Debbie Reynolds was at the Ohio Theater doing "Paint Your Wagon." It was Tornado Watch Week. The teller at the bank was named Donna Reed.

I knew I was in the Midwest.

Yes, it's flat here and the people are friendly.

We are in what William Gass called "the heart of the heart of the country." He was writing about Indiana, but we're getting warm.

We are in Ohio. And Columbus, Ohio, is the centerpiece of this flat and friendly place. (The word Ohio is from the Wyandot Indian language meaning "place where the land is flat and the people say 'Have a nice day.' ")

Saluted at home and abroad by national magazines and newspapers, Columbus has gone from being America's wide place in the road to "America's Crossroads" in a transformation that astonishes the locals nearly as much as it does visitors. Hail, hail, Columbus.

Of course, there's more to Ohio than its cosmopolitan capital. In the north, between the industrial cities of Cleveland and Toledo, the vistas are of flat-as-they-come farmland, corn-as-high-as country dotted with small towns that don't have a strip -- yet. The southern part of the state is something else again; with its hilly terrain, winding back roads and intermittent farmland, you might think you're in Kentucky, or New England. And stretched along the Ohio River in the southwest corner of the state are the rolling hills of Cincinnati.

But Columbus ... well, Columbus is at the heart of it all.

Last year, Newsweek named Columbus one of the nation's "Hot Cities," saying the Ohio capital was one of the best places to live and work in the country -- "the gleam along the rust belt." They love that kind of wild and crazy talk here in Columbus.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors rated Columbus the third-best city for livability in the nation.

A national economic forecasting group has cited Columbus as the only city in the Midwest among the 20 fastest-growing cities in the United States.

Pollster Lou Harris has twice given his blessing to the city for having among the nation's best business climates. And why not, wasn't George Babbitt from Ohio?

The Wall Street Journal visited Columbus and saw that it was good. And the Chicago Tribune. Fortune. The New York Times.

People speak to you on the street here. They say "Hi, neighbor," and they look you in the eye. (Columbus surely must have the highest percentage of adult eye contact east of the Mississippi.)

For a visitor from the East, Columbus most resembles time travel, a kind of back-to-the-future with the best of small-town America in a modern metroplitan setting, minus most of the nightmarish aspects of urban life.

It has taken me many weeks to adjust to the idea that a total strangeer in lime green pants might speak to me on the street and mean me no harm. I may never adjust to the spontaneous conversation that breaks out in elevators and at crosswalks. I guess I came here too late in life. Why, I even had someone invite me to his church, and while I'm not ready for that yet, it was nice to be asked.

Columbus, as you might imagine, realizes the value of all of this. The Chamber of Commerce, which doesn't take these things lightly, says the small-town wholesomeness of Columbus is one of the biggest draws for corporations considering relocating in the Midwest. It's a wonderful life here in Ohio. I suppose it's just a matter of time before I run into Jimmy Stewart in the street.

In the early 19th century, this frontier trading post was the end of the line for the old National Road leading west from the East Coast, and in the minds of many Americans Columbus remained the literal and figurative end of the line for a long while after that.

Today, Columbus is Ohio's largest city, with more than half a million residents. It sprawls over nearly 200 square miles almost in the dead center of the Buckeye State. (A buckeye is the official state tree, similar to a horse chestnut, with a nut that is said to resemble the eye of a buck, as in deer. The information desk at the Ohio Historical Center says this is one of its most frequently asked questions.)

The city boasts a gleaming downtown skyline of high-rises and new hotels as well as the recently opened Columbus City Center, a vast $200 million complex of 135 fancy shops and department stores that averaged 65,000 visitors per day during its first six months of business.

Next door, the Ohio Statehouse, which dates from the 1830s, is undergoing a $68.7 million renovation. Visitors to the capital can't miss the capitol. One of the finest pieces of Greek Revival architecture in the nation, it sits smack dab in the absolute center of town, the centerpiece of Capitol Square. (Ohio's is one of those rare capitols without a dome.) Amazingly, there are vacant parking spaces just one block away at 10 o'clock on a weekday morning.

The new and improved Columbus, glittering jewel of the Rust Belt, is not an unsophisticated place where they roll up the sidewalks at 5:30 in the afternoon. (It's true that you can see cows within sight of the downtown, but that's because of an Ohio State University farm.) A man can get baked brie hereabouts, and I've seen kiwi fruit in some of the better restaurants.

But we're still in the Midwest -- in the land of All-U-Can-Eat, where the Rust Belt meets the Bible Belt. Never too far from God. The sidewalk preacher on Capitol Square shouts "Amen" and asks the passing sinner, "Hey, hey, hey, do you know Jesus?" They do, indeed. As did the man who gave me a 1990 "I'm a Champion for Christ" pocket calendar. (So it was already April, it's the thought that counts.)

Over on Parsons Avenue there are genuine hillbillies fresh out of the wilds of West Virginia and Kentucky, driving real American cars held together with Bondo and bailing wire and eating biscuits and gravy.

But while other sections of Ohio still suffer from Rust Belt-syndrome -- aging cities perceived, often accurately, as post-industrial hellholes -- Columbus is a green and pleasant place with so little unemployment that the local paper runs stories about the need for more skilled workers.

There is, however -- as you might have imagined -- a terrible dark underside to Columbus. It's not all sweetness and light on the banks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers -- no, indeed. Columbus is one of the few major metropolitan areas in the Free World where it is possible to be arrested for jaywalking. A visitor soon learns not to attempt anything so reckless and foolhardy as crossing a downtown thoroughfare against the light.

People get arrested for jaywalking here, literally by the thousands. In what the Columbus Dispatch headlined "Great Moments in Jaywalking History," the newspaper noted that once a 2 1/2-year-old boy was arrested for jaywalking. Another time a Tennessee Court of Appeals judge who happened to be in town was arrested. Former OSU football linebacker Tom Cousineau was charged.

Seventeen grade-school kids on some sort of outing were cited. One 88-year-old woman was cited for jaywalking after a car ran over her. We're talking law and order here. So be careful.

Aside from that, it's a great town, a town of firsts.

They claim to have invented the banana split here, and the strip mall, and the electric chair. In fact, the guy who invented the electric chair was later a customer of said chair. To my knowledge, no one has ever been sent to the electric chair for jaywalking, but I wouldn't push a second offense.

The first gas station in the United States was opened here. Ditto the first drive-in bank. And the first automatic teller machine.

That turn-of-the-century cure-all, the patent medicine Peruna (the oat bran of its day), was first brewed by the waters of the Scioto River. Containing 25 percent alcohol, this "good for what ails you" wonder cure was a household word in America until the 1920s. It was said to restore users to "rosy health," but on closer examination many were simply believed to be drunk.

Columbus is also where they put the fast in fast food. The city is home to Wendy's, White Castle, Rax, York Steak House, Sister's Chicken and Biscuits, and Bob Evans Farms. It only seems like there's a Wendy's on every other corner. Actually there are a mere 37 Wendy's in Columbus.

Foreigners, too, have discovered Columbus. The Japanese are here. Honda has four plants near Columbus, the largest such manufacturing operation for the firm in the United States. As central Ohio's largest private employer, Honda has 9,000 workers in the state. And the city is home to several national distribution centers for major corporations, including The Limited, J.C. Penney, Eddie Bauer, Nestle and Borden.

Columbus is also home to an odd assortment of famous folks, from James Thurber to the artist George Bellows to World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. William Sydney Porter, the original "pen" pal, got his start here, too, writing stories while doing five years for embezzlement at the old Ohio Penitentiary under the (I can't help myself) pen name O. Henry. Jesse Owens ran track here for Ohio State. And Gertrude Stein claimed Columbus was her favorite city in America.

More recently, this has become known as Jack Nicklaus country. He's a hometown boy, actually from Upper Arlington, a fancy suburb. But he perfected his golf game at Ohio State University, and he's back in town every spring for a golf tournament that is treated locally as if it were a cross between the last game of the World Series and the Second Coming.

Because of its wholesome demographics, Columbus also is a famous test market, and long before new and improved and vitamin-enriched products make their way to a supermarket or fast food joint near you, you may be sure that somewhere in greater Columbus they test-drove the item.

On the north side of town is Ohio State University, a kingdom unto itself, spread across 1,629 acres. A city within a city, with a staggering student population of 52,895, OSU has its own police force and its own daily newspaper, the Lantern, with a 31,000-paper press run -- larger than many a hometown newspaper out there in the Republic. OSU, with 28,498 employees and an operating budget of more than a billion dollars, is second only to state government as the largest employer in Columbus.

Ohio State looms large here, a mighty fortress and presence in the town. Land of golden coeds and football. The ghost of Woody Hayes -- 20 years with the pigskin at OSU; that's 205 wins, 61 losses and 10 ties. Strong men sell their firstborn male children for season tickets to see the Buckeyes play ball.

Along North High Street near the OSU campus is the kingdom of the young and the restless, a seemingly endless strip of fast-food joints, record and tape stores, tanning parlors, yogurt stands and bars aplenty offering Buffalo wings and cheap potables.

Ohio State University has come a rather long way from Sept. 17, 1873, when it opened for business with 25 students, calling itself Ohio Agricultural & Mechanical College.

Between the OSU campus and downtown lies Short North, an unexpectedly Bohemian slice of life. The area is a kind of eccentric blend of the New Wave with what Columbus might have looked like a century ago. Art galleries and trendy boutiques and restaurants on the one hand, strip joints and the sort of bars where the police are often called to supervise revelers on the other.

Cincinnati garnered itself a certain amount of notoriety with its handling of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. But Columbus is no town for the philistine. It boasts one of the nation's finest smaller art museums, the Columbus Museum of Art, with a five-ton Henry Moore sculpture out front and a permanent collection that includes the works of (understandably) Edward Hopper, George Bellows (hometown boy), Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan and Marsden Hartley.

On the north side of the city is the recently opened Borders Bookstore, with an astounding 90,000 titles and regular public readings by visiting and local writers. In fact, Columbus is a warren of good bookstores. The Book Loft in German Village, which has 25 rooms full of books, is one of the city's most popular attractions.

Last year, to the astonishment of many both in Columbus and elsewhere, the town hosted "Son of Heaven," an elaborate exhibition of imperial Chinese art that was so popular that it was held over for two months, drawing some 670,000 viewers.

The late-afternoon light is best here, giving the old parts of the Ohio capital -- like predominantly 19th-century German Village -- the look of an Edward Hopper painting.

The streets are mostly narrow, tree-lined, with flowers growing in abundance. Traffic is light and orderly. On a mild spring evening, the air is rain-fresh and clean.

The sturdy Germans who came here in droves in the 19th century have forever left their imprint on what James Thurber called "good old Columbus town." There's even an old brewery district with its own microbrewery making a local beer.

Schiller Park, in the heart of German Village, is a Midwestern scene so serene and wholesome it looks like it jumped out of a Sherwood Anderson story. Literally minutes from the city's busy downtown, the park -- especially when the grass has not been cut -- is almost meadow-like, dotted with enormous old shade trees and presided over by a century-old statue of its namesake, the German poet. Here the Ohio capital seems very much like a small town or rural country seat.

Folks down in German Village think they've got it bad. They grumble about parking and tourists.

But German Village doesn't know what parking problems and tourists are. This is Georgetown without the hassles. And the houses are affordable, too.

The neighborhood is a patchwork of old brick homes, many wonderfully renovated and restored, and odd sorts of shops. My particular favorite is the Hausfrau Haven on Third Street, which bills itself as a general store, but really sells out-of-the-ordinary gifts, the sort of greeting cards that Hallmark doesn't handle, wine and fine chocolates. The proprietors, perhaps anticipating an influx of tourists and small children, have outfitted the front door of their shop with signs that advise:

"This is not a Burger King. You have it our way or you don't have it at all."

And: "Please leave your children with the chauffeur."

I like this a lot. It's a nice bit of contrast after all the eye contact.

So what more can I tell you. Come to "good old Columbus town" before the big crowds do.

Just don't jaywalk. Christopher Corbett is the James Thurber Journalist-in-Residence at Ohio State University. WAYS & MEANS

With the festivities nearly two years distant, Columbus is raring to celebrate AmeriFlora, a kind of uber-garden party to commemorate the arrival of namesake Christopher Columbus on these shores. He may never have reached the waters of the Scioto River -- or even the American mainland. But no matter. The six-month bash -- from April 3 to Oct. 12, 1992 -- is the first floral and horticultural festival of its kind to be held in this country; besides indoor and outdoor floral displays, there'll be ethnic cuisine, cultural exhibits and performances. They've even gotten the government of the Bahamas (one of the places Columbus really landed) into the act, with Bahamian exhibits and other activities. Information: 1-800-234-2657. WHERE TO STAY: Most major hotel chains have downtown Columbus locations, including the Hyatt on Capitol Square, the Hyatt Regency and the Holiday Inn at Ohio Center. But for an alternative to downtown hotels, try Andrews' German Village Bed & Breakfast (1058 Jaeger St., Columbus, Ohio 43206, 614-444-7222) or Bed & Breakfast on the Park (986 Jaeger St., Columbus, Ohio 43206, 614-444-4499), both in the historic German Village district. WHERE TO EAT: Two of the city's most popular restaurants are Lindey's at 169 E. Beck St. and Carolyn's, 489 City Park Ave., both in the historic German Village section. Rigsby's (698 N. High St.) is in the center of Short North, the city's art gallery district. These three restaurants represent a level of sophistication and fine food that would hold its own anywhere.

Among the informal local institutions for less expensive eating are Firdous (1538 N. High St., near Ohio State), serving Middle Eastern food, the King Avenue Coffeehouse (247 King Ave., between Short North and OSU), a 1960s flashback, or Katzinger's Delicatessen (375 S. Third St. in German Village).

WHAT TO DO:

COSI, Ohio's Center of Science and Industry (280 E. Broad St., 614-228-2674), features lots of hands-on exhibits that are particularly popular with children (as the number of school buses lined up outside the building testifies). COSI is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5:30 p.m.

Columbus Zoo (State Route 257, just north of Interstate 270, 614-645-3550) is one of the nation's best known zoos, famed for its lowland gorilla, cheetah and bald eagle breeding programs. The first gorilla born in captivity was born here in 1956. The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Ohio Historical Center and Ohio Village, both near the intersection of Interstate 71 and 17th Avenue, have elaborate displays of Ohio history. Ohio Village re-creates a small Ohio town of the mid-19th century and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, April through December. The Ohio Historical Center, which also contains the state archives and genealogical records, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Information: 614-297-2300.

The Gallery Hop, an evening of art openings and performances in some 35 galleries, bars and coffeehouses strung out along or near North High Street, takes place on the first Saturday of each month in Short North.

Ohio State University (Bricker Hall, 190 N. Oval Mall, Columbus, Ohio 43210, 614-292-0428) is one of the largest universities in the country, with 19 colleges and a graduate school. Free tours are available Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Columbus Museum of Art (480 E. Broad St., 614-221-6801) has an extensive collection of American and European paintings, sculpture and decorative arts. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. INFORMATION: Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism, Box 1001, Columbus, Ohio 43266-0101, 1-800-282-5393. -Christopher Corbett