At 7:45 this morning, I find myself doing something I’ve never done before and likely will never do again: I’m standing outside a 7-Eleven in Bayside, Queens, scoping for a 68-year-old woman. Ah, there she is. Betty Fox … a k a Grandma Betty … a k a GrandmaBetty.com. She’s pocketbook-clutching confirmation that the free-agent ethic is seeping into almost every region of American life.
Betty’s story begins in the early 1960s. Her husband, David, dies at the age of 33, leaving her to raise their two sons. The women’s movement is dawning. The Feminine Mystique is flavoring the Zeitgeist. But while one Jewish housewife named Betty is encouraging women to leap into the work force, this Jewish housewife named Betty is pushed. Forced to earn a living for her family, she becomes a bank teller. After that, she takes a job doing office work for a boys’-shirt company, where she works for 16 years. Then the company goes under–and Betty goes on unemployment. Through a Queens neighbor, she eventually finds a job as an office manager for a small billing company. Until the company moves too far away for Betty to commute. She’s 67. She doesn’t have a job. She doesn’t have a pension. But she’s got a son who’s a bank technology officer–and he hooks her up with WebTV. Within a year, Betty becomes Exhibit A in the dot-com-ing of America.
Her site is called Grandma Betty, “The Starting Point for Active Seniors.” When she first experimented with WebTV, she always found too much material and never what she wanted. (“I’d search for ‘peaches,’ and I’d get all these pornographic sites!”) So she started organizing material herself–and her son put the collection on her own Web site. Unbeknownst to her, she’d created a portal. And through that portal came tide after tide of e-mail. People asked Grandma Betty how to make peanut brittle, what to do about “severe constipation,” where to buy support stockings. Betty surfed for answers, zapped replies, and added new links to her site. Today, she’s got about 40 categories. Her entertainment section is the place to go for links to Ed Sullivan sites. Her “Joke Center” includes dillies like: “Old accountants never die. They just lose their balance.” There’s even a section called “Choice Meat.” (Imagine what you’d get if you searched on that phrase in Hotbot.) As for the organizing principle, “It’s all alphabetical,” she tells me proudly and repeatedly. She’s also an affiliate with e-commerce bigwigs such as eToys, which is beginning to produce a small revenue stream.
“This is so much better than working for a boss,” says this gray panther of free-agency. “My son calls my site sticky,” she says. “That’s what I am. I’m sticky.” But please don’t search for “sticky Betty.” Instead, visit her site–and catch a glimpse of the free-agent future.