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“If you use a roller it’s a little faster, but for me, it loses some of the realism, so I like using a brush,” she says. “And the bigger the brush, the faster it goes. But I like the quality and the texture you get with a smaller brush.”

The whole thing will take probably 20 hours, and she’s charging a flat $200 for the work. When I ask if that’s standard, she says there is no standard when it comes to holiday window-painting. Not for her, anyway. She’ll work with anyone’s budget, private or commercial, from a $25 candy cane with a fancy Happy Holidays greeting scripted across it, to more complex murals like the one she’s painting now.

“I don’t like to charge by the hour, because I like to take my time.” She dips her paintbrush into one of those clear-plastic cups used to serve wine at gallery openings and outdoor concerts.

The cup holds a mixture of Ivory and School Bus Yellow, which she’s using to paint the beach sand in the bottom-right pane. Her forearm is dotted with little red marks, where she has been pricked by the bush beneath the window. Every few minutes, she stands up and paints in a higher pane in order to stretch the kinks she’s gotten from squatting.

Occasionally, she says, clients request specific scenes or elements for their windows, but some, like Moonglow owner Michael Glancy, leave all the particulars up to her. Matteo’s belief in the Law of Attraction makes her hesitant to discuss any less than positive aspects of holiday window-painting, but she eventually confesses that while there’s no job she won’t do, she prefers the ones that give her creative license to paint whatever she wants.

“I like it better when I’m able to create because I have a really good imagination,” she says. “If it’s a job that I don’t find so aesthetically pleasing, I’ll do it, but I just won’t have as much fun.”
The only request Glancy had for this window was that she make it fun. He did, however, approach Matteo as she worked on the beachy background to ask, “When does the Christmas come in?”

“I had to explain that this is just the background. I showed him the [sketch], and he loved it,” she says.

A cardboard box filled with two-ounce bottles of acrylic paints sits on a wooden table. A weathered umbrella has been pulled up to the window to provide Matteo with shade. Several bottles stand scattered across the table, their lids askew, or the middles squeezed in. Matteo goes with the flow, choosing colors in the moment, as she sees fit.

“I’m not a big planner,” she says. “It just kind of creates itself.”

After she’s happy with the sand, she squeezes Island Blue and Bahama Blue into another plastic cup, mixes them, and climbs back up on the bench to give the water in her painting another layer of color.

“I could use tempera paints, but I like acrylic better. It’s more durable,” she says. “Tempera paint comes off with soap and water. This one, you’re gonna have to use a straight edge to get off.”

Some clients, she says, do the cleanup themselves. Others want her to come back and do it for them. She will, she says, but that service is not included in the initial fee.

When she finishes the water, she’ll move onto the sky, whose bottom layer is a blend of Apricot, Vivid Violet, Orange, and Valentine Pink. After that, she swears she’ll get started on the Christmasy details.

“There will be lights on the palm tree and reindeer in the water,” she promises. “It will be fun.”

One last peek at her sketchbook tells me exactly what she means. Some of the characters have speech bubbles over their heads. One elf’s bubble reads, “Santa looks stoned.”

“I was drawing, and I thought, ‘Hmm…’ My Santa wasn’t the greatest Santa. He looked stoned,” she says. “That was kind of a joke to myself.”

— Elizabeth Salaam


For 15 years, University Avenue has been the center of my world. I’ve lived in apartments on her, I’ve drank at her bars, and bled at her gyms. I’ve done work at her cafés, tapping out articles on my laptop. My friends all live within a mile of her. In the spring, I drive her down near Harbor and split off toward Ocean Beach to soak my back in the sun. In the fall, I take her out to La Mesa for the Oktoberfest street fair to meet up with friends and eat bratwurst sandwiches, knocked back by Karl Strauss brews. University, to me, is San Diego.

This Christmas I am without a job. It’s the second I’ve lost in as many years. Last time I was unemployed, it seemed as if so was the rest of the world. In those dreary months, until I found another job, University became something darker, something sinister. At the liquor store where I bought little provisions, the parking lot swelled with the homeless, jobless, or shiftless, with their palms up and a sad story. Or worse: a clenched fist and menace. For the first time, I felt sincere when I had to say, “I’ve got nothing. Sorry.”

This morning, on the job hunt, I’m on University, and I hope she has something besides beggars for me. I’m driving to meet a friend about an opportunity. I tap the gas gauge in the dashboard of my pickup and check the radio that doesn’t work. The clock does: 5:03 a.m., and there’s a quarter of a tank left. My headlights flare down the pockmarked street, and my eyes search for the green umbrellas of the only coffee shop open at this dead time of morning. My headlights glance off the cracked walls of empty shops, reflect off the windows of closed-down offices; what used to be a clothes store here, a forgotten department store there. Real estate signs advertise For Lease on almost every building. The yellow beam of my headlamps blares across the crumpled blankets covering huddled lost souls camped out in abandoned doorways. And they shine on something else: a storefront with a decal that reads, “WORK TODAY! PAY TODAY!” In front of the window, there are laborers in toughened boots and sturdy denim jackets. The men crowd around, hours before the agency opens, just to secure a good spot in line. I park and shut my pickup down. In the coffee shop I see my friend who may have a place for me in his home business. He runs a trucking company from his house and has gotten busy in the past few months. He tells me about the business, and I try to talk, I try to be charming and open and willing to work, but the sight of rough men across the street, flipping the collars up on their work jackets to ward off a chilly breeze, and the white letters “WORK TODAY!” again and again catch my eye. It terrifies me and dries my throat when I speak.

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