says Spitzer, who diligently complied. “I could hear him in the other room go, ‘Jesus Christ, what is this?’ ”
The doctor came back in and said, “There’s a mass in your chest. It’s very large and I don’t know what it is. If it’s as large a mass as it appears to be, it’s very life-threatening and you need to deal with it today.”
The doctor referred Spitzer to a specialist, and he drove across town holding the X-rays up to the light. He’d never seen chest X-rays before, but even he could see the shadowy presence the doctor was talking about.