2016 was the year I learned that “jib” is a street name for meth; it’s also known as “side,” crack is “up,” and heroin is “down.” It was also the year I tried to rescue my little sister from the land of up-side-down.
I scoured the scene before me but tried not to look obvious. The summer sun lifted waves of odour from the pavement: a thick sweetness with hints of old booze and garbage. As I tiptoed across a cigarette-butt cemetery, I spied a young woman parked on the grass. She was thin, with black hair piled into a messy bun. My stomach lurched and I held my breath as I crept closer, but it wasn’t her — it wasn’t my sister.
I plodded on, making my way to the top of the hill, and sat at a picnic table. Here, I had a better view of Victory Square, the concrete Cenotaph. With a large, sloping lawn bordered by trees and park benches, Victory Square marks the beginning of the Downtown Eastside, and is a popular hangout for the homeless. The last I had heard from Amy, this is where she was “living.”
I took a breath and stood up. There was a fellow in a bathrobe with a Caribbean accent; a group of young men bearing piercings and carrying skateboards; a bald guy dressed in black, performing some kind of martial art on the grass. I offered cigarettes in exchange for my questions. They were all friendly, obliging, and appreciative of the smokes, but no one had the answer I needed.
My phone began to ring.
“Hey, I just found parking. Where are you?” The voice was reassuring.
“I’m at Victory Square, up near the corner of Hamilton and West Pender. I’m at one of the picnic tables.”
“Okay. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
My best friend, Kathleen, who I’ve known for twenty-eight years, was someone I could count on to support me on a day like this. On one of her precious days off, not to mention Canada Day, she hadn’t thought twice about coming to help me look for Amy.
The search for my sister wasn’t the only reason I was in Vancouver. I had travelled from Nanaimo the day before to attend a friend’s wedding. During the ceremony, I took in the spectacular view of Stanley Park and Canada Place from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the convention centre. Dressed in my floral print cocktail dress and heels, I couldn’t believe the contrast between my life and my sister’s.
I managed to have a good time at the reception; I drank champagne, sampled delicious food, and danced the night away, sincerely happy for my friend and her new husband. But as I rode the taxi back to my room that night, the reality of my mission slammed into me like a hangover I hadn’t even earned. It was surreal. Everyone would be celebrating, eating cake and lighting fireworks. I would be combing the worst skid row in Canada to try and find my once-beautiful, once-vibrant sister.
Kathleen and I didn’t find Amy that day, but we made a solid effort. On the journey down East Hastings we spoke to police, looked in shops, checked community centres, and spoke to many individuals, some of whom began smoking or shooting up right in front of us. The lowest point was at Tent City. I called out for Amy and willed myself to enter the compound, but the stench and the horror were too intense. I couldn’t do it. As I envisioned actually finding her in there, behind the rusting, chain-link fence, a blinding fear took hold. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life.
The following September, I got a text from my mom saying she had found Amy. My mom and two of Amy’s childhood friends, Andrea and Ashley, were on another search of the city. They had given up for the day—Ashley needed to head home to her kids. As she drove along Hastings, Ashley spotted a girl on the sidewalk. She pulled over and jumped out of the vehicle—it was her. Amy was not happy to see her. Ashley said she would go grab smokes from her car, and texted my mom as she pretended to rifle through her purse. My mom and Andrea ran all the way down Hastings from where Ashley had left them.
During this “visit,” my mom managed to get Amy into the Women’s Centre to see an outreach worker. They agreed to meet there the next day—I booked the next ferry and rushed downtown to meet them. At the corner of Columbia and East Hastings, on the verge of cardiac arrest, I could barely hold my phone to call my mom. She was on the other side of the street, and crossed to where I stood.
“Where is she?” I asked nervously. “I thought you guys were in the Women’s Centre.”
“We finished up early. Amy’s just over there setting up her store.”
“Yeah, she sells stuff on the sidewalk.”
My mom led the way back across the street. I was on auto-pilot; my legs were moving, I knew they were, but I felt like I was floating. Caught between reality and some other dimension, I had the overwhelming urge to run.
I hadn’t seen my sister in over a year, and was terrified of this reunion, of her, and of this place. As soon as we were through the intersection, my mom motioned to the right.
“She’s just over here.”
Dazed, I looked through the display of bodies stretched along the sidewalk and saw a girl, tall and lanky, with a bird’s nest of black hair. She had her back to me, but as I got closer, she turned.
I tried to downplay the desperation in my voice.
She saw me and smiled, a sad smile, which tried to shine through a fog of shame. Her once-porcelain complexion was now ashen with red sores, like embers, above one eyebrow and along her chin. In a sports windbreaker and Hollister capris, her clothes hung sadly off her bony frame.
“Hey! I couldn’t believe it when Mom said you were coming. Sorry, I look like shit … my face is so bad, and I don’t have any make-up on, and I …”
I cut her off as I put my arms around her. Like a hit of some drug, fear and anxiety subsided as a warmth washed over me.
“I love you Amy.”
“I love you too.”
The words hung in the air like a soft glow amidst darkness.
As my sister and I held each other, I allowed myself to feel, and to have hope —but hope can be dangerous. The grim reality of the overdose crisis has made it almost impossible to stay optimistic.
I spent the next several hours with my sister while she sold her “merch” (clothing, shoes, bags, odds and ends) for the rest of the day. During that brief snapshot of life on the Eastside, I witnessed more than enough hard drug use to last me a lifetime. Other than a couple glimpses of people snorting cocaine, once at a bar in Mexico and once at a house party, I had never been this close to drugs.
This is Amy’s reality.