CALGARY, ALBERTA, FEB. 26 -- And now, with the great joke all but brought off, with the bluff gone uncalled, with the Winter Olympics held in a brown city of oil men and cowboys, in a prairie town where dirt blew all over the bobsled track and nobody who lived here was surprised ... in a city of so little law, custom or consistency that you can walk into a bar called Nel's and look one way to see a sign advertising "Chicken Noodle Soup 1.00" and look the other, through a window to the floor below, and see two naked women wrestling on a white fur rug ... yes, with the Olympics heading for success, the Calgarians are starting to laugh big, fat, happy laughs.

"The IOC {International Olympic Committee} wanted this to be solemn, subdued, reflecting of the highest ideals, blah blah blah," says Rod Love, executive assistant to Mayor Ralph Klein. He starts breaking up. "Right out there where they have the medals ceremonies?" he says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at Olympic Plaza. "The first night, there's this IOC member standing up there and we've got the guy in the Harry the Horse costume on one side of him and 30 kids in snowman suits on the other! Snowman suits!"

What a hoot!

It's like Texas here. ("The only difference between Calgary and Houston is a border," Love says.) The air itself bristles with possibility -- it can veer 40 degrees in two hours because of sudden winds from the Pacific called chinooks. The economy is the same. The unemployment rate was next to nothing in the oil boom years of 1978 to 1982. It hit 18 percent, says Love, between 1982 and 1985, and is now back to small digits. "You can't make a living being an economist in this town." Anything can happen! In the early '60s, the McMahon brothers looked up from their oil money to discover that the city needed a football stadium. A phone call here and a lunch at the Petroleum Club there, and they built it in 60 days.

"There's no history here," Love says. "We don't have customs that you can't do this or that -- that's why you can have the chicken soup and the naked women wrestling in the same place. The oldest house in the city is 74 years old. The granddaughter of one of the founders is still living."

The skyline erupts from the prairie like a geological accident. Unlike America, where we have blue-gray cities next to brown rivers, this is a brown city next to blue-gray rivers, the Bow and the Elbow, where the Mounties arrived in 1874 to build their fort of wood and brown sandstone. This is the city of brown: of land that looks like something you see from an airplane; of gravy on French fries; of the old wagons parked outside the Calgary Stampede grounds (world's biggest rodeo); of stucco and half-timbered houses built for Canadian Pacific railroad executives; of dust storms of the sort that led Albertans to call the Depression years the "Dirty Thirties" ...

Brown, brown, brown: the chocolate brown of the lard sculpture of a prospector with a dry canteen over at the Petroleum Club, the beige of the walls of the Alberta Stock Exchange (about the size of 1 1/2 tennis courts), brown veins in the marble columns of the Palliser Hotel, which is The Big Old Hotel in town, a sense of such class and reserve that you're a little surprised when you see a sign in the lobby: "Kiwanis Meets Here Mon. 12:15." The Palliser is not to be confused with the St. Louis Hotel, where Mayor Klein likes to eat lunch in the cigarette-brown air of a bar where old guys sit in baseball hats, everybody talking but nobody looking at each other. This is near the site of Fort Calgary -- a patch of dead grass, a British flag and a brown museum where a woman in the gift shop, a London war bride and now a Calgary widow named Beryl Mercer, says, "It's chauvy but it's better than when I came. Until about 1960, men and women weren't allowed to drink together in bars. It was real Bible Belt."

And consider the brown of the coats in the window of Renfrew Furs, where the bust of the mid-'80s still echoes in a sign in the window: "Pay Half With Cash"; and the establishment-oak brown of the paneling at the Ranchmen's Club, more venerable than the Petroleum, but nicked here and there by hints of decadence: "One of the liabilities of the Ranchmen's Club is its uncertain policy toward Jews," writes Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman in his two-volume study published in 1981, "The Canadian Establishment."

It's the brown that in part makes it easy to think of Calgary as a hick town -- it seems so simple and straightforward. Across the street from the medals ceremonies at Olympic Plaza, Anna Christiansen explains why she's selling socks at her souvenir stand: "They're MacGregor socks. They're very good socks." At a rodeo, the announcer watches a cowgirl trick-rider drag her blond hair in the dirt at full gallop and says in a cadence perfected by the Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler ads: "Hope you enjoyed that one. That was difficult to do."

Something about Calgary doesn't seem like a city -- is it the absence of crime? There are maybe two dozen murders a year, in a population of 650,000, compared with more than 50 so far this year in Washington, with a population of 626,000. To the extent that there's a little New Yorker in all of us, we tend to equate sophistication with homicide, trash blowing down the street and fast talking. Besides, Americans can feel about Canada the way Cain felt about Abel, Tom Sawyer felt about cousin Sid, and indeed, it is maddening to see a city that has all the vices (it is known for its prostitutes, too) but isn't vicious.

We also like our cities to have a romance about them -- City by the Bay, City of Big Shoulders and so on. Canada isn't like that -- no Canadian dream, no green light at the end of the pier.

"There isn't much of a sense of romance," says Reg Vickers, an editor at the Calgary Herald. "It's a more practical type of thing -- it goes back to the need to survive. We're not that far away from our prairie roots. We're trying to survive the winter."

And here is where the color changes: A chinook comes in, and Calgarians look to the little brown fringe of mountains on the western horizon and see a stripe of blue with an edge like a ruler, and it's moving toward them, bearing air heated by the Japanese Current, melting the neighborhood hockey rinks, and bringing sometimes-Florida temperatures to a February day.

There is no shortage of ethnic minorities -- a sizable Chinatown, about 1,600 Jewish families, Vietnamese, Cree, Sarcee, Italians -- but Calgary lacks ethnic consciousness American-style. Asked for the city government's statistics on ethnic breakdowns, Love replies: "I don't know that we've ever asked that question."

It's also hard to get used to a city as rational as this. Like a lot of other Canadian cities, Calgary is the dream of any liberal, enlightened, Sweden-admiring city-planning advocate. The temperature is Celsius, the speed is kilometers per hour, the transportation is light rail (and free downtown), the official language is bilingual. Calgary is cheerful but charmless. The modernity, safety, masculinity and lack of romance give it a kind of offhanded generic feel, as if those guys gliding past the wainscoting at the Ranchmen's Club had said: "Let's find out what other cities have and get some of it here, eh?"

And so there is the generic emerging-city revolving restaurant, and the zoo has pandas (Xi Xi and Qun Qun). There's a rainbow mural on a wall downtown and mimes perform in Olympic Plaza next to a sculpture that might also be some sort of antenna (and designed not by a sculptor but by an architectural firm).

At the medals ceremonies, a sop of dignity is thrown to the IOC in the form of synthesizer music that sounds like a sound track to a slow-motion replay of any athletic victory, like Muzak by Mahler. The snacks are nachos and hot dogs on sticks. The music is country-western, as Harry the Horse cavorts beneath the fireworks and the light show. But there could be little else in a city with not only no history of the sort you associate with Winter Olympic sites, but no history at all. And the crowds, whooping and waving by the tens of thousands, love it.

Everything is the future. A local bumper sticker is said to read: "Lord, Give Us the Boom Back and We'll Do It Right This Time." Though Chief Big Plume of the Sarcees, in town to buy a gusseted gray Western suit at Western Outfitters, will say, "This is a cowboy-and-Indian town, but it's changing," and shake his head with regret.

If people wanted uniqueness, romance and tradition here, they'd find a way to get it. After all, in a brown town with the ski slopes 70 miles away, a bit of geography that could make Washington a Winter Games town (just hold the downhill skiing in Pennsylvania), they got the Olympics, didn't they?