Rubin: The Teamster who keeps the auto show trucking

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

If you don’t have propane you don’t have hi-los, and if you don’t have hi-los you don’t have an auto show, and 100 hi-los were gasping for fuel at Cobo Center and where the heck were the replacement tanks?

Dock master CoCo Basile, left, with hi-lo driver Joe Karpinski, oversees the traffic mayhem behind the Detroit auto show at Cobo. “Something has to be wrong with you,” says convention and shows exec Sam Tanari, “to even take that job.” Says Basile: “I love it.”

On a truck in line behind nine others at the loading dock. OK, CoCo Basile could work around that. But nothing was moving and five minutes later nothing had changed, and what the heck is wrong with that cube van full of carpet?

Oh, good Lord. The driver — nice young fella — had locked his keys inside. No, the kid begged, please don’t break the window, but the cube van was blocking everything and the locksmith was half an hour away and everybody stand back!

CoCo Basile is the dock master for the Detroit auto show. The woefully insufficient bays and ramps behind the 57-year-old convention hall are his domain. More than 3,500 trucks move in and out of them between setup and teardown, madness followed by relative calm followed by the frenzy that starts one minute after closing time Sunday. You know that old saying about making the trains run on time? Try it with tractor-trailers when the wind chill is minus-20.

So CoCo, which is what everybody calls him instead of Michael, fetches the largest hi-lo in the building, a 7,500-pounder. This is a few days before press previews when it’s chaos and Armageddon on the dock, and he starts to haul the carpet van out of the way — and the forklift stalls.

Machines can be unpredictable. Life can be cruel. What can you do?

CoCo fetches another hi-lo and moves the truck and then moves the first hi-lo, and the show goes on: press and industry the first week, then nine days of public adoration, then as many as 500 workers playing their roles in a Peterbilt ballet. All in a day’s work, if you don’t mind 22-hour days.

CoCo, 55, is a Harley-loving, quick-laughing, blunt-talking Teamster from Brighton who calls everyone “brother” or “buddy” and makes you feel like you’re one or the other. It’s his first tour as dock master, but he’s worked the auto show since he was 18 and set-up was three days of easy: Some carpet, some cars, a few signs, done.

More than 3,500 trucks come and go from the convention center’s bays and ramps between setup and teardown. As many as 500 workers play roles in the Peterbilt ballet.

Many of the exhibits have scaled down since before the recession, but the big ones are still small cities, and the process still starts in late October. Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but the story goes that the auto show has more lights and trusses overhead than all of Broadway.

Every room in the building has something in it during previews, Coco says, and everything in those rooms comes through the loading dock, which makes it the dock master’s responsibility.

“Something has to be wrong with you,” says Sam Tanari, “to even take that job.”

Tanari, 45, is vice president of Convention and Show Services, which is essentially the construction foreman for the North American International Auto Show. He’s the guy who hired CoCo to handle the auto show, the boat show and Autorama — after a couple of other people turned him down.

The gold standard for dock masters was Leon Littleton, a crusty former Marine sergeant major who patrolled Cobo in a personalized golf cart and whipped the trucks into line on Fort Street for 38 years. Littleton, who had diabetes, was in the hospital one year dealing with a leg problem as the auto show approached.

“You can either stay in here for a couple of months,” the doctor told him, “or we can take the leg.” Littleton showed up on time, minus a body part.

CoCo is the fourth or fifth dock master since Littleton died at age 89 in 2007. The weather is brutal. The pressure is brutal. The hours are brutal, and no, Mr. Fire Marshal, that rack above the sofa in CoCo’s tiny office is just a shelf, sir, not a bunk.

“I love it,” CoCo says.

CoCo’s last name is pronounced Bazzle, but no one says it. CoCo will do. He says the guys started calling him that because he claimed to have been an exotic dancer and it seemed like a good stripper name.

He probably wasn’t, but he does have a thriving stamped concrete business on the side. He’s the son of a CPA and the father of two college graduates, but he likes to get things done with his hands.

“CoCo!” calls out a carpenter. The dock master, zipping past the Toyota display in an orange electric cart, pulls over. There’s an abandoned hi-lo blocking an entry, the carpenter says. CoCo hops off and pilots it out of the way.

Not everything is so easy. The frame on the overhead door on Dock 27 was found broken one morning, with the door at half mast. Out of 43 docks and ramps, CoCo has access to only 30, with the others given over to caterers and the city.

That makes even one dock a sizable loss, so he forced the door all the way up with a hi-lo, doing enough damage to eliminate any chance of bringing it back down. He assumed he’d catch some grief, “but I needed the dock, man.”

The snow movers were a surprise. He saw three hipsters with shovels out by the docks after an overnight storm and assumed they’d been sent by someone official. No, they told him; they were professional snowboarders, building a ramp. “Get the hell out of here,” he barked.

Snow is an issue even when nobody is practicing tricks, because there’s simply no place to put it. “Cobo was never built,” Tanari says, “for the amount of trucks we use” — or the size of them.

Trailers have grown longer, from 48 feet to 53. A newer building would have separate entrance and exit ramps; Cobo doesn’t. No one in 1960 anticipated satellite trucks, but CoCo has to find space to park four of them.

As for those oversized tractors you see on the highway that look like rolling condos, forget it. The trailers need to be unhooked, then guided into place by standard cabs.

Two straight days, the dock dealt with all of those obstacles and 250 trucks. Some can unload in 20 minutes, but others take hours. There’s a rhythm to it, and an order; you can’t offload a display wall before the elevated floor it stands on.

You have to keep the cars before the horse. You have to keep your cool.

“Hold on a second,” CoCo says. He’s been telling a story about another bottleneck, caused by a local TV truck and solved with a 20-foot ride on a hi-lo to a less intrusive spot. Then his cellphone rings for the third time in maybe two minutes.

“What’s up, buddy?” he says, and he nods.

There’s a problem, of course. There’s always a problem. He’ll handle it.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

Final weekend

This is the final weekend of the North American International Show.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday (no admittance after 9 p.m.); 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday (no admission after 6 p.m.)

Tickets: $14; $7 ages 7-12 and 65+

Location: Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit