IT IS HARD TO know exactly how to honor Judge Joseph Force Crater, who disappeared from the New York Supreme Court and the face of the earth 49 years ago tomorrow. An empty chair at dinner, perhaps? Or a quick distracted glance at a corner of the room, as if you thought you heard a footstep from the past. The particular ceremony matters not. The thought that counts is that the good judge ranks very high in the national culture - not for the unblemishedness of his bench, for in truth it was the judge's underworld connections that may have precipitated his famous departure; nor for his great gifts of jurisprudence, for in truth again the jurist showed precious little prudence in his nightly canoodlings with various gold diggers of the 1920's; but rather because he did something successfully that most people merely talk about; he disappeared. And more than that, he gave disappearance a good name, as no other person or element in our history has been so colorfully or perpetually absent.

Yes, there have been other celebrated disappearances - Amelia Earhart's and Jimmy Hoffa's, for two illustrious examples. But there seems little doubt as to the grim fate of those two. In Judge Crater's case, however, there are doubts galore. On the night of Aug. 6, 1930, enswirled in scandal, yet nattily attired in a Panama hat and a chocolate brown double-breasted suit with thin green stripes, he stood outside Billy Haas's restaurant at 332 W. 45th St., having dined happily with and departed from, one Sally Lou Ritz, and waiting for a cab. Had he been a Washingtonian he might be standing there yet; but he got his cab and was never seen again. Within mere months of his disappearance he had become part of the national folklore, the subject of scavenger hunts and night club routines - "Judge Crater, call your office." The phrase, "to pull a Crater" entered the idiom. Eventually his disappearance was transformed from the anecdotal to the metaphysical, where it is (or is not) today.

For there are those who tell us that what is missing in American life is history or art or even confidence. But lots of other people disagree, and you can never be sure about such things. The only thing that is absolutely, indisputably missing from American life is Judge Crater, bless him, the man who isn't here.