From the far end of the Cabana Bar, it's easy to forget you're at Padonia Park Club in suburban Baltimore County. Fringed by the bar's grass awning, the view of the twilight beyond conjures tropical possibilities and fleeting fantasies of faraway places.
With her golden hair, turquoise blouse and burnished tan, Kyle, a pediatric nurse, has that Key West glow, perfectly in keeping with Margaritaville Night, an annual Padonia tradition. Soon she's joined by her gym buddy, Priscilla Connolly, also fit, tan and ready for fun and frozen concoctions.
"Everybody's attitude here is just to enjoy life," Kyle says. Life is too short not to have fun, she says.
The band, the Sons of Pirates, is tuning up for a night of Jimmy Buffet covers and golden oldies that everyone of a certain age knows by heart.
Bartender Josh Parson, in an aloha shirt, mixes drinks and banters. If it hadn't rained earlier, the bar's perimeter would have been packed two or three people deep. Parson's unfazed. Mother Nature, he says, won't stop him from making prime margaritas.
That's the band's cue. Members David Levine, Jeff Mullin and Frank McCreary launch into Buffet's self-indulgent Margaritaville. The crowd of 40 or so join in with their own, improvised refrains, and Levine tosses a few barbs at a Pittsburgh Steelers fan among them.
As Parson mixes a drink, it accidentally explodes, splashing the bar. Customers erupt in cheers. "He's looking for his lost shaker of salt," someone cracks, referring to the song in progress.
The Cabana Bar may not be at full Friday-night throttle, but pool members and their guests are in high spirits. The Parrot Heads - diehard Buffett fans - are in heaven.
Originally, Padonia co-manager Fred Rigger was uncertain about whether a club license to sell liquor at the pool was a good idea. "I didn't really want to do this," he says. Then, he was surprised when the liquor board granted the license six years ago.
Behavior at the bar, open Wednesday through Sunday nights during the pool season (he plans to open Tuesdays as well), hasn't gotten out of hand, Rigger says. "The ones who are really that bad are the non-members," he says. The "one person, one drink" rule forbidding customers to take more than one drink away from the bar helps to ensure that alcohol isn't passed to under-age drinkers. And customers who may stray from the bar with an entire bottle are politely but firmly encouraged to return it.
For a few years, the bar was "just a bar" with no distinguishing features, Rigger says. Enter beverage manager John Bell, who added the fringe, a serious beach ethic and theme nights. The Cabana Bar was born again as a haven for luaus, crab feasts and island dreamers.
Back surgery has put Bell out of commission this season. "I'd rather be back there," he says, gesturing to the bar's interior. At least he's on the premises, wearing a brace beneath his shirt, drinking a soda and giving the band a hard time.
On super busy nights, the bar is jammed with characters, Parson says. There are the "quiet ones who will say something that will blow your mind." There's the low-key customer who after a drink starts screaming and whooping it up. Then there's the cartwheel lady. She "loves doing cartwheels for us," Parson says. On the deck, on the grass, into the pool, off the diving board. It's quite a sight, he says.
Sam Cooke's Another Saturday Night gives way to Van Morrison's Moon Dance, and the crowd thickens with new customers, kids trolling for sodas, and pool employees old enough to sit at the bar.
Mike Bettick, a cigar-puffing executive in a Ravens polo shirt, is here with his fiancee, Tricia Chellis. They became big fans of the Sons of Pirates after hearing them at the pool a while back and have booked them for their October wedding.
"Write that 'after five years, she finally said yes,' " says Chellis, who works at a fitness club and after a few days on the South Beach diet is enjoying her first carbohydrates in the form of a lite beer.
It's dusk, and the scene itself has acquired a nice, loose, the-heck-with-the-carbs feel. It's not that anything goes. But at least the diet goes - for now. So does stage fright. There's Priscilla Connolly on stage to sing American Pie with the band.
The crowd sings along with over-the-top emotion, lending Don McLean's classic an extra shot of nostalgia for good measure.
Pirates member Mullin watches from the sidelines. "Dave hates this song," he says of the band leader. It's too long. Everyone else, their heads tilted back in bliss, clearly loves it.
Underwater lighting illuminates the pool, now a shimmering lake of turquoise. The air is misty. The evening has captured the happy folks gathered around the Cabana Bar, nearly 100 strong, and transported them far from daily cares. Tonight, they could be anywhere warm and inviting. They're still in Cockeysville, but they've escaped to a faraway place.