Before Peter Hessler was awarded a “genius” grant by the MacArthur Foundation, and before he was a PCV in China (1996-98), he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Of that time, he writes in the current issue of The New Yorker, (May 21, 2012). He found part-time work standing in police lineups.contributor_peterhesslerphoto_p233_crop

At the time he was reading, as they say at Oxford, English Language and Literature, and his courses included tutorials on Middle English, Spenser, Shakespeare, the seventeenth century, and the eighteenth century. At the start of the Michaelmas term, he saw a notice that the St. Aldates Police Station was looking for volunteers to stand in identity parades. They paid ten pounds per parade.

So Peter went down to the station and signed up. His first parade was for stealing bikes. The station hadn’t finished constructing its viewing room, which would feature a one-way mirror. For the time being, the parades took place in a room where nothing separated the witness from the suspect and the volunteers.

In his piece, Peter writes how he didn’t like the witness nor the way he took his role so seriously. This seemed to be a small matter, stealing bikes. The witness stared hard at Hessler when he walked past the first time. Peter stared back. When he returned, Peter looked in his eyes, holding steady for a moment, and then he glanced away. The witness paused.

The next time he walked past, Peter does it again.

The witness walks through five times.

And then the witness points at Hessler and identifies him.

Peter goes back again in another line up at the police station. Besides himself, the lineup if for an arson crime and included volunteers from southeast Oxford; most of them seemed to be unemployed. The arson case revolved around someone setting fire to a building which housed a family of Somali refugees who lived close to Cowley Road. The authorities suspected that the arson had been racially motivated. All of the volunteers wore fake mustaches. The suspect was standing next to Peter and something about the man’s eyes told Peter that he might be mentally disable. He could hear the suspect breathing hard beside him.

Now the station has a one-way mirror, and Peter can’t see clearly through the glass, but it was possible to tell if there was a presence behind it. A shadow behind the glass passed five times, each time more slowly than the last. After the fifth time, another officer walked into the room. “The witness did not make an identification,” he announced. The suspect exhaled loudly. All the volunteers filed out of the room.

The entire article is in the current issue of The New Yorker, May 21, 2012. Check is out.

Peter left Oxford and went to China, falling in love with the place, he returned later as a PCV and would write about it in his first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Today he is living in Egypt with his wife and their young twins.