If you look at the Facebook posts of anyone from Binghamton, New York, the past few days, you will see a heartfelt tribute to a man known to most simply as “Hack.” Those who didn’t know his last name or had any clue of his real name somehow still considered him one of their best friends, and have felt this week as though a close family member has died. I hadn’t seen the man in at least four or five years, yet I too feel as though I’ve lost someone I cared about more than most people I see every day. And so, as I’ve scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed the past few days, I’ve felt a certain sadness shared by a mournful group of admirers from my hometown.
I met Hack—real name: Mark Balin—in 2003. June 7, 2003, as a matter of fact… my 21st birthday. Hack was the owner of a local watering hole called the Pine Lounge, a colorful establishment which was, thanks to some generous grandfathering of zoning laws, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The Pine had a reputation for a lax attitude toward the whole “21” rule when it came to serving alcohol, though I never took advantage of that particular arrangement. Hack knew who I was even before I walked in (and that it was my birthday), and when I did that evening in 2003 his first words to me were, “Where’ve ya been?” No hello, no welcome, no Happy Birthday. It was kind of a nonchalant greeting, as if to say, ‘Bout time you joined us in the real world, kid. I would come to find out that world included just about every major player in Binghamton, from every field and ranging from sinner to saint, every race, every creed, and every level of social status. The Pine was the great equalizer. And they were all friends with Hack.
Most kids at the Pine were a little afraid of the old man. After all, he could kick you out at any moment. Worse, still, he might tell your parents you were there. Because he knew your parents, of course; he’d served them their first drinks 25 years ago. Kids never put it together, actually, that their parents wanted them drinking at the Pine, which was somewhat supervised, rather than the woods, the riverbank, or someone’s car. For all the problems that place had over the years, it paled in comparison to the nightmare scenarios elsewhere. Hack actually kept a pretty good lid on the shenanigans at 65 Rotary Ave., despite what those at other Rotary Ave. addresses may have claimed.
Once you’d earned your stripes at the Pine, so to speak, showing yourself as a worthy customer who could behave, etc., you might approach Hack and engage him in conversation. You expected the old man to be a foul-mouthed brute, of course, but would discover quickly that he was anything but. A pretty good conversationalist, actually, who could discuss any subject, and had a terrific memory for sports, movies, or local history. Hack could tell you stories about anyone in town, though he was enough of a gentleman to leave certain things out. “Gentleman,” actually, is a decent word I’d use to describe him, the polar opposite of what one might perceive in a first impression.
In my day Hack rarely ventured out from his little kingdom on Rotary Ave. Didn’t have to. The world came to him and his place like a lowbrow Playboy Mansion. (If Hugh Hefner drank Budweiser and wore basketball shorts.) College kids who’d gone away to school would come to the Pine on breaks to see Hack. Grownups who’d moved away would visit Binghamton and stop in to see Hack. Old timers who just wanted to shoot the breeze a bit would come in and see Hack. The guy was friends with all of them, and could carry on a conversation with a junkie or the mayor, regardless of how intoxicated either of them were. Or he himself was.
The stories of Hack’s generosity are legend. He paid tuition bills, he made car payments, he paid mortgages, bookies, and bail bondsmen. I don’t even know what was true and what was just legend, but I know that if someone needed money, Hack would somehow get it to him. If you weren’t comfortable taking cash he’d find work for you. The Pine had an eclectic roster of “employees” who served in temporary and often unnecessary roles, but they were all part of the same family. If you were a regular customer you were part of that family too. And the man keeping us all together was the man himself. Hack. Just Hack. No last name required.
Hack had a standard goodbye to those leaving the bar, one I’ll be able to hear him calling out till the day I too make my final exit, I suppose. “Travel easy,” he’d say, never goodbye or see ya or anything like that. He knew you’d be back some time, and somehow you did too.
Hack closed the Pine unceremoniously in 2008, ending my five-year bachelor party and real-world education one doesn’t get in school. I learned a lot about life, about me, and about the place I called home while hanging out at the place he really did call home for decades. Coincidentally or not I met my future wife just a few months before he closed his doors, so I wasn’t really as distraught as I might have been to see my favorite hangout go dark. In recent years I’ve stopped in at the new bar with new owners that’s replaced it, and it’s just not the same. I’m not the same either.
Hack? That guy was always the same.
He was there for everyone.
Travel easy, old friend.