November, November: Stop the Game



1102 1st Ave, New York, NY 10021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Since last April I’ve been living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and managing a pet shop which is part of a five store chain.

A lady and a gentleman came into my store the other day to buy dog food and it was obvious that they’d been arguing. They continued the argument while they shopped, with the lady getting louder and angrier by the minute. I started to say something to her that I’ve not said to anyone in almost 10 years…”Hey… Stop the game. Take a break.” When I realized what I was about to do I stopped dead in my tracks and didn’t say anything. A few minutes later they paid for their purchases and left and I sat down remembered what that phrase used to mean to me.

About twenty five years ago there were a group of five close friends, really good friends, the kind who would do anything for each other with no question or hesitation. These five friends, Al, Carmine, Mark, Teddy and myself would spend many evenings together at my Brooklyn apartment, drinking beer, shooting the breeze. At one point we all got rather involved in a board game I had bought and we played it almost every night, sometimes to the wee-hours, and had a great time with it. There were even times, as with any good friends in close competition, that there’d be arguments or disagreements during the game and sometimes things would get heated.

Well, this game was similar to Monopoly in the way it was played, but instead of two decks of cards there was only a single deck that was drawn from. Along with the game there were two blank cards, intended I suppose, to replace any cards that got lost or damaged. One night, during a game, someone suggested that we should take those two blank cards and make up two of our own. I don’t remember what we put on the other card, but on one we put the words, “Stop the game. Take a break.” Those simple words, on that cheap piece of cardboard changed five lives, and may change many more now. The idea behind the card was that instead of the constant getting up and down to fetch a beer, snacks or use the bathroom we’d just wait for the card to come up and take a few minutes to refresh ourselves and they dive back in where we left off. It also turned out to be a great way to let some of the more heated games cool down. We all sort of lost interest in the game eventually, but that little card lived on in each of us. From then on, anytime one of us got into a situation where we were about to lose our temper, or where we were just so deep into what we were doing that we’d lost our perspective, one of the others would come up and say, “Hey man…Stop the game. Tak! e a break.”, and smile. And it worked! You’d step back, take a deep breath, let some of the tension out or just take a fresh look around and get your mind cleared out and put things back into perspective. Each of us I feel, became a better person from using that phrase.

In a pouring downpour late one night, Carmine and I were driving to my job. Traffic was terrible, I was already fifteen minutes late, and I was grinding my teeth in frustration. Then Carmine noticed a lady on the side of the highway in the pouring rain trying to change a tire with two kids in the back seat. When he pointed it out to me I just snapped back, “Carmine, if I don’t get to work I’ll lose my job! We can’t stop!” He just looked at me and said, “Hey man…Stop the game. Take a break. She’s got kids there.” Twenty minutes later her tire was on and she was thanking us with a hug. I lost my job that night, but I didn’t really care, I’d done the right thing. Those six little words put it all back in perspective for me.

Well, as the years slowly moved onwards, one by one the group of five dwindled. We lost Al to leukemia when he was only twenty three. He went quickly, but for the time he was in Sloan-Kettering in NYC the other four would visit him regularly. One of the things a cancer patient needed desperately at that time were fresh platelets. Platelets are a component of human blood and can only be taken from a donor. The difference between donating platelets and whole blood is that when you donate platelets they filter them out of the blood then pump it back into you, so it takes a bit more time. At least once a week the five of us would descend on the blood bank at Sloan-Kettering and donate platelets. We became regulars there and always donated in Al’s name, but for the use of any patient needing them. The policy at the hospital at that time was that the recipient was told the name of the person who had donated, if they asked, and who the donation was made for. Over the three months that Al was in Sloan-Kettering we met many of those patients, and each one of them, when they tried to thank us was told the same thing by one of us, “Hey, sometimes you just have to ‘Stop the game. Take a break.'”, and the five of us would just laugh and grin.

Carmine was the next to go. He died suddenly in his sleep at the age of twenty seven. He was the best friend I ever had and his loss put me into a depression that lasted four years and left me often suicidal. Yet, many times when it felt like the walls were closing in on me and I couldn’t go on any longer, I could swear I heard his voice saying, “Hey man, ‘Stop the game. Take a break.'”

Mark was the next to go. He had gotten heavy into drugs and the renegade motorcycle scene and was killed in a shootout outside a bar somewhere in Georgia a few years back. I wonder if he’d still be with us if one of us had been around to say, “Hey man, ‘Stop the game. Take a break.'”?

Teddy died just a little less than a year ago in Florida, by his own hand. He shot himself in a fit of depression over his wife’s unfaithfulness. Would those six words have made a difference? Maybe, but we’ll never know.

Then there’s me, the last of the five. And that is what I realized tonight when I went to say those six words to that very angry lady. I’m the last of the five. The only person left on this planet who knows and understands the full history and meaning of those six words and the five lives they affected directly and the hundreds they probably affected indirectly.

Well, there is just too much power in those six words to let that all die with me when my time comes. So I deceided I had to do something about that and this is the way I chose. Now each of you understands those six little words, and the power they contain.

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