There are more than 6,000 bars in New York City. About 200 of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones. Robert Simonson, a journalist and blogger of the drinking life, and the originator of the "A Beer At..." column, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.[Adam Lerner]
It was a cool night in Sheepshead Bay. But every man in Wheeler's was wearing a t-shirt. And not necessarily the kind with words or an image on it. That would be too fancy. Just a plain white T, some of them the sleeveless sort known colloquially as "wife beaters." This was all the better to show off tattoos, celebrating the wearer's allegiance to Brooklyn or various girlfriends, on muscled-up biceps. There's a Bally's across the road from the bar. I was pretty sure some of these guys used it.
Wheeler's, founded in 1979, is a port in a storm for old school Sheepshead Bay. You won't find many of the Russian immigrants who have taken over the neighborhood in the last decade or so. Though you'd expect a joint as old and isolated as this to have long ago matured into an old man bar, the clientele is pretty young. They're mainly Italian-Americans, and they all seem very comfortable with one another, sending calls down the bar to friends—"Hey, Mick! You play this song? This is Mick's song!"—and offering bear hugs. And though Wheeler's clearly has a regular crowd, the bar did not make an outsider feel unwelcome. (And, believe me, as the only person in the bar wearing a shirt with buttons, I stood out.)
This place is local in the extreme. The television was showing not a major league game, but a Cyclones match that was taking place only a mile away. One patron, confined to a wheelchair, regularly rolled out onto the sidewalk for a long, leisurely smoke. There he sort of held court, taking to whomever entered or exited the bar. Most conversations were about some guy that both of the talkers knew. This guy was either a stand-up gent, or had recently pulled some unbelievable horseshit. One man spent twenty minutes on the injustice of a parking ticket he'd just gotten. It was OK, though, because Jimmy was gonna fix it. "Jimmy's my get out of jail free card," said the guy. I gathered Jimmy was a cop.
All the "Hale Fellow" camaraderie aside, my favorite person at Wheeler's was the incongruous bartender, a sore thumb if there ever was one. Tall, bone-thin, with greying blonde hair and a long, sorrowful, Scandinavian face, he wore a white shirt and black tie. He spoke little and smiled not at all. He could have easily been cast as a saloon keeper in a Eugene O'Neill play. I ordered a Brooklyn Summer Ale, which he took forever drawing it into one of the odd assortment of glasses that Wheeler's uses to deliver booze to its customers. I liked him tremendously.