Remembering A Great Los Angeles Character, Leo the Psychic Cat Master, At the County’s Mass Burial Ceremony

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[This essay originally appeared in the Esotouric newsletter]

Yesterday, we attended the annual laying to rest the ashes of the unclaimed at the County Crematory and Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Since 1896, Los Angeles County has sponsored this sacred ritual, ensuring that no soul shall pass in our corner of the world without a respectful farewell.

This year, the mass grave contained the remains of 1495 people who died in 2014. These are the ones who were so isolated that after three years of looking the social workers couldn’t find their kin, the ones who died without a name, the ones whose families couldn’t afford the cost of a service. Many of them were homeless and alone.

The interfaith ceremony is deeply moving. Mingled together in the soil are the vast varieties of Angeleno, while up above in the sun and the air, a large and varied crowd comes together to honor people who most never knew.

The tender service offers something for all laid to rest and all who mourn them: a Catholic Deacon swings a smoking bowl of fragrant incense, a female Rabbi sings the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer is intoned in Spanish, English, Korean and Fiji, a Native American shares a song from the Tule Reservation, then come verses from the Koran, Buddhist and Hindu scripture, and Maya Angelou’s defiant poem “Still I Rise.” (The poet, too, died in 2014.)

We were there to pay our respects to the nameless and the strangers, but also to mourn a lost friend found.

Leo Vaisman was a Westside street performer with a delightful act: he trained cats to stand up on their haunches and take paper money, and exchange it for rolled fortune-telling scrolls, as all the while Leo rattled off a litany of mystical feline accomplishments in a musical, Russian accented voice.

The Psychic Cats wore elaborate velvet robes and had names like Cassandra, Nostradamus and Sister Clara Clairvoyant. On each scroll you’d find a color photo of your elegant seer on one side, their generous, if slightly incoherent, predictions on the other.

Kim was captivated by Leo and the Psychic Cats, and booked them to appear at Scramarama, a music festival held at the old Palace Theater in 2001. A few years later, when we were married, Leo’s cats told fortunes for our guests.

Booking this act wasn’t as simple as calling a phone number or sending an email. Leo could usually be found working on the Third Street Promenade—unless he or one of his cats wasn’t feeling well, business was slow, the weather was bad, or cops were hassling performers. A website was printed on the fortune scrolls (psychicamulet.com), but there wasn’t anything at that URL. So in each case, booking Leo involved several trips to Santa Monica, walking up and down the Promenade asking other performers, “Is the Psychic Cat guy around? Can you ask him to call us if you see him?”

Also, Leo didn’t drive, so he needed a taxi or a ride to the venue and back again after. And his cats had fleas, which is how we learned yes, you can safely flea bomb your Maid of Honor’s car. (Sorry, Cathy.)

And he was worth all the trouble. There was something about Leo’s act that seemed a thousand years old. You could imagine gentle guys with trained pussycats rattling off a similar patter in old Constantinople, Revolutionary Paris, in the shadow of Wren’s churches, on the Ganges or the Yangtze. Suspending disbelief and thanking the cats for their prognostications was a little bit of everyday magic.

After our wedding, we were rarely on the Westside. There weren’t any occasions for booking Psychic Cats. Years went by. And then one day, a friend asked how Leo was doing, so we put his name into the internet. And there he was, on the list of the unclaimed who had died without kin in 2010, and been cremated and buried by the County in 2013.

We wish we had been there to pay our respects to this lovely character on that December day. But he was in our thoughts yesterday, as 1495 other Angelenos were ushered out of our world and into the next. Any one of them could have been as colorful as Leo. May he, and they, rest peacefully and in good company.

For those of you who remember Leo, please spread the word. We did, by telling his story to the reporter from the Times who covered the ceremony. But it didn’t seem enough somehow; we hope this is.

Oak Grove Cemetery Mausoleum, St. Louis

Oak Grove is a private cemetery opened in 1922, and owned and managed by Marilyn Stanza, who married into the founding family. Cemeteries without large perpetual care endowments can become difficult to maintain with time, and in recent years there have been complaints surrounding the condition of the park grounds and Mausoleum. There has been water damage to the structure, and metal items, including rain gutters and sculptures, have been stolen for scrap value.

Mrs. Stanza has recently initiated a major restoration of the lion-flanked Byzantine Mausoleum (Tom P. Barnett and Sidney Lovell, 1928 with later additions), beginning with the gilded dome, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Paris. She was kind enough to permit us to visit this exquisite structure, and to share stories of the cemetery and St. Louis community.

Our tour of Oak Grove Mausoleum reminds us of the enormous challenges that face small organizations and individuals entrusted with the care of aging landmark properties. We hope that the good restoration work begun by Mrs. Stanza will continue and that Oak Grove will once again become famous for its beauty and restful charm.


See photos from our visit to Bellefontaine Cemetery here.

See more scenes from our anniversary trip through Missouri and Illinois here.