Margo Lawson died clean and sober. He was 48 years old.
After living on the streets of Overtown for over a decade, he overcame what seemed impossible: He stopped using drugs, moved from a hostel to an apartment with another sober friend, and got a steady job. She was just a few weeks away from fulfilling her most cherished dream: to be hired by the Jackson Health System to work as a mentor for the first legal syringe exchange program in the southern United States. But suddenly he suffered a massive cardiac arrest and went into a coma. She was disconnected from life support on June 19.
« What many need is a little push, that first step, » Lawson said in an interview with the Nuevo Herald earlier last month. He turned his right hand to show his tattoo with pride. In black block letters it said: « An IDEA saved my life. »
IDEA is the acronym for the Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act signed by then Governor Rick Scott in 2016, thus paving the way for the center to open its doors in Overtown.
He currently provides 1,400 of the estimated 15,000 injecting drug users in Miami-Dade County with sterile needles and daily ambulatory medical care.
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Just four years ago, Margo Lawson was among them. It was also here that he went to ask for help and leave his consumption behind 21 months ago.
That being the case, perhaps it stands to reason that this was the place – and not a church, synagogue, mosque, or even one of the many 12-step recovery rooms – where loved ones gathered on Saturday to say goodbye. No cleric attended. There were no prayers and no incense burned in the censer. But before those present it was a sacred show of faith; if she had won, they could too.
“I have known Margo since we were out there. Wherever he went, people would camp around him. She kept us safe, ”said a former consumer who calls herself Skinny tearfully.
Many of those interviewed by the Nuevo Herald asked only to be identified by their first name or nickname to preserve their anonymity. « I was like, hand, if she managed to be clean, I can be clean, » Flaca told the assembled group. They all laughed.
Three of his friends opened two blue tents in the middle of the parking lot. As the congregants arrived, they were handed red plastic cups with their choice of Pepsi or water for the toast. Instead of an altar, people stood in front of the center’s colorful medical van, which had been painted with graffiti. At the top right-hand side, there was a female angel painted in tribute to Lawson.
« He will always be my hero. She went clean beyond, ”said her housemate, Ernesto, who also painted the truck. Under Lawson’s initials, they wrote down all the names of their friends who perished from a drug overdose.
Meanwhile the exchange remained open. In the background, there were people going to the window to pick up a new batch of syringes.
Journey to recovery
According to Lawson herself, she gave birth to a 14-year-old daughter and started using drugs at the age of 26. She started on cocaine.
As a young man, he worked as a stripper in Ohio. Then, he transitioned to the pornographic film industry. When his money ran out, he moved to South Florida. Eventually its consumption progressed to crack falling into a vicious circle of destitution and prostitution.
He had a previous period of abstinence in which he even certified as a phlebotomist – the technician who removes blood for donation or testing – and even went to college to study psychology. But after a dentist will use routine opiates for an oral procedure, he relapsed, furious.
“I remember when I came here every day. When she finally said she was ready, I was surprised, « said Carlos Padrón, the center’s operations manager. « She also knew that we were going to do everything possible to help her, » he stressed.
In 2017, award-winning photographer Lee Jeffries took a series of photos of Lawson, then known as Margo Stevens. He had several last names and aliases including Margo Kenyon. It wasn’t until she was clean this time that she got her Florida ID with her legal last name.
“Margo took off his shirt for anyone. I know that people say this kind of thing when someone dies, ”his best friend Arrow said. « But in Margo’s case, she did it even if it was the shirt she was wearing. »
According to Arrow, Lawson’s legacy will always be to have saved so many lives.
He said Lawson had resurrected at least 200 people with Narcan, the nasal spray used to treat opioid overdoses. The pair forged a bond by being neighbors camping on the sidewalks. Their friendship was further strengthened when they both recovered. Arrow is another mentor who will officially start working at the center in the coming weeks.
“I was very proud of her. She kept it simple and was working to mend her relationship with her family, ”said Anna, her godmother for the Narcotics Anonymous program.
Lawson’s family did not respond to requests for comment from the Nuevo Herald. She is survived by a son and a daughter.
They were not all in recovery, but they were all welcome equally. Some still roam the streets. They were not dressed to the nines in white, but with the best they had.
For some, this went beyond Lawson’s death, it was about all the souls lost to the opioid epidemic that claimed more than 3,000 lives in Florida last year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
« It is the first time that they will be able to say goodbye in this way, » explained Emelina Martínez, community coordinator for the IDEA Exchange. « The most they do is put a teddy bear and a cardboard banner in the place where that person slept. »
Costaki, a native of the city of Boston, was among them. He knew many of the names displayed on the truck, but he professed a special affection for Lawson.
« The real tragedy is that we will never know how far Margo could have gone, » he said.
He said his favorite memory with her was attending panel discussions. « He never forgot us. »
Unlike many who recover from substance use disorders, which sometimes leave people, places, and things reminding them of use, Lawson made it his new life mission.
« They are my family, » Lawson told El Nuevo during his last interview on June 12. « As in all families, there are good members and some not so good. »
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