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Commentary: A world without Switzerland

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2011 - Attempting to prophesize with scientific precision is a fool's errand. No matter how gullible the audience, the prophet who gets too specific ultimately allows himself to be proven exactly wrong. Such was the case with Harold Camping, the 89-year-old radio evangelist who foresaw Judgment Day arriving at 6 p.m. last Saturday.

Of course, the skeptical among us noted technical problems with Mr. Camping's vision of doom before it was put to the test. Because the earth is round and rotating -- facts that may have eluded many of his more ardent followers -- any global event will take place at different times in different places. 6 p.m. where? Did the Bible anticipate the advent of daylight savings time? What about the International Dateline?

Enthusiasts who were dogmatically insistent about the 6 p.m. May 21 deadline were a bit hazy on details. One school had The End arriving at 6 p.m. everywhere; another at 6 p.m. Eastern Time. Both approaches had problems.

Those who advocated a locally controlled apocalypse envisioned consecutive epiphanies as 6 p.m. arrived in each time zone. By the time the Second Coming reached the mid-Pacific, it would thus be the 25th Coming -- a development that directly contradicts biblical prophesy.

Advocates of the Eastern Time standard had different conceptual difficulties. When it's 6 p.m. on a given day in New York, it's 1 a.m. on the following day in Jerusalem. As the Bible originated in the Holy Land, Camping had to be proved wrong about the date before he had a chance to be proved right about the occurrence.

If those concerns weren't daunting enough, Camping had based his prediction on calculations that his deadline was exactly 7,000 years after the Great Flood. The Gregorian calendar we now use wasn't developed until 1582. Wouldn't this re-calibration of history further complicate the task of computing the exact time span when there is no reliable way of determining when the original event might have occurred?

These objections turned out to be moot because 6 p.m. came and went everywhere without apocalyptic consequence. As was the case with Y2K and will be with the looming Mayan crisis, the most vocal doomsayers were oddly quiet after the catastrophe failed to materialize.

Robert Fitzpatrick of Staten Island -- who became briefly famous by spending all of his $140,000 retirement nest-egg on signage in the NYC subway system to promote the world's end -- told the Associated Press, "I don't understand what happened."

Don't waste your pity on Mr. Fitzpatrick because his savings weren't going to last anyway. In physics, nature abhors a vacuum; in economics, it abhors a sucker with cash.

A certain mindset takes comfort in the apocalypse. Perhaps the prospect of collective doom makes personal failings seem less consequential. Or maybe the pain of every day living is simply too much for some to bear. In a world of constant change, loss is inevitable and the good old days can never be recaptured. Life is at best bittersweet.

Locally, we're about to undergo one of these sad passages because Beffa's is closing -- a development viewed in city luncheon circles as the rough equivalent of the end of days. If you weren't a regular, it's too late now because it's gone after Friday. If you were, you're guaranteed to miss it.

The single most distinguishing characteristic of Beffa's was its utter lack of distinguishing characteristics. Located in a non-descript brick building at Beaumont and Olive, the business didn't even have an outside sign advertising its existence. Check the phone book and you won't find a listing for Beffa's restaurant, Beffa's cafeteria or Beffa's tavern. The only way to call the joint was to dial its pay phone (remember those?) -- and its number was unlisted. It was a family business that survived 113 years solely on word of mouth.

The interior looked like a grade school cafeteria with a bar along one wall. Back in the day, the bar did a brisk noontime business. Even as wet lunches fell from fashion, it remained a good place to stop after work for a couple of pops before heading home.

If you were looking for crystal, linen and fine china, you'd have been well advised to dine elsewhere. Paper napkins and cafeteria trays were the order of the day. The food was simple, wholesome and tasty but not especially cheap. In fact, Beffa's was notorious for flexible pricing. Because no prices were posted for individual items, the same meal might cost $10 one day and $13 on another.

It was an open secret that the working police ate at a discount. I remember a businessman telling me one day that he liked cops but hated to stand behind them in the cashier's line because whatever they took off the cop's bill, they added to his. At the time, I laughed but after I retired from the force, I made it a habit to steer clear of the police when approaching the cash register.

The general lack of pretension lent the place an atmosphere of good-natured egalitarianism. I used to think of it as the local equivalent of Switzerland -- neutral turf for natural adversaries and an apt metaphor for a restaurant owned by a Swiss family.

Cops, attorneys, reporters, politicians, union stewards and investment bankers gathered there to enjoy a mid-day truce called on behalf of the basic human need for food, drink and social intercourse. Though still technically in business as of this writing, I speak of the enclave in the past tense because it was truly an anachronism -- a quaint bastion of civility in the sea of modern contretemps.

All in all, it has been a week of mixed tidings. It appears that the earth will endure, but St. Louis will do so without Beffa's.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.