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I'm reading Lawrence Block's memoir, in which he writes about his experience of living in a very nice inn in Spain with his wife. They suspect the owner of that inn is a gay man. And their conversation goes:

"What on earth is that perfectly charming fellow doing running this perfectly charming inn out here in Spain?"

“You don’t suppose–––”

“No question. He’s wearing keys.”

“Well, he’s in the hotel business,” I said. “There’s all those doors he has to be able to open. And maybe wearing keys means something different here.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Jesus,” I said, “how do we do it? I guess you can take us out of the West Village, but you can’t take the country out of Salem. I’ll tell you something. I don’t care how he got here. I’m just glad this day is coming to an end."

I don't understand the part of "how do we do it? I guess you can take us out of the West Village, but you can’t take the country out of Salem". I mean, how do they do what? And what does "you can take us out of the West Village, but you can’t take the country out of Salem" mean?

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  1. As TRomano observes, the keys worn by the innkeeper on his belt at one time signaled his sexual predilections to those in the know—worn on the left they designated a "top", one who took a more active role, worn on the right a "bottom", one who took a more passive role.source

  2. As FumbleFingers points out, Block's line quotes an old ad for Salem cigarettes, which is itself based on the template Axelrod cites. Probably the best-known version of the template, and perhaps its origin, is "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy".

  3. Lawrence Block has lived in the "West Village" (a part of New York City's Greenwich Village) for decades. At the time he settled there it was the "bohemian" district of the city, famous for its jazz and comedy clubs, and one of the centers of the not-very-far-underground homosexual culture—Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn are located there.

So Block is observing, with a touch of exasperation, that even across the Atlantic in Spain he cannot entirely escape the culture of his own stomping grounds. How do we do it? just means "How is it that we always manage to get ourselves in this situation?"

The earliest use I have found is in The M. K. & T. Employes' Magazine for March, 1917, where it is described as an 'old saying'.

  • Thanks a lot. That's a lot of culture behind one single sentence. – memoir reader Apr 29 '15 at 11:06
  • @memoirreader That's what Real Writers do! – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 29 '15 at 11:57
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It appears to be a modification of the phrase structure "You can take the X out of Y, but you can't take the Y out of X". In this case, the involved appear to not be sure if they understand the practices of their current area, and the statement appears to imply that one can't take the rural attitudes and practices ("Country", used as a synonym) out of Salem, regardless of where the people are.

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