"I don't want to get involved." Not an uncommon reaction, seeing as how the cliche that seems to follow those who do get involved is, "No good deed goes unpunished."
Here, the speaker lives in an apartment building where there have been "some strange goings-on." Notably, some violence. The first evidence is an actual bloody nose, the result of which is some "clothes" stained with the same "purple" blood.
But what is the real problem, here-- how is the speaker affected? Is he concerned for the fate of the injured party? Does he want to see justice done to the assailant? Not really-- he just wants the "rules" to be adhered to... and someone to mop the blood that is "messing up the lobby floor."
He realizes that there are humans, and human emotion, involved-- "There's been some hard feelings here/ About some words that were said." But, ultimately, he just wants the fight stopped so that there is quiet, as he can hear through the "ceiling" and "floor."
As he said, this was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern. The elevator operator either quit or was fired. Then there was more noise, a "racket," perhaps caused by an argument. And then a "fall," which possibly hurt someone. Again, he does not want to get involved, at least past the point of asking-- again-- for a little quiet, please.
"It's just apartment house sense/ It's like apartment rents." In what way? Consideration for one's neighbors comes with the territory, just like paying rent. Everyone must pay what they owe to the landlord. Likewise what they owe to their fellow tenants, which is some tranquility.
So much for what goes on inside the building. What happens outside is just as troubling: "There's an alley in the back of my building/ Where some people congregate in shame." Over what? Possibly some sort of gambling, like numbers or craps, which would keep people "congregating" there. A user would buy drugs and then leave, and a dealer would likely not want a crowd around. Prostitutes might congregate, but not in "shame"-- they tend to flaunt more than hide-- and their clients would pick them up and, again, leave.
The song then ends on a chilling note. Our speaker, who has assiduously kept himself apart from his building-mates, thinks he hears someone "call [his] name." He is known, even unto his identity.
He is involved. Simply by living there and trying to enforce the minimal standards of propriety. Now, someone wants to talk with him. Perhaps to borrow money, perhaps to teach him a lesson about meddling, which he has done to such a minimal degree. Even if he runs now, he has to go home at some point.
As distant as he tried to make himself from the "mess" of his fellow tenants' lives, he is involved. He is a member of the community, whether he likes it or not.
Compare this with another loner of Simon's who also lives in a communal dwelling-- the "Most Peculiar Man." He is completely uninvolved: "He lived all alone... within a house/ within himself." Yet, once he died, he was revealed to be part of a community despite his efforts at solitude. His neighbors had an opinion or two of him, and he had a brother, and now there is an obituary in the public newspaper.
Other of Simon's songs along this theme are "Richard Cory," about the ironic solitude of fame, and "I Am a Rock," about withdrawal from social contact after a harsh breakup. Even "Sound of Silence" is about a lost society of loners who ignore each other, and the most vulnerable among them, at their own peril.
Simon has been pegged "Mr. Alienation" for even addressing the issue of isolation, for even saying, "I am an island." This is unfair, because the conclusion he keeps reaching is that, as Donne wrote, "No man is an island."
Simon agrees that the other side of your floor is someone else's ceiling. There is no point to pretending you are not invloved, he insists. If you are human, you simply are.
The descending, and low, piano notes that open the song were sampled by a British rap duo performing as Biss N Eso. Their track is called "Up Jumped the Boogie."
Simon included this track with a 1940's-esque jazz remix on his In the Blue Light album; it's the only song therein to which no changes were made to the lyrics, just the arrangement.
Next Song: American Tune